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Bulls are farther away from NBA Finals than it may seem

The Bulls might not be as close as you think being an NBA Finals-caliber team. | Getty Images

The Bulls might not be as close as you think to being an NBA Finals-caliber team. | Getty Images

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Do you think the Bulls will get to the NBA Finals in the next 3 seasons?

Updated: June 12, 2012 4:08PM

The NBA Finals would be opening at the United Center tonight had Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah not gotten hurt in the playoffs.

If the Miami Heat needed seven games to eliminate a Celtics team of strong heart but weak legs and closer to oblivion than the Celtics would like to admit, it’s unlikely they would have survived a Bulls team at full strength, without home-court advantage.

As true as that might be, it’s still a dubious supposition that illustrates the biggest hurdle the Bulls face in winning an NBA championship in the current environment: everything has to be just right. With home-court advantage and Rose and Noah healthy and Chris Bosh hurt, they could have won the Eastern Conference title. Alter any of those conditions and it’s up for grabs at best.

The Bulls might be the best ‘‘team’’ in the NBA, but they’re not built to win a title like the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are. Say what you want about the Heat being a top-heavy team with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and not much else. But they get more bang-for-their-buck from their high-salaried players than the Bulls do. That’s a bigger difference than we’d like to admit.

Carlos Boozer ($13.5 million in 2011-12), Luol Deng ($12.3 million) and Joakim Noah ($12.3 million) would be integral parts of a Bulls championship team, but are significantly flawed for $10-million-plus players. Boozer might be the only highest-paid-player in the NBA who often doesn’t play in crunch time. Noah, besides prone to injury and inconsistency, are borderline All-Star players with Derrick Rose and trade-bait without him.

This year’s Finals is painful evidence of the Bulls’ current roster plight of being stuck in the middle. They don’t have the superstars the Heat have; and they don’t draft as well as the Thunder.

The former Seattle Supersonics weren’t even as bad as the post-dynasty Bulls when they hit the jackpot in three successive drafts in 2007-09: Kevin Durant (No. 2 overall) in 2007, Russell Westbrook (No. 4) and Serge Ibaka (No. 24) in 2008; and James Harden (No. 3) in 2009.

The Bulls had five top-4 picks from 1999-2002 and ended up with Elton Brand, Marcus Fizer, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and Jay Williams. And even when they finally hit the jackpot by winning the lottery and drafting Rose over Michael Beasley in 2008, the Thunder outdid them by drafting Westbrook and Ibaka. (The Ibaka pick was a gift from Steve Kerr and the Suns for taking salary-cap albatross Kurt Thomas off their hands.)

The Bulls are an admirable championship-caliber team that — like the beloved Motta-era Bulls of yesteryear — is a purist’s delight. They hustle (No. 2 in the NBA in offensive rebounding), they defend (No. 2 in opponents field goal percentage; No. 3 in blocked shots); and they play team offense (they assisted on 61.9 percent of their field goals, No. 2 in the NBA and well above the Heat’s 53.8 and Thunder’s 49.7.

But as the Heat and Thunder move forward, the Bulls as a championship contender are looking more like a house-of-cards built on a longshot bounce of a ping-pong ball in 2008. With a healthy Rose and with Tom Thibodeau calling the shots they are likely to be perennial contenders. But when you look at the elite superstars of the Heat, the youth of the Thunder and the salary-cap hell that prevents the Bulls from making a bold move even if they wanted to, you have to wonder if they are destined for the same fate as the Motta-era Bulls and will never get over the top.

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