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NBA commentary: Playoff run still leaves questions for Bulls

Bulls small forward Jimmy Butler shoots over Heat guard Dwyane Wade during the second half of Game 3 on Friday in Chicago.
Bulls small forward Jimmy Butler shoots over Heat guard Dwyane Wade during the second half of Game 3 on Friday in Chicago.

For pure entertainment, the Bulls have delivered as much compelling drama in the playoffs as anything Chicago’s theater district has to offer.

“The Book of Mormon” has nothing on “The Gospel According to Thibs.”

They captured the imagination of a city with two of the franchise’s most satisfying victories – Game 7 against the Nets and Game 1 over the Heat – since the Jordan Era.

Before that, little Nate Robinson inspired the tall tale of a Game 4, triple-overtime win at the United Center that Bulls fans will recount for years.

After that, Nazr Mohammed pushed his way into Bulls lore Friday with a regrettable, retaliatory shove of Le-Bron James that Mohammed really didn’t regret
at all.

Indeed, so many moments of the bonus basketball from this bridge season have been memorable.

But has it all been relevant to the Bulls’ grand plan?

Eliminating the Nets without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich guaranteed that the 2012-2013 season will go down as a success no matter what happens against the Heat. Whether becoming the NBA poster children for teamwork and mental toughness ultimately brought the Bulls any closer to competing for a championship seems less obvious.

This isn’t the same as the Jordan Bulls slowly chipping away at the Pistons, not with Rose watching in a suit as his supporting cast plays their hearts out against the Heat. As exhilarating as this has been, the Bulls will end the season the same way they started, unable to answer the only question that really matters: Will Rose return as a player capable of being the centerpiece of an NBA champion?

Bulls officials insist the former league MVP will come back “better than ever,” but if we have learned anything about Rose’s rehabilitation, it is to assume nothing. Not about a player who has missed 109 of a possible 148 regular-season games the last two seasons.

That is why Rose returning at the end of the regular season after being medically cleared mattered. As the Bulls’ offseason looms, the psychological hurdle has yet to be cleared, and now other doubts about his mentality have cluttered Rose’s once-impeccable reputation.

Rose cannot shut up critics questioning his leadership until he gets back on the court and stays on it. Of all the questions raised about Rose, the ones about durability are the hardest ones to answer. It would be naïve not to wonder if Rose can avoid injury and, yes, play through it.

The Bulls structured a plan after Rose’s ACL tear to compete for an NBA title again beginning with the 2014-15 season. They evaluated the league’s new collective bargaining agreement and Rose’s window of opportunity to determine that as a realistic timetable. Every decision moving forward will reflect that, no matter how much Chicago has fallen in love with Robinson.

Robinson made himself a lot of money this postseason, but don’t expect the Bulls to pay it. An unrestricted free agent, Robinson figures to command more in the open market than the Bulls want to pay a guy whose role with a healthy Rose would be diminished and confusing. Thanks for the memories, Nate.

Rip Hamilton, the creaky veteran signed to guard Dwyane Wade but in Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse, likely will be bought out for $1 million. Marco Belinelli, also out of contract, would be worth the Bulls reinvesting in for his ability to spread the floor. The postseason has provided Belinelli a platform to prove himself worthy of confidence.

Same goes for Jimmy Butler. The Bulls’ most significant takeaway from the playoffs will be the emergence of Butler as a tenacious wing defender whose perimeter offensive game shows promise. Nothing helps an organization more than when a first-round draft pick develops consistency. Depending on the quest for a second star, Butler gives the Bulls the option of pairing with Rose to form one of the NBA’s most athletic backcourts.

Butler’s position could depend on Deng, whose contract expires after next year. The end of the 2013-14 season also represents the smartest time to use the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer, not sooner. The only players considered locks to comprise the core after next season are Rose, Joakim Noah, Butler, Taj Gibson and Team Madrid standout Nikola Mirotic, the 22-year-old Spaniard named second-team All-Euroleague.

The rest sits in the hands of John Paxson and Gar Forman, who have had good postseasons themselves. Nobody gets misty-eyed reminiscing about the “Bench Mob” anymore. One lineup against the Heat consisted of Daequan Cook, Marquis Teague, Butler, Mohammed and Gibson, who made less than half in combined salary than Rose’s $16 million.

The Bulls have gotten their money’s worth out of this season. The playoff memories have been priceless.

The true long-term value of the experience remains easier to inflate than compute.

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