Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Joakim Noah

The Inbounds: The Chicago Bulls can defy expectations again. Is that a good thing?

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

The Bulls were supposed to be a middle-seed in 2011, maybe a 4 or a 5 seed. They took the No.1 overall seed in the East.

Chicago was supposed to be hampered by injuries, particularly those to Derrick Rose in 2012, falling back maybe to a 2nd or 3rd seed. Again, No.1 with a bull-et. (Get it? Because they’re the Bulls? And it’s a Bull-et? Get… OK, sorry.)

This year, Rose is out recovering from ACL surgery, as highlighted extensively by Adidas, and most are not targeting them for a top-four seed, expecting a fall back to the pack. They revamped their roster in terms of the bench and many feel not for the better. Carlos Boozer’s another year older, Luol Deng had a long, hard summer, and Kirk Hinrich is starting at point guard.

But let’s think about this for a minute. Is it really smart to dismiss not only what the Bulls accomplished, but how? The Bulls the past two seasons have not succeeded based on superior talent, in truth. Yes, Luol Deng has really improved offensively and put himself in the top 5-10 of players defensively. Carlos Boozer is so overrated hes’ underrated, and suffers from the same kind of misconception that Joe Johnson deals with. Joakim Noah is very quietly, ironically, one of the better centers in the league at both ends of the floor. They have the talent, but they also have the system. Thibodeau relies on veterans making veteran plays offensively and a barbed-wire trap surrounded by landmines as his defensive construct. Anyone can be good defensively in Thibodeau’s system, or at least invisibly poor, because all you must do is what you’re taught and do so with emphasis and effort. You can be as unskilled or slow as any player in the league, and if you learn the things he teaches, you’re going to be good enough to not be a problem on the floor.

Put it this way, the Knicks can’t put Steve Novak on the floor for stretches because if they do, he leaves them vulnerable defensively, despite Woodson’s excellent defensive coaching. Novak could exist in the Bulls’ system, and while still a liability, be less of one.

So if your liabilities aren’t really liabilities and your strengths are still strength, why are we so quick to shove the Bulls off the top rungs of the Eastern ladder? The Heat will be resting stars as they always do, the Celtics, much the same. Indiana is certainly a threat but it’s hard to argue they’re better than the Bulls at their best. So why can’t the Bulls win the division, and get a top seed?

There’s no reason. That’s how good Tom Thibodeau is. (Which makes the Bulls’ continued all-too-typical wrangling with him over his contract all the more maddening, and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.)

But there’s a question beyond that. Is that what Bulls fans should want? Is that what the Bulls organization should want? Is that the best outcome for them?

It’s hard to say that the Bulls are overachieving if this is the third year they would reach that kind of height, but it’s still true. They’re playing at a level which defies pretty common rational analysis of how good they are, as a sum of their parts. A team can definitely reach higher as a composite and is more than just the individual talents. But is it this much? The results of the playoffs would indicate no. You can toss out last year, sure, if you want to go with Rose’s injury and the emotional impact on the team leading to the loss to the Sixers, but remember, that same team had problems with Indiana, always in close games in a short-but-fierce five-game series, then really had some emotional swings vs. Atlanta, before finally winning Game 1 vs. Miami and looking unstoppable, then getting railroaded like Wile E. Coyote. They just needed a little white ACME sign.

The Bulls need so much to go their way, for Boozer to play as an elite player he’s never really been, for Deng to shoot the lights out when he’s a good but inconsistent mid-range shooter, for the bench mob to constantly overwhelm opponents with hustle (or veteran savvy, I suppose, this year, with the bench significantly different). They can still look really good but eventually, they’ll run up against a mirror that shows how good they really are, and when that comes, they tend to mix down to about the team we thought they’d be in the beginning. It doesn’t take away from what Thibs has done, if anything, it emphasizes it. But we also can’t realistically look at this team as a title contender, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?

The maddening part is that Rose’s injury leaves so much in the air. If the team gels and plays together, it’s going to excite the team and its fans, prompting more belief. If they don’t somehow reach the impossible dream, then it will be crushing, but still be filled with “Well, Derrick wasn’t really back yet.” Rose’s injury causes a constant level of self-doubt, not only towards any positive regard for the team, but for any criticisms as well.

There’s no real way to evaluate the Bulls, other than “really good, but probably not a title team.”

A year in which they did not reach expectations, did not exceed them, just kind of slumped to a close could bring another lottery miracle, a younger player with talent at the least. It could force changes from the front office desperate not to waste Rose’s youth, and a move to amnesty Boozer. There could be change and progress, versus the current results which are just good enough to be able to justify not making any sort of bold move. How do you say “we have to get better” when you were the best team in your conference?

And the answer to that is “by examining the level of superstar talent you need to win a title in today’s NBA.” Rose is a special talent, regardless of his limitations, and has a remarkable future ahead of him. But another year of taking a hammering in the playoffs, fresh off his recovery, would work contrary to the long-term goals.

The Bulls are stuck between a Rose and a hard place, and the only way to facilitate change may be for them to not do the thing they’re best at: playing at a level far beyond what may be sustainable in the playoffs long-term.

Carmelo Anthony undecided about playing in Rio Olympics

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 11:  Carmelo Anthony #20 of the 2015 USA Basketball Men's National Team shoots during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on August 11, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Since Chris Paul withdrew from this summer’s Olympic team, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are the only players left from the 2008 team. If they played this summer in Rio de Janeiro, they would have the chance to be the only men’s basketball players ever to win three gold medals. But James is still undecided, and Anthony tells The Vertical‘s Michael Lee that he is also still weighing it:

USA Basketball has provided Anthony his only opportunity to win at a high level since he became a professional. Anthony sounded optimistic in March that his surgically repaired left knee wouldn’t prevent him from going after an unprecedented third gold medal. But since then, Chris Paul withdrew, citing the need for rest, and left Anthony and LeBron James as the only players from the 2008 team remaining in the Team USA selection pool. “It definitely would help,” Anthony said, if James decides to make one more run, but Anthony isn’t close to making a final decision.

“That’s at the top of the sport, of any sport. I think if you have the opportunity to do it, and enjoy it, and take advantage of it, I think you should do it. [The Olympics are] the throne for sports as a whole,” Anthony told The Vertical. “I’m going to take a little more time to think about it. I’m not in a rush. NBA season is still going on, so I’m going to see how I feel physically. Am I ready to take on – I don’t want to say burden, but – that load? If I’m ready, I’ll do it. If not, my body won’t lie to me.”

Anthony turns 32 next month—if he does play, it will undoubtedly be his final run with the national team. But his concerns about rest are valid, even though he was healthier this year than he was last season, when he had season-ending knee surgery. James’ decision will be even more interesting: he cares deeply about his place in history, but he’s had absolutely no time off since 2011, between five straight Finals runs (and likely a sixth) and the 2012 gold-medal run with the Olympic team.

If Anthony ultimately decides not to play, it would open up another spot for a forward, which could go to the likes of Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. All of this is worth keeping an eye on as July’s training camp gets closer.

Paul Pierce “50/50” about playing next season

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Paul Pierce may have played his final NBA game. After the Clippers’ season-ending loss to the Trail Blazers on Friday night, the 18-year veteran was noncommittal about his future. Here’s what he said, via CSNNW.com (video above):

For each year the last couple of years, I’ve thought long and hard about walking away from the game. The process will continue this summer as I think long and hard, as I get older in age, talk to my family, see how my body feels. I don’t want to make an emotional decision right now, so I’ll sit down with my family and think about it. It’s just gotta hit you one day. You just never know. You don’t know. Right now, it’s 50/50. I’ll see how I feel when I wake up, if I feel like getting ready for next season. If I don’t feel that feeling, that fire’s not there, it’s going to be tough,

Pierce wasn’t as effective with the Clippers as they’d hoped he would be when they signed him, coming off a big playoffs with the Wizards last season. If he does decide to walk away, he’s a surefire Hall of Famer who will go down as one of the best forwards of his generation.

Report: Ty Lue still has assistant’s contract with Cavs

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Head coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers in action against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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When the Cavaliers fired David Blatt midseason, they promoted Ty Lue to head coach, without an interim tag attached. The job was his. But apparently, he has yet to sign a new contract that reflects his new title with a pay bump, and is still under contract as an assistant despite being the team’s head coach.

From ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin:

As the Cavaliers prepare to face the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the playoffs, head coach Tyronn Lue continues to guide the team without having signed a new contract since he took over for David Blatt, multiple sources said this week.

Lue, 38, was promoted from associate head coach to Blatt’s successor on Jan. 22, with Cleveland general manager David Griffin parting ways with Blatt despite the team’s conference-best 30-11 record at the time. Even without a new contract, Lue never had an interim title attached to his position.

According to the report, Lue’s current contract runs through next season, with a team option for the following year, and Lue fully expects to be back. He hasn’t interviewed or shown interest in any of the other head coaching jobs that are open.

Still, until he signs a new contract, this is just another piece of uncertainty hanging over the Cavaliers.

LeBron James ‘not fond’ of NBA’s reviews of officiating

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2016, file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James warms up before the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich. The employee working at a pizza place in Los Angeles suburb called himself Ron. But Ron is no ordinary employee. He is LeBron James, the basketball superstar and one of the owners of the pizza chain, the Cleveland.com website reported. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Associated Press
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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James isn’t a fan of the NBA’s officiating reviews.

“I’m not fond of it,” he said Friday.

James was asked about the league’s postgame reports in the aftermath of former Miami teammate Dwyane Wade‘s complaints that he was fouled in the closing seconds of a loss to Charlotte in a pivotal Game 5 on Wednesday night. In its review of the game’s final two minutes, the league said the officials got a call correct in not assessing a foul on a play involving Wade and Hornets players Courtney Lee and Cody Zeller.

On a drive to the basket, Wade drew contact as he went up for a shot. It was one of 26 events reviewed by the league in Charlotte’s 90-88 victory.

The league has provided the “Last Two Minute Report” since March 2015, a day-later, postgame report card on what happens in the final 2 minutes of games that were within five points or less.

James, who is close friends with Wade, believes the reviews are counter-productive.

“It changes absolutely nothing,” the four-time MVP said following practice. “I think it sends a bad message to our fans of thinking the game is only won in the last two minutes. A play in the first quarter is just as important as a play in the last four seconds. That’s how playoff basketball is played, that’s how the game of basketball should be played. And I think for the youth, the kids that love the game so much, I don’t think they should hear that `Oh, it’s OK to talk about the last 2-minutes calls missed.’

“We should talk about the whole game, if that’s the case because the whole game matters. You miss an assignment in the first quarter, it can hurt you in the fourth quarter.”

On Thursday, Kiki VanDeWeghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, told The Associated Press said the reviews are vital to the league’s integrity.

“It’s important that we’re completely transparent and we get the information out there and people understand that we’re upfront about it and we admit mistakes,” he said. “But also, it’s important not only for the referees but for the teams and everybody else that we also talk about the ones we got right.”

AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds in Miami contributed to this report.