The Bulls haven't won anything these last two years except respect, back slaps, moral victories and, oh yeah, the sports equivalent of the purple heart, whatever that is. Can't forget that well deserved but unwanted award.
It gets tired after a while, though. No team in the NBA has done more with less since the spring of 2012 when Derrick Rose collapsed to the court. No coach has squeezed more from a lineup than Tom Thibodeau, one of the best two or three in the game, who has treated the Bulls like a thumb does a flat tube of toothpaste. No team with an inability to score -- the Bulls are dead last in points and couldn't get 100 if you spotted them 50 -- has managed to win more games than they lose quite like the Bulls from 2012 to the present.
It's all nice and remarkable and on a certain level, satisfying, even. The gritty Bulls and all that. But when does it end? When will the patient fans of Chicago and a great coach like Thibodeau ever be blessed with a perfectly healthy roster and a return to form by Rose and therefore a chance to reach their true potential and see what they're made of?
When will the Bulls get another chance to make a bid for the Finals, like they did in 2011 when they were young and just thrown together and yet drew a few beads of sweat from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the playoffs?
Once again the Bulls are poised to finish the season strong and pull a first-round surprise in the playoffs, as they did last season when they shocked the Nets. And once again the feeling of accomplishment will be hollow and the Bulls will be left to deal with the sense that the franchise is locked in a holding pattern. Exactly what should they do going forward? Stick with Rose and believe in his healing powers -- again? Break it down and start over? Tweak a few things and hope for the best? Curse the basketball Gods for putting them into this bind?
"You just keep playing," said Thibodeau, as if he has a choice. "You make the most of it. Everyone around the league is dealing with injuries. We're not the only team. You just find a way."
Well, every team isn't the Bulls, who've gone 74-58 in games without Rose and assorted players for a spell. How many titles would Miami own, for example, if LeBron James had a pair of knee surgeries in 18 months? What if that happened to Chris Paul with the Clippers, or Kevin Durant with the Thunder? Maybe they'd win about 40-45 games and perhaps show a heartbeat in the playoffs but eventually, losing your best player catches up to you, as it has the Bulls.
Actually, it goes beyond Rose. Only Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy, a pair of bench guys, have played every game this season. Carlos Boozer and Jimmy Butler have missed time and neither are playing at the level of a year ago.
Get this: The Bulls are starting Mike Dunleavy at point guard and he's getting 31 minutes a game. Kirk Hinrich, who's well into his twilight, is getting almost 30 a game.
And remember, the Bulls traded Luol Deng in January and actually got better, going 16-8 without him after beating the Hawks Tuesday and moving up to No. 4 in the East.
Do you need to see any further proof that Thibodeau could've earned coach of the year last season and should be a strong contender this season, after getting the award in 2010-11? No coach in the NBA can compare with his 3.5 years on the job in Chicago, given the challenges. He's winning now with a player dumped by the Bobcats and Raptors (Augustin), a player dumped by the Hawks (Hinrich), a player dumped by the Bucks (Dunleavy) and a player who simply gets dumped on (Boozer).
He's winning without Deng, who was the team's only reliable scorer besides Rose. Without those two, and since nobody on the roster scares anyone when he has the ball, the Bulls almost have to play a perfect game to crack 100 points and can't afford to get into a shootout with anyone.
Most of all, he's winning without Rose, and this can't be stressed enough. Thibodeau lost his starting point guard, the toughest position to replace, and yet got the best of Nate Robinson last year and Augustin this season. Once the Bulls lost Rose, they had to totally re-adjust their philosophy, because so much of the team relied on Rose and his ability to break down defenses. The players had roles that were specifically designed to compliment Rose. And they've had to do this twice. Suddenly, Thibodeau found himself leaning on role players and getting them to change their personalities and stray from their comfort zones.
He also constantly manages to not only get his players to buy into defense, but use defense to bail them out. That's the hallmark of a great coach, when his players give the effort needed on defense, which is the less glamorous part of the game, the one area where teamwork and not individualism counts most. Only the Pacers, a healthy team with two All-Stars and perhaps the league's most improved player (Lance Stephenson), are giving up fewer points this season.
"No matter what goes on, you've got to give him a lot of credit," said Wade after the Heat broke Chicago's five-game win streak Sunday. "You've got to give those guys in that uniform a lot of credit. For no matter what happens, whenever it looks like things are going astray, they find a way to bring it back. Every night you play them, you've got to respect them, no matter who's on the court. In the 27-game winning streak, I don't think no one thought we were going to lose that one, but we did. They play the game 100 percent all out."
Where other coaches would've reached the end of their motivational wits by now, Thibodeau still has the Bulls grinding despite having Rose for all of 10 games in two seasons. Again, lots of coaches wouldn't have that kind of staying power and their players, some of them anyway, would have every reason to surrender to the forces against them.
"We've wondered what it would like to be healthy about a billion times but at the same time you can't get caught up into it," said Boozer. "We've got to play with what we got. It's been that way for a while now, so we really don't know any other way. We can't get caught up in the `what-if's.' We're too busy trying to get things done."
Part of the Bulls' success is having the luxury of playing in the East. We get that; the East is lousy and therefore the Raptors, for instance, are looking good in the process. Still, once again we're witnessing the unexpected in Chicago. Just before the holidays, the Bulls were 9-16 and sinking fast and folks were saying that maybe they should use this "lost" season to tank and recharge this summer.
Well. Thibodeau has these Bulls, the team without a proven point guard or lethal scorer or franchise player, believing they can reach the playoffs and do some damage. That would be remarkable if it were a one-year type of thing, but as we see, the belief has now become a habit. A no-excuses coach and a no-excuses team could finish among the top three or four teams in the East and actually be favored to win a round when the playoffs begin. Come again?
"Whoever we have," said Thibodeau, "we feel we have more than enough to win with."