Why the Bulls should have committed to the “retool”
It is July 2016. The Chicago Bulls are yet again in a state of purgatory. A month prior, they traded Derrick Rose, the most important and popular Bull since Michael Jordan, to the New York Knicks.
The move firmly entrenched Jimmy Butler into the role as the franchise centerpiece, even though the front office never explicitly stated they were building around him. Gone were other core pieces in veteran and champion Pau Gasol, as well as the heart & soul of the Bulls franchise: Joakim Noah.
Rose, Gasol & Noah: three of the Bulls four star players along with their head coach Tom Thibodeau, who helped lead the team to 50 wins during the 2014-15 season, were all out.
A true changing of the guard was taking place. Management preferred the younger Jimmy Butler & a “pace and space” approach on offense, which is why they brought in Fred Hoiberg.
After a mediocre 2015-16 season where the Bulls finished 42-40, a change of direction was needed. Either hit reset and commit to a rebuild or try and reshape the roster in Hoiberg’s image with accomplished players. The Bulls, by sheer luck and circumstance, committed to a “retool” of the roster.
Out was Derrick Rose, in was Rajon Rondo. Rondo, coming off a season in Sacramento where he led the NBA in Assists (11.7/gm), brought the “pure Point Guard” skill set to a team who wanted to emphasize pace and shooting.
An NBA Champion, multi-time All-Star and All-NBA Team member, Rondo could fill two roles: “name recognition” and “player development.” Rondo was well-known enough to the casual fan, but also brought the reputation of being a “team cancer,” even though his teammates always raved about him.
With Rondo in the fold, Butler now had a PG on his team that never looked to score and also preferred to distribute and create shots for everyone. Most importantly, Rondo would not take away touches from Butler, who wanted to prove that he could be the player a team could build around and contend for a championship with.
It is July 2016: The Bulls are still in a state of purgatory. The signing of Rondo has received mixed reviews from the fan base, as well as media analysts throughout Chicago and the NBA. Why sign an older, but accomplished, veteran when the goal was to become “younger and more athletic?”
It was quite simple: stay relevant and compete. The Bulls, still scarred by the seven-year rebuild starting in 1999, were still not ready to commit to a major overhaul. Management still felt they could compete and sell out the United Center. The fact of the matter is, as much as most would disagree, they were not wrong.
While still trying to figure out how Rondo fit into the Bulls future, one of the biggest moments in franchise history was in place to occur.
No, this was not 1984, where the greatness and dominance began. No, this was not 1991-1998, where six NBA Championships happened. And no, this was not 2011, where D-Rose became the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history.
It is July 2016: Dwyane Wade comes home. The Prodigal Son returned. Wade, a three-time NBA Champion, 12-time All-Star, multi-time All-NBA Team member, a Finals MVP, a Scoring Champion and most importantly: a Chicago native, decided it was time to play for the franchise he grew up watching.
Wade, coming off a season where he almost single-handedly carried the Miami Heat to an Eastern Conference Finals berth, grew tired of the lowballing and perceived disrespect Heat management had been showing him.
The Bulls finally did it. They finally signed a big-time free agent, albeit at 34-years-old. The Bulls, spurned by Wade in free agency twice before, finally convinced a big name free agent commit to the team.
No, this is not a slight towards the likes of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver or Gasol. While all great players in their own right, they were simply complimentary pieces that could help your team win a lot of games. They were not in the class of a LeBron James, a Wade, a Carmelo Anthony, a Tim Duncan or a Tracy McGrady.
They were not franchising changing talents, meaning that if you added them to your roster, you were not a championship contender right away and to be honest, at this point, neither was Wade.
However, that is not why Wade was signed. As mentioned previously: the Bulls plan was to stay relevant and compete. By signing Wade and Rondo, not only would you be able to compete… you would definitely be relevant.
Again, reception to the decision to sign Wade was mixed, albeit not among the majority of Bulls fans. Wade was welcomed back with open arms by the city of Chicago, a fact that he himself acknowledged.
“Flash” was looking forward to being a Chicago Bull and bringing the organization back to prominence.
Questions arose about the shooting fit between Rondo, Wade and Butler. Rightfully so, as all three would admit to you that three-point shooting is not their strong suit. It also did not help that Hoiberg’s plans for the Bulls offense were to place a heavy emphasis on three-point shooting.
But Wade and Rondo are veterans; they were expected to make it work and they did throughout several times during the season – Rondo shot a career-high percentage from 3 & Wade shot his second highest career percentage last season).
We all know how the 2016-17 season worked out for the Bulls. On paper, it was mediocre. The team finished with a 41-41 record and lost 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs to the Boston Celtics. All the preseason expectations for the team went about as expected, right?
I tell people all the time, it is about “perspective.” Let’s put the Bulls 2016-17 season into perspective:
- Remain Relevant and Competitive
The Bulls accomplished this. While finishing .500 for the season, they pulled off several big wins vs the Warriors, Cavaliers (who they swept), Spurs, Celtics, Raptors, Grizzlies, Bucks, Thunder, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Wizards and Hawks (all playoff teams). Out of the 15 other playoff teams that season, the only two the Bulls did not beat were the Clippers and Rockets.
The Bulls also led the league in attendance. The team averaged 21,680 fans a game. Another indication that eyes were still on the product.
- Jimmy Butler’s Willingness to Recruit
The Bulls best player wanted even better players to join him in Chicago.
Butler was very open about his willingness to recruit star players to Chicago. Butler, a member of Team USA and also an associate of the “Banana Boat” crew, was the popular kid in school who also happened to hang out with the nerds (Bulls).
Butler openly told the media he would love to have Carmelo Anthony in Chicago. He chopped it up with DeMarcus Cousins during the Olympics. He was the main reason Dwyane Wade decided to sign with Chicago (… well, that and almost a $50 million payday).
There’s also one huge NBA Champion that would have joined Chicago if Butler was still in the fold… more on that later.
- The Bulls were now ‘Cool’ again
As stated, the Bulls were no longer the redhead stepchild when it came to free agency or star players around the league. That all changed when Wade decided to commit to them and Butler took on the role as lead recruiter.
Several times, the Bulls had been spurned by big-time, franchise changing free agents. Several times, they were left at the altar and had to settle for the bridesmaid.
By taking care of an accomplished vet and powerful voice in the NBA in Wade, other star players’ eyes were now on Chicago.
The Bulls, although you would not know it, were in a great position.
They were not tied down to any of the horrible deals that occurred during the cap boom in the NBA. The deals with Rondo and Wade were virtually ‘1 & 1s,’ meaning two-year deals tops. They would have maintained their “financial flexibility” for the 2018 off-season had they kept both Rondo and Wade.
Not only were they in a great position financially, they were in a great position competitively.
Let’s be honest. The Bulls were a Rondo injury away from beating the Celtics in the playoffs. They probably would have swept them. The Bulls have had notoriously bad luck when it comes to their star PGs getting injured in the playoffs.
Wade himself acknowledged that if Rondo does not get injured, this past off-season would have been different.
There would be no Jimmy Butler trade. The Bulls would be coming off a season where they shocked a lot of people in the playoffs. The young players would have received even more playoff experience.
In fact, with the trades of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and the departure of Paul Millsap, an even more watered down Eastern Conference would have allowed the Bulls to compete for a 3rd or 4th seed for the 2017-18 season.
However, as the old adage goes: “You never know what you have until it’s gone.”
- Gone is the lead recruiter and one of the best two-way players in the league in Butler.
- Gone is one of the most powerful voices in the NBA in Wade. He’s rejoining LeBron as a teammate in Cleveland.
- Gone is one of the best teammates the younger Bulls ever had in Rondo, he’s in New Orleans with the two best big men in the game.
The ‘Three Alphas’ era was over before it got a chance to start. What is even more frustrating is between Butler, Wade and Rondo, each individual saw the potential in this group to do something special down the line.
Rondo specifically said “Yeah, I like where I’m at. I think we have a really good team.” He continued, “Everyone is not going to be San Antonio. Always keep your guys together as long as possible so they can develop chemistry and make deep runs in the playoffs and go through things together and grow. If that’s the case here, that’d be great. If not, it’s up to those guys.”
Butler and Wade had even bigger plans for the Bulls, however. Wade reportedly even was taking the younger Bulls to task, telling them before the off-season to be “ready to work” for the upcoming season. Something was definitely brewing when it came to recruiting players to Chicago.
After the trade of Jimmy Butler, reports started to leak that Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland. Irving, a friend and teammate of Butler with Team USA, wanted to be more of a focal point on offense and also prove he could be the player that could lead a team to a championship.
The main place Irving wanted to do that? Chicago.
That’s right. The Bulls were Kyrie’s #1 option to play for if he was dealt by Cleveland. The notion came together because of his relationship and familiarity with Butler. Another NBA Champion and multi-time All-Star wanted to join the Chicago Bulls.
Simply stated, the Chicago Bulls missed their chance.
Here they were, finally at the table with the cool kids. Butler and Wade were talking with several players and those players’ eyes were on Chicago.
A two-way star in his prime already in the fold, a powerful NBA voice already in the fold, a boat load of cap room in 2018 and one of the biggest markets and brands in the league.
Bulls’ management was sitting on a gold mine and quit digging just before the discovery.
The commitment to the retool should have been sustained. While fans are appreciative that a direction has been chosen, it is hard to pinpoint when the Bulls will be ready to compete again. They have to hit big in the draft, which is not as easy as it sounds anymore.
They have to again go through the process of signing a big-time free agent, one that has historically been difficult for the organization. They have to bank on younger players, such as Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine panning out. They have to bank on their current head coach finding his way and panning out.
Bulls’ management is preaching patience with this current rebuild. True Bulls fans will be patient; it is not like they have a choice. But one has to wonder about all the possibilities if they decided to run it back with Butler, Wade and to a lesser degree: Rondo.
Instead of committing to the “retool,” the Bulls committed to the rebuild. Now, it’s time to wait and see if it was the right move… no matter how long it will be.
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