Running With the Bulls: A Path to Contention or Sustained Mediocrity
A season review wrapped into a season preview & beyond…
By Steven Johnson
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein.
The statement above should not only be applied to the Chicago Bulls franchise, but their fans as well.
Ever since the heyday of Michael Jordan and their six championships, Chicago’s professional basketball team has done the same thing over and over again while producing the same exact results.
The kicker is this: Bulls fans have been sold on false dreams, promises & futures all as a direct result of Jordan’s dominance. Not only in the game of basketball, but also in building the Bulls as a global brand.
When your franchise was blessed to have the greatest athlete of all-time, that brand of basketball has staying power… no matter how mediocre the product is. The incentive to put a consistent, worthy product on the floor is secondary.
Let’s get right to it then. In the summer of 2016, the Bulls decided to take the first step in changing their identity. The team made the decision to part with their hometown superstar & former Most Valuable Player: Derrick Rose.
Rose, the most important & popular Bull since the MJ-era, was robbed of his prime years due to various knee injuries. Before the setbacks, Rose brought the Bulls back to national prominence and within three wins of their first NBA Finals appearance since 1998.
During his MVP campaign, where he averaged 25 points and eight assists a game without the benefit of a “second star,” Rose & the Bulls went down in five games to LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh & the Heat super team.
No shame in that. Here was Rose, already playing out of his mind, taking on the task of knocking out the main villains of the NBA. The Bulls bowed out in five, but the series was a lot closer than the final scores indicated.
An MVP-caliber player simply ran into two superstars and an All-Star; and every team & executive knew what had to be done around the league: get Derrick Rose some help.
That help came in the form of aging star & NBA Champion, Richard “Rip” Hamilton. The main goal for the Bulls was to compliment Rose with a secondary scorer to play alongside him in the backcourt.
Rose, who was the consummate teammate when it came to his support of Keith Bogans, was thought to finally have a solid running mate.
However, the dream would never come to fruition as Rose & Hamilton dealt with various injuries throughout the course of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Fast forward to the injury that changed the landscape of Chicago basketball for the foreseeable future, and you have your current product.
The Bulls have not been a real contender since Rose tore the ACL in his left knee. Do not let all the winning seasons and playoff appearances fool you. Making the playoffs in a mediocre Eastern Conference is almost the equivalent of being the tallest person in the room amongst little people.
What made those Bulls teams entertaining was the development and breakthroughs of the Joakim Noahs & Luol Dengs of the world (both of whom made All-Star teams during Rose’s recoveries). Even during the 2014-15 season, where the Bulls were in their best position to compete since Rose’s MVP year, the contender label did not quite fit that team.
Yes, Jimmy Butler improved his game. Yes, the Bulls were able to snag a multi-time NBA Champion, All-Star & Future Hall of Famer in Pau Gasol. Yes, and most importantly, Derrick Rose was the healthiest he had been since his best season (albeit before another late season knee injury.)
But as a fan, you knew it was not enough to get past a LeBron James-led team (the one that ultimately ended their season again).
Where the Bulls missed their best opportunity to get past James was in the 2014 offseason: They failed to sign Carmelo Anthony.
All things considered, Anthony’s skill set as an elite scorer to pair with Rose was what the organization (especially Tom Thibodeau) had been craving since his MVP year. The Bulls believed they could have made it happen in terms of signing both Anthony & Gasol.
Could the Bulls with Rose, Butler, Anthony, Gasol & Noah have made the Finals that season?
Purely speculative, but I like the chances of that squad more when compared to a Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Gasol & Noah lineup. Instead, they settled on Gasol, brought over Nikola Mirotic, ultimately traded five draft picks for Doug McDermott and brought back Kirk Hinrich.
It was also the same thing: a lot of depth and skill on paper, when in reality, it was only good enough to win you a playoff round, or maybe two.
From there, the mediocrity continued. Rose, as mentioned earlier, was dealt to the New York Knicks.
While the deal was not a complete wash (it brought back productive & likable center Robin Lopez), the value was not equivalent to that of a player of Rose’s caliber, even with all the injuries considered.
The Bulls traded away a former MVP, a second-round draft pick and an underrated, cheap two-way player in Justin Holiday for Lopez, Jerian Grant & Jose Calderon. The centerpiece of the deal was Grant, who Gar Forman and John Paxson were both high on. He was sold as someone who could be the “Point Guard of the Future,” (More on that later).
To get into the “analytics” of the deal, here are the 2016-17 season comparisons:
- Derrick Rose: 64 Games (64 GS), 18.0 PPG, 47.1 FG %, 4.4 APG & 3.8 RPG in 32.5 MPG.
- Justin Holiday: 82 Games (4 GS), 7.7 PPG, 43.3 FG %, 35.5 3-PT FG % in 20.0 MPG.
- Robin Lopez: 81 Games (81 Starts), 10.4 PPG, 49.3 FG %, 6.4 RPG, 1.4 BPG in 28.0 MPG.
- Jerian Grant: 63 Games (28 Starts), 5.9 PPG, 42.5 FG %, 36.6 3-PT %, 1.9 APG in 16.3 MPG
- Jose Calderon: Waived in order create cap space to sign Dwyane Wade.
- Via BasketballReference.com
Who won this deal is a matter of debate. Considering the point guard woes that plagued the Bulls outside of Rajon Rondo & the lack of two players in the rotation, the Bulls could have really used the skillsets of both Rose and Holiday.
However, the Bulls definitely upgraded at the center position, as Noah would turn in a miserable first season with the Knicks at a hefty price. Lopez was as serviceable as they came & is still on a bargain deal.
After stating that the team needed to get “younger and more athletic,” the Bulls drafted Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser.
Valentine is still a project who has earned the benefit of the doubt (he actually needs to play more before being judged), and Zipser, surprisingly, is a skilled wing with staying power as an elite role player. Paxson and Forman deserve credit for finding him in the second round.
Then the signings of Rondo and Wade occurred. While on paper, the magnitude of their names brought excitement back to the city for the short term, the reality was the Bulls just committed big money to aging veterans.
Wade, who twice spurned the Bulls advances before, was now on a mission to bring the organization back to respectability while sticking it to the Heat for the perceived disrespect he felt they showed towards him.
The city embraced both veterans. Rondo became the younger Bulls’ biggest ally. Wade endeared himself back to his hometown and his hometown welcomed him with open arms. The Bulls began the season with an 11-7 record, beating the defending NBA Champions and going 4-2 on the dreaded “Circus Trip.”
Then came the inconsistencies that most expected for the Bulls when Wade & Rondo signed up. The lack of shooting and athleticism, coupled with the frustratingly long stretches of ISO ball, did the Bulls in.
Wade & Butler decided they had enough and ripped their teammates publicly. Rondo decided to stick up for the young teammates and ripped Wade & Butler through Instagram. There were fines, benchings and continued up and down play.
Somehow, someway: the Bulls made the playoffs with a mediocre 41-41 record. They finished tied with Wade’s old team, but backed in by virtue of a tiebreaker. They also had a favorable match-up with the #1-seeded Boston Celtics, avoiding a likely sweep at the hands of the LeBron-led Cavaliers.
For two games, those hopes were rewarded. The Bulls looked like a legitimate playoff team with the right mix of battle-tested veterans and surprising performances.
Rondo systematically dismantled the Celtics defense, finding open shots for the likes of Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser. Wade and Butler were there for the big buckets and plays. Lopez literally could not be stopped, feasting on Boston’s small lineups.
Nationally, the team was so impressive that people were convinced they could make a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
As “Bulls Luck” would have it: an injury to the star point guard derailed any promise.
Rondo fractured his thumb in Game 2, knocking him out for the remainder of the series. For the next 4 games, the Bulls looked more like the team fans preferred to be in the lottery as opposed to the legitimate playoff squad that was seen the first two games of the series.
The Bulls bowed out with little to no fight, culminating in a Game 6 all too familiar to the one in 2015 at home vs the Cavaliers. Mercifully, to most fans, the 2016-17 season for the Bulls was over.
So here’s the question: “Where do we go from here?” A legitimate, simple question that John Paxson & Gar Forman have to ask themselves & the rest of the organization.
If the press conference on May 3rd was any indication: the organization, the players and their fans do not have a clue. Paxson and Forman took questions, but were not entirely clear when it came to their answers. “GarPax” addressed many topics, such as the one about enigmatic point guard, Rajon Rondo.
“There’s a really good chance we’ll bring Rajon back,” Paxson said. “You can’t underscore the impact Rajon had with our young guys.” Paxson is right here.
While Rondo does not give you much in terms of scoring, he has proven to be able to penetrate and finish at the rim. He has also transformed himself into a respectable 3-point shooter, shooting at least 35% for the last three seasons (and a career-high 37.6% with the Bulls in 2016-17).
His leadership is also invaluable, especially with the Bulls relying on a youth movement. Paxson and Forman indicated that the young players will be given every opportunity to improve and having Rondo in the fold for them would be a positive.
The most pressing topics came in the questions on the futures of the Bulls two best players: Butler and Wade:
“Jimmy is far and away our best player. His work ethic is one of the best in the league,” Paxson said. While praising the work ethic of their star, Forman and Paxson again stopped short of committing to Butler as the franchise centerpiece.
Not the best way to go about the future when you’re not sure you want to commit to your best player. As someone who feels the modern-day rebuild has no place in today’s NBA, the Bulls must be cautious with their treatment of Butler.
- While probably not a #1 or #2 option on a championship team, Butler is undoubtedly one of the best two-way players in the league on a bargain of a deal.
- He is arguably a top-15 player in the NBA who has earned the respect of his fellow players around the league along with their coaches.
- One also cannot underscore the fact that the NBA is a player’s league and Butler has showed a willingness to recruit.
- He holds player relationships from his All-Star appearances and his time on the USA National Team.
- He’s on the record of saying he’s willing to speak to players like Carmelo Anthony about joining forces.
- He was the main reason Wade decided to sign with Chicago this past summer.
Speaking of Wade, his future is up for debate, even if he holds a player option that comes with a hefty payday for next season.
“Dwyane will look to us for direction on our team moving forward. We will sit down with him again this offseason,” Paxson said.
Wade is on the record saying he wants a clear vision of the franchise’s direction after meeting with Paxson and Forman. Wade, who will turn 36 next season, is looking for one last shot at glory before calling it a career.
As someone who said he would not be too thrilled with playing with a bunch of 21-year-olds, it might not be appeasing to stick around with a team who does not plan on contending for a championship any time soon.
If Wade likes what Paxson and Forman have to say, he opts in for the 2017-18 season and he still has a voice around the NBA.
Wade is better suited as a 3rd or 4th option on a contender right now and has expressed that he would be content with any role that his team wants him to have. With Butler and Wade, the Bulls would again have two voices around the league that are willing to recruit. If going young is the Bulls preferred preference, then it is best to trade Butler and hope Wade walks.
The problem is that the haul the Bulls would command for Butler probably isn’t as feasible anymore. The Celtics, the most-thought logical suitor for Butler, saw him firsthand in a playoff series.
With a boatload of assets at their disposal, Boston is primed to make a run at trading for Paul George, Anthony or Dwight Howard. They can also elect to go the free agency route and try to entice Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin.
If the Bulls hang on to Butler and Wade opts in, they’d have little to no wiggle room to operate, especially if Rondo’s option is picked up.
With a team that desperately needs shooting and athleticism, you’re basically committing to an aging core and wasting Butler’s prime years.
Moves that Butler and Wade would most likely be in favor of are bringing in Wade’s good friend, Anthony, through a trade.
It would again be a case of the Bulls acquiring a star who spurned them before, but with Anthony’s scoring ability, he would be able to take pressure off Butler and Wade while also playing with a natural Point Guard in Rondo.
It would be a fluid situation in order to make it work, and most likely a third team would have to get involved. Another possibility because of Wade’s direct line to him would be to target Chris Paul, however, with Paxson expressing strong interest in bringing Rondo back and Paul unlikely to turn down a new $205M deal, that possibility is an extreme longshot at best.
What we do know is this: the Bulls are the epitome of a “middle of the road” team:
- A .500 team with aging veterans and young, unproven talent. Not bad enough to be in the lottery but not good enough to contend for a championship.
After the presser, fans were left with more questions than answers and are still in the dark when it comes to the direction of the franchise.
The organization owes it to its fans to pick a lane: either blow it up or go all the way with it in terms of a retool.
If they continue to go the same directionless route, they will forever be stuck in mediocrity and interest around the city of Chicago will continue to wane.