WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE

Segment for CSN’s “In The Loop” & “In The Loop Prime” shows that I created, co-wrote with Pat Boyle (@CSNBoyle) & Mark Schanowski (@MarkSchanowski) & co-produced.

Boyle, the Blackhawks Pre & Postgame Host/Analyst & Schanowski, the Bulls Pre & Postgame Host/Analyst, join forces to evaluate the 2016-17 seasons for both franchises.

In addition, the hosts look at what both the Bulls & Blackhawks need to do to contend the for next few seasons & beyond.

RUNNING WITH THE BULLS

Running With the Bulls: A Path to Contention or Sustained Mediocrity

A season review wrapped into a season preview & beyond…

By Steven Johnson

@SteveJohnson_12

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.

Grant showed flashes when given playing time, but as the playoff series proved, he needs to become more consistent before Hoiberg starts trusting him with increased minutes.

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.

Rondo was suspended, benched and regulated to anchoring the second unit. Butler became an All-Star again. Wade had flashes of “Flash,” but was mostly average and then suffered a fractured elbow.

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.

With a new lease on life, #PlayoffWade & #NationalTVRondo gave a skeptical fan base hope.

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.

‘BULL’-ISH ON THE FUTURE

The 2016-17 Chicago Bulls: First Half Edition

By Steven Johnson

Twitter: @SteveJohnson_12

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.

Wade took the roster, specifically the younger players, to task.

“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.