The 2016-17 Chicago Bulls: First Half Edition
By Steven Johnson
Contributor for @ChiBullsLife
The All-Star Break is finally here for Bulls fans. At 28-29, they are going into their vacation with a 2-game playoff lead as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. They are also one game back of the 6th seed. The Bulls enter the break with some much needed momentum. They knocked off two elite East teams in Toronto & Boston, consecutively. Huge confidence boosters considering they could be previews of a first round playoff match-up should the Bulls hold on.
How did we get to this point? It is time for a Bulls mid season review.
After a promising start to the season, the Bulls were living up to the task of being “Must-See TV.” An 11-7 start culminated with a signature win over the defending NBA Champion Cavaliers. Jimmy Butler continued his ascent to NBA stardom. Dwyane Wade endeared himself back to the city of Chicago & embraced the role of locker room leader, mentor & NBA Champion. Rajon Rondo, who dubbed the trio “The Three Alphas” before the season, was on his best behavior.
Everything was going well in the land of the Chicago Bulls.
As the season went on, however, the predicted… and expected flaws of the team were put on full display. The lack of 3-point shooting, athleticism & a strong personality at the head coaching position reared its ugly head.
The downfall began with the Bulls blowing a 21-point lead at home versus the Timberwolves & former Head Coach: Tom Thibodeau. What followed were embarrassing showings versus the “younger & more athletic” Bucks, bad losses to the rebuilding Mavericks, Suns & believe it or not, the even more dysfunctional New York Knicks.
However, in which has continued to be a “Bulls trend,” there were the trademark “good” wins versus the likes of the Spurs, Grizzlies & a comeback, OT victory vs the Raptors.
But the eyes of the NBA world, media & fans alike were focused solely on the Bulls after the January 25 game vs the Hawks. The pesky team from Atlanta, a thorn in the Bulls side over the last few seasons, got another big win in Chicago. However, it was how they got the win & what happened as a result of it that became the story.
The Bulls, looking to finally get that elusive ‘W’ vs Atlanta, put forth a 45-minute effort. With Chicago leading by 10 with 3:02 remaining in the game, three consecutive 3-pointers by Atlanta started a game-winning run. The Bulls collapsed completely down the stretch & their star players, Wade & Butler, had finally had enough.
“I’m 35 years old, man. I have three championships,” Wade said. “It shouldn’t hurt me more than it hurts them. They have to want it.”
To openly call out the passion & work ethic of the team was a sharp contrast to the “adult in the room” role Wade was playing. Here was a future Hall-of-Famer & three-time NBA Champion calling out his teammates after another horrible loss. Wade put the team, organization & city on notice: he did not come here just for a payday… he was here to build towards a goal and bring the franchise back to respectability.
The loss got to Wade deep enough to the point where he called out his teammates through the media. Not everyone could predict the trickle-down effect Wade’s comments would have.
Almost immediately following Wade’s tirade, Butler added gasoline to the fire.
“If you’re not mad after you lose every game, something’s wrong,” Butler said. “This is your job. This is supposed to be what you love to do. Not everybody looks at it this way. I want to play with guys who care and play hard and want to do well for this organization, that want to win games.”
A message, very loud & clear, was sent by the two best players on the team. It was not only a message to the players in the locker room, but also the coaching staff & members of the front office. The message was simple from Wade & Butler: players have to prepare for every game like it is their last, and also have to be ready to play when called upon.
How would the young guys in the Bulls locker room respond? Well, it turned out that they did not need to.
Rondo, who had already been suspended & benched during the season, took it upon himself to stand up for the young guys. In the now infamous post on Instagram, the former All-Star & NBA Champion took some not so subtle shots at Wade & Butler.
“My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn’t pick and choose when they wanted to bring it.” Rondo continued, “When we lost, they wouldn’t blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work.”
And there it was… the Chicago Bulls were officially in shambles. A laughingstock around the city of Chicago & the NBA, it was rock bottom for the organization, who came into this season thinking they were able to avoid the reset button.When the Bulls brought in Wade & Rondo, it was sold to the fan base that the roster revamp was merely a “retool.”
Surround the rising star & franchise centerpiece, Butler, with veterans who have won it all. With accomplished players like Wade & Rondo added to the roster alongside strong veterans in Taj Gibson & Robin Lopez, the younger players (Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis & Denzel Valentine), were all expected to take the next step.
All of a sudden, those same young players were the basis of an outburst by the two best players. Rondo, considered to be an upgrade at the point guard position, caused more friction with one post on social media than the recently departed Derrick Rose ever did. The fans’ interest turned to indifference & they became angry and embarrassed.
The fallout of the dysfunction was left to the players & their Head Coach to address. General Manager, Gar Forman, also spoke on the situation. Team meetings, listless losses & the up & down season continued. The Bulls were now what they tried to avoid being before the season: irrelevant.
The trade talk around Butler was constant, reported discussions of Rondo not even being on the team for a playoff run took place, Wade not committing to opting in for next season & the regression of key young players continued. This was a mess & there was no solution to fix it in sight.
The Bulls continued to tease its fan base, getting back to .500 twice after the dysfunction. But a listless 2-4 “Ice Trip” culminated with another embarrassing loss to Thibs & Co. in Minnesota. The biggest story, however, was that Gar Forman & John Paxson would reportedly return next season. Whether the Bulls continue the “retool,” or finally decide to push reset will again be left up to “GarPax.”
The only thing for sure about the Bulls, to quote professional wrestling legend Sting, “is nothing’s for sure.”
You do not know what you are going to get from the team on a nightly basis. You do not know if they will be active before or at the trade deadline. As the deadline approaches, what will or won’t the Bulls do when it comes to their roster now?
You do not even know if the fans will ever take it upon themselves to disconnect from the franchise, which would be a strong message to the organization. Nothing is for sure for the Chicago Bulls indeed.
Here is what we do know: if the season ended today, the Bulls would be a playoff team in a weak Eastern Conference. They would match up with those same Boston Celtics in a rematch of one of the greatest NBA Playoff series ever. They would return to the postseason after a one season absence.
Jimmy Butler would be able to show just how improved he is on the playoff stage. Dwyane Wade would become “Flash” in the playoffs yet again… that is why he is here according to him… to bring them back to respectability.
In the grand scheme of things, the Bulls season would then become a success predicated on those factors. The team was still able to sell tickets, build a relevant playoff team & also showcase a roster that already had its young two-way star in place in Jimmy Butler, alongside one of the most powerful voices in the NBA: Dwyane Wade.
Financial flexibility going forward, a team with a core of young players and two star pieces, were able to will this team into the postseason. How would that sound to potential free agency targets like Blake Griffin or Wade’s good friend: Chris Paul?
Or if the free agency route does not work (historically, it has not), how about pursuing trades and having Butler & Wade play the role of recruiter? They could pick up the phone to place calls to DeMarcus Cousins or Carmelo Anthony. “GarPax” could even revisit reported trade talks about another hometown product.
If the Bulls can hold on for a playoff spot, this is exactly what the thinking will be. The prospects of pairing Butler & Wade with a Blake Griffin, a Chris Paul, a Carmelo Anthony, a DeMarcus Cousins and others will be endless. While the thoughts are certainly more realistic because of Butler & Wade’s relationships with several players, it ultimately rests on the shoulders of the front office to get the moves done.
Can the fans and the city of Chicago really count on this Bulls team turning it around? A brand, who was blessed enough to have the greatest athlete of all-time, don their jersey for nearly 15 years & also elevate the team and game to new heights. When people think of the NBA: the Chicago Bulls are definitely a part of the thought process.
The city of Chicago wants their basketball team to be good. Fans still wear their Bulls gear proudly around the city, even though this currently has the makings of another lost season. People want the Bulls to be great again. It is better for the league, the city and the product.
In an era where their arena mates, the Chicago Blackhawks, climbed out of obscurity to become the flagship franchise & a true dynasty in the NHL, we have seen it can be done. In an era where the Chicago Cubs ended 108 years of futility and won the World Series, we have seen it can be done.
However, again, the future of the Chicago Bulls is the same as it has been for the last two seasons: “nothing’s for sure.” As a fan base, they just have to wait and see what happens next.