Tom Thibodeau has been loath to look ahead all season, but now that they've dispatched the lowly Cavaliers and finished their regular season on a triumphant note Thursday night -- with All-Stars Derrick Rose and Luol Deng sitting, as well as reserve sharpshooter Kyle Korver, the "Bench Mob" was in full effect, as John Lucas III scored 25 points and fan favorite Brian Scalabrine hitting the last shot of the game, fittingly -- his Bulls, owners of home-court advantage throughout the postseason for the second consecutive season, can finally focus on the playoffs. A bonus for the opening-round series against the eighth-seeded 76ers, in terms of subplots, were the comments of second-year Philadelphia swingman Evan Turner, a Chicago native, about the Sixers preferring to face the Heat instead of the second-seeded Heat and while the Bulls deny needing any extra motivation, it can't hurt that they can, at least privately, use the respect factor as added impetus to fuel their fire.Though the Sixers have matched up with the Bulls well in the past, the genesis of Turner's opinion, whether Philadelphia admits it or not, stems from the fact that Rose -- a rival of Turner's, going back to their high school days, when the former No. 2 overall draft pick played for St. Joseph in suburban Westchester and the reigning league MVP was at Simeon -- hasn't been 100 percent for the majority of the regular season. Without Rose in the lineup due to a variety of injuries, the Bulls have gone 18-9 this season. Aswell as they've performed without the All-Star point guard, it's a fact that they won't be able to achieve their dream of winning a championship without him playing at, if not an MVP level, close to it.However, after seeing him regain some of his explosiveness in Wednesday's road win at Indiana -- although shots didn't fall for him in a pedestrian 10-point outing, Rose attacked the basket more than he did in the team's previous contest, last Saturday's victory over the Mavericks -- it appears that the 23-year-old is on his way back to his previous form, which is bad news for the Sixers. Let's be honest: Turner and his teammates might have a better chance at stealing a game or two against a Bulls team still working Rose back into the mix, but the Bulls could probably handle Philadelphia, albeit in a more competitive fashion, even without their superstar in a seven-game series.The Sixers, after looking like they'd run away with the Atlantic Division in the first half of the season, had a dramatic freefall after the All-Star break withtalk of locker-room dissension with former Bulls head coach Doug Collins losing the team and their lack of a go-to scorer exposed, leading them to limp into a playoff berth in the season's final week, instead of clinching it much earlier. While their formula of staunch defense, balanced offense and generally mistake-free basketball can keep them in games, the Bulls have a similar style, more talent andtoo much size inside. WithRose's health improving, not to mention the motivation Turner provided, the first-round series shouldn't even be close.Moving forward, Rose's ability to get back to a superstar level is what the Bulls' title chances hinge on, but a deep supporting cast -- including two backup point guards who have proved fully capable of leading the team in spurts, Lucas and second-stringer C.J. Watson -- should allow the Englewood product to ease his way back into becoming a dominant force again, at least in the postseason's early stages. Also featuring a versatile first-time All-Star in Deng, a unique center who matches up well with any potential Eastern Conference foe in Noah, an experienced veteran of playoff battles who's now finding his stride in shooting guard Rip Hamilton and a solid, if much-maligned power forward in Carlos Boozer, the Bulls have the necessary secondary options in the now-intact starting lineup to take pressure off Rose, as well as a deep bench with multiple weapons, such as Korver and other starting-caliber players like Taj Gibson and Ronnie Brewer, not to mention defensive specialist Omer Asik.But while that will be enough to get by the Sixers, with a potential second-round matchup against Boston looming, Rose will need to be at his best, especially against a veteran team with championship experience and a fellow All-Star point guard in Rajon Rondo. The Bulls can compete with the Celtics or any other upper-echelon team even if he wasn't in the lineup, but their odds of winning a series greatly decrease if he isn't affecting the games the way he's capable of doing, chiefly getting to the rim, putting constant pressure on the opposing defense, drawing fouls and when the Bulls suffer through one of their periodic offensive droughts, shouldering the offensive load.The same goes for a potential Eastern Conference Finals rematch with Miami -- if the Heat somehow succumb to the Knicks in the first round or fall to the underrated Pacers in an expected second-round series or even if Boston loses to Atlanta, which owns home-court advantage in the first round, the Bulls could continue to advance without Rose playing at an elite level, but it wouldn't be easy -- and certainly, if they were to make it to the NBA Finals, in the championship round against whoever comes out of the West. But long story short, as much as Philadelphia would rather take on the Bulls than the Heat, the Bulls probably feel the same way about preferring the Sixers to the seventh-seeded Knicks, as Rose would have to get in gear much earlier against high-octane New York.The first round will be like riding on training wheels for Rose, as he attempts to find his rhythm. Though knowing him, he doesn't view it that way and with Turner giving him some ammunition, Rose will look to once again humble him, as he did when the pair matched up in high school and Turner impudently talked trash to not only Rose, but spectators and the assembled media. Thus, while the Bulls will need the dynamic floor general to eventually dominate the action in order to achieve their ultimate goal of adding another championship banner to the United Center rafters, he'll have at least a series to figure things out.
If the NFL’s proposed collective bargaining agreement is ratified, seven teams from each conference will make the playoffs in 2020— a change that will immediately alter the league's player movement landscape in the coming weeks and months.
Under the proposed structure, the Los Angeles Rams would’ve been the NFC’s No. 7 seed in 2019, with the 8-8 Bears finishing one game out of a playoff spot (really, two games, given they lost to the Rams). But as the Tennessee Titans showed last year, just getting into the dance can spark an underdog run to a conference title game. The vast majority of the NFL — those not in full-on tank mode — should view the potential for a seventh playoff spot as a license to be more aggressive in the free agent and trade market as soon as a few weeks from now.
So, should the Bears look at this new CBA as reason to be more aggressive in pushing to acquire one of the big-name quarterbacks who will, or could, be available this year? After all, merely slightly better quarterback play could’ve leapfrogged the Bears past the Rams and into the playoffs a year ago.
The prospect of Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr or Andy Dalton representing that upgrade feels tantalizing on the surface, right?
But the CBA’s addition of a seventh playoff team does not, as far as we know, also include an addition of significantly more cap space available to teams in 2020, even if the salary cap has increased 40 percent over the last five years. An extra $25 million is not walking through that door to add to the roughly $14 million the Bears currently have in cap space, per the NFLPA’s public salary cap report.
So that means every reason we laid out why the Bears should not make a splash move at quarterback remains valid, even with the NFL lowering its postseason barrier to entry.
The Bears’ best bet in 2020 remains signing a cheaper quarterback like Case Keenum or Marcus Mariota (who shares an agent with Mitch Trubisky, potentially complicating things) and banking on roster improvements being the thing that gets them back into the playoffs. Adding a quarterback for $17 million — Dalton’s price — or more would hamstring the Bears’ ability to address critical needs at tight end, right guard, inside linebacker and safety, thus giving the Bears a worse roster around a quarterback who’s no sure bet to be good enough to cover for the holes his cap hit would create.
Does it feel like a good bet? No, and maybe feels worse if it’s easier to get in the playoffs in 2020. But a Trubisky-Keenum pairing, complete with a new starting right guard to help the run game and more than just Demetrius Harris to upgrade the tight end room, is a better bet than Dalton or Bridgewater and a worse roster around them.
Also: This new playoff structure will tilt the balance of power significantly toward the No. 1 seeds in each conference. The last time a team made the Super Bowl without the benefit of a first-round bye was after the 2012 season, when the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens won the title. Otherwise, every Super Bowl participant since hasn't played on wild card weekend.
So while the Bears may become closer to the playoffs if the new CBA is ratified, they won’t be closer to getting a No. 1 seed. And that holds true even if they were to find a way to sign Tom Brady.
Getting in the playoffs can spark something special. But the Bears’ best path back to meaningful January football still involves an inexpensive approach to addressing their blaring need for better quarterback play.
Is it ideal? No.
But it’s far less ideal to be in this situation three years after taking the first quarterback off the board with 2017’s No. 2 overall pick.
The Bears are expected to be extremely busy in their effort to upgrade at tight end this offseason. In fact, they've already made their first move with the signing of veteran Demetrius Harris, but it's unlikely he'll be the only new player added at the position over the next few months.
The most appealing free-agent tight end who's likely to hit the open market is Falcons pass-catcher Austin Hooper, who was recently dubbed the ideal target for Bears GM Ryan Pace once the spending frenzy gets started.
Hooper is exactly the type of performer the Bears currently lack. He can provide a reliable outlet to make life easier on quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
Granted, the 25-year-old tight end shouldn't be viewed as a Travis Kelce-like difference-maker in head coach Matt Nagy's scheme, but he's the best option in thin free-agent and weak draft classes.
Hooper would be the dream acquisition for Chicago, but the dollars are unlikely to make sense. According to Spotrac, Hooper's market value will command a five-year, $49.9 million deal, or $9.9 million per season. If the Bears inked Hooper to a contract like that, they'd have nearly $19 million tied up in tight ends in 2020 (Trey Burton's contract counts as $8.5 million against the cap next season).
As much as Bears fans want more production at tight end, that's just too steep a price to pay regardless of how important the position is for Nagy's offense.
The better route for Pace to pursue is the 2020 NFL Draft, where Chicago could be the first team to draft a tight end in April. This year's class of tight end prospects is without a clear first-rounder and with the Bears' first pick coming at No. 43 overall, there's a good chance they could have their pick of the litter.
Prospects like Notre Dame's Cole Kmet, Purdue's Brycen Hopkins, and Washington's Hunter Bryant will all be given strong consideration in the first half of the second round.
It'll be another strike against Pace's work in free agency if he's forced out of the Hooper market because of the contract he gave Burton in 2018. But maybe it's for the best. He hasn't been very good at identifying tight ends since taking over as Chicago's GM in 2015 -- Khari Lee, Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen, Burton -- and probably shouldn't be trusted with the checkbook while searching for another one this offseason.