CHICAGO – After a 6,700-mile road trip that stretched for two full weeks, the Bulls return tonight to the United Center.
It’s time to say welcome back.
And, well, some of us were wrong.
Because the natural reaction was to give up on the Bulls after Derrick Rose stepped awkwardly on his left leg on a late night in late November. The first instinct was to start thinking about next season – yet again – after Rose hobbled out of Portland’s arena on crutches and toward another long recovery from a season-ending injury.
The temptation was to root for the injury-riddled Bulls to lose as many games as possible for the rest of the season. The belief was that nothing meaningful could come without Rose, so the Bulls would be better off to tank the season and receive a high draft pick in an effort to reload for the 2014-15 campaign.
It turns out that Bulls can be stubborn.
It turns out that basketball fans can change their minds.
At 25-25, the Bulls are in the thick of the playoff race with about two months to go in the regular season. They entered Monday as the would-be No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, trailing the Atlanta Hawks by only a half-game in pursuit of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Roll your eyes if you want, but it’s really remarkable what the Bulls are doing.
Led by detail-obsessed coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have gone 20-20 without Rose in the lineup after going 5-5 with him in the lineup. Just as Thibodeau salvaged the career of diminutive scorer Nate Robinson last season, he has transformed waiver-wire point guard D.J. Augustin into a dependable, season-long replacement for the youngest MVP in NBA history.
When Augustin signs a multimillion-dollar deal this summer, as Robinson did last offseason with the Denver Nuggets, he might want to send a gift to Thibodeau.
Remember how the Bulls traded Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers in early January? Remember how that seemed like a white-flag surrender on the season?
The Bulls have won 11 of 18 games since then.
Forget rooting for losses. Hopefully, the Bulls can pick up two more wins this week before they head into the NBA All-Star break.
Let’s embrace this team and its scrap-heap point guard in Augustin, its emotional leader in Joakim Noah, its late first-round gems in Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, and its journeyman contributors in Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy.
You know what? Let’s embrace Carlos Boozer and his rainbow jump shot from 15 feet, even if his defense is weaker than the Greek economy.
Besides, it’s too late to root for the Bulls to draw a top draft pick.
Too many teams have piled up too many losses as they cross their fingers and hope for a chance to draft top college players such as Jabari Parker (Duke), Joel Embiid (Kansas), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) and Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State).
Stars will emerge from that group of players, but nothing is guaranteed in the NBA. Ask Greg Oden or Kwame Brown or any number of other lottery-pick busts.
Instead, it’s best to focus on the present and enjoy the Bulls’ run to the postseason. Perhaps another veteran such as Hinrich or Dunleavy will be shipped away before the trade deadline, but Thibodeau and his team have rebounded from bigger losses.
So, when the Bulls take the court tonight for the opening tip, here’s a crazy thought: Let’s root for a win.
• Shaw Media sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.