As hard to bear as Derricks injury may be, Bulls fans really shouldn’t be worried about it. He’s out, he’s on contract, and it is what it is – which is something no one can do anything about. The Bulls don’t have a DRose problem: they have a Tom Thibodeau problem.
Next to Derrick, Thibs is the Bulls most important asset. A guy who can take any given assorted group of random scrubs, and turn it into a defensive unit that can shut down the leagues best? You do not want to lose that guy. You do not want to piss that guy off. And that – to my mind – is the biggest risk to the long term future of the Bulls in the current circumstances.
Here’s the thing: Thibs is not built for tanking. And what is “tanking” anyway (apart from near-impossible in the east)? In the Bulls case, it’s poison. It’s risking alienating the biggest asset your organisation currently has, and for what? A slightly elevated chance that an unproven asset will make an unkown difference at an uncertain point in the future. If I were a betting man…no, forget that, I AM a betting man, and those are some bad odds. So then. What to do?
A modest proposal, that you will hate.
Securing the future of the Bulls is, at it’s heart, now more a matter of managing personalities rather than talent. Anyone suggesting that we should fire-sale everybody to clear cap, hire Melo in the next offseason, expect Rose to be Rose immediately, and win a title, is either on the same acid Teague seems to be when he plays, or is in for an even more dissapointing collapse next year than this one. I’ll tell you why – because Thibs won’t be here if that happens. So again. What to do. I’ll tell you: you let Deng walk for nothing.
I can HEAR your eyes rolling. Bear with me here.
You let Deng walk for two reasons. First, you’re not going to get anything anyway. You can trade-machine what ifs as much as you want, there are no teams with the right match of needs and assets to make it either feasible or worth the Bulls while. Sure you might get a pick, but it’s not going to be a good pick. A difference making pick. So you have to ask, is that mediocre pick worth risking the second reason for letting deng walk? And that reason is this: Not trading Deng sends Thibs a message. And that message is “Forget tanking, do you Tom.”
And this is what I mean by managing personalities, specifically Thibs personality. This is what Thibs wants to hear. And you know what? He’s right. And if you disagree, well, that’s why he is arguably been the best coach in the league for the last three seasons, and you are an armchair general who just wants to spill a beer while seeing the Bulls finally throw an oop. I’m sorry, that was mean, and I want to spill my beer too, but you know it’s true.
That still leaves us nowhere, smart guy.
OK, I’ll give you that. Letting Deng walk, in and of itself, is of course a net loss to the Bulls. But what it does do is allow the front office to sell to Thibs that they are not tanking: they are preparing. And you construct a narrative around how you go about that that keeps Thibs on board. Here’s where it get’s crazy.
First, you trade Noah. I hate myself for typing that, because goddamn it I love that man, but he is the only piece the bulls have to work with right now. You send Noah to OKC for Steven Adams, Perk (ew, but salary), and a pick if you can get it. This makes sense to OKC to shore up a position they need strong to contend in the West, and eventually against Miami, and it makes sense to the Bulls for reasons I’ll get into shortly. “But Thibs’ll HATE that” I hear you say, well, sure. But because you’ve left Deng in place, not touched anyone else (yet), and Adams & Perk (ew) can at least hold their own defensively, he probably lives with it. And this season is what it is. You do the best you can, and you take the draft position that leaves you with.
Now comes the fun part.
Offseason. Time to make moves. Deng walks. Boozer is amnestied. Nazr is waived. Teague is left in a dumpster outside an orphanage for all I care. Snell is kept / dumped depending on this year. Murphy, Jesus, Murphy is traded for half a sandwich next time Thibs is hungry. This leaves you with Jimmy, Taj, Adams, Snell, Rose, and Kirk (yeah I said it, Kirk. He’s cheap.)
You have (best case scenario) 3 decent-to-middling picks in a good draft (Bobcats, OKCs if you got it, your own), and you use them to draft the most offensively gifted players you can get for each pick, regardless of position, but concentrating on a PG, and maybe a shooting 3. I don’t give a sh*t if they literally lie down on D, as long as they can ball like hell at the offensive end, and here’s why: because Thibs needs something to do in the first half of our two-season season, and that something is going to be what he does best – teach defence.
The two-season season solution.
So what the hell is a two-season season? It’s a narrative. A story. It’s an imaginary construct that allows you to give Thibs PURPOSE, and the organisation a roadmap. Here is how I would sell it to Tom.
“Tom, think of it like this. The first 20 games of season 1 is training camp. We don’t care about wins, we care about you moulding this group into a defensive unit that can crush the life out of teams. Concentrate on nothing else. Run goddamn drills in-game if you have to, and just throw the ball to the opponent after every defensive possession and do it again. The next 20 games of season 1 is the preseason. We still don’t GAF about wins, but now you care about getting your rotations right and setting the tone. The last 40 games of season 1 is the first half of the regular season. NOW we care about Ws (because we’re not tanking, remember?). Show us what you’ve done with this unit. Offseason following season 1 is the trade deadline: now you tell us what you’ve figured out you need from the first half of the ‘regular season’ and we do what we can to address it. Now, first 40 games of Season 2 is the second half of the regular season. We expect a higher gear. We expect you to DO YOU Tom and get us to the top of the standings. Last 40 games of Season 2 is the playoffs, and we want you breaking hearts, crushing souls. We want you playing your starters 48 minutes every goddamn night, and we want the bench doing freakin’ push-ups while they watch. And the playoffs of season 2? That’s game 7 of the NBA finals. The whole. damn. time. Those are your instructions. Make it so.”
Now I don’t know Thibs personally, but I can see him getting on board with that. Remember, we’ve drafted the best available offensive talent we possibly could, Thibs can handle making them defensive monsters. I mean, he’s done it before.
And you know what else? You tell everyone the same story. The whole league. The whole fanbase. Imagine an approach like this. It may be insane, but I know for sure I’d be watching to see how that pans out.
That’s the guts of it. Forget tanking. Forget a superstar. Go all-in on Thibs, just frame it in a way that gets you to where you need to go at the same time.
Postscript: Roster breakdown
There are waaaaaay more informed people than me on how the potential roster for the above may work, so I deliberately left details out of the main article to avoid readers missing my larger argument due to inevitable nit-picking on the specifics, but for what it’s worth, here’s how I see it breaking down.
PG: Draftee / Kirk.
We start the draftee. We keep Kirk a) because Tom loves him, b) he’s actually a decent backup, and c) because he’s cheap, but Kirk’s most important job is to teach the rook how to be an actual point guard. Remember, we got the best offensive player we could, and Thibs is in charge of getting his D up to scratch, so Kirk becomes Yoda to this young Skywalker for the first year. If the rook catches on quickly, and we can get someone better than Kirk, we trade Mr Grit at the “trade deadline” (offseason following season 1). If not, it is what it is. At least Thibs is happy.
SG: Rose / Snell or Draftee.
I loved Derrick at the 2 in the brief period they ran him there. Be real: It is unlikely Rose will ever be in the conversation for elite PGs again after the last two seasons. Yes, that’s an awful thing to say, but it’s probably realistic, so deal with it. The biggest hurdle to a successful comeback is going to be mental – if DRose is still thinking he has to be the same player we was pre-injury, the whole thing is going to fall apart, so you need to remove that expectation. The way to do that is to say to him “we don’t need you to do that any more, we need you to do THIS.” Take away that pressure, and give him that new challenge, and I don’t see a man like Derrick failing to rise to that challenge.
SF: Jimmy / Draftee
Buckets needs to play the 3, and he needs to crush wings defensively. Stop thinking he is going to be an offensive superstar, because he’s not. And that’s OK.
PF: Mirotic / Taj
If Mirotic pans out, holy crap I love the potential for this frontcourt. Keep Taj as the 6th man, don’t mess with what ain’t broke.
C: Adams / Perk
For gods sake, start Adams. Perk is a warm body who can get in the way, at best. Sure Adams is raw, but that’s the whole point here, and I guarantee you – if you let Thibs have him, he will be all-defense by the time it really matters. Knowing Thibs, it wouldn’t surprise me if Steven was in DPOY contention in the second of our two-season seasons. (full disclosure: I’m from New Zealand, like Adams, and my god I would love to see a fellow Kiwi on my team, but I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it would work.)
And that’s it. Unrealistic? Of course. Completely. But as I said on twitter (@rike), desperate times call for desperate measures, and I’d rather have an opinion than have a cry – which is about the only other thing I can think of doing at the moment 😦