Bulls

Bulls: After Another Tumultuous Season, the Bulls are a Franchise at a Crossroads

Yesterday, the Chicago Bulls commemorated the five year anniversary of Derrick Rose‘s ACL injury with an equally awful showing, losing to the Celtics to drop out of the playoffs. Rose’s injury was the beginning of the end for the “Rose Era” in Bulls history, and yesterday might well be the final domino in the fall of the”Forman/Paxson Era” in Chicago. Let’s take a look at how this 2016-2017 campaign played out, and how the future might play out.

2016-2017 Recap

The Bulls moved on from Rose last summer, and tried to retool with veterans Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. For the first half of the season, the starting lineup was comprised of those two, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Robin Lopez.

Expectations weren’t very high, as the team didn’t appear to be much improved over the 2015-16 squad. But at that point, optimism wasn’t necessarily crazy, as Wade still had some superstar left in him, and Butler was an emerging superstar. Still, hardly a soul expected the Bulls to topple LeBron, and the team wasn’t very young, so even at the beginning of the year, the direction of the Bulls was in doubt.

Despite all that, the Bulls came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, capturing their first three games. Then, the roller-coaster ride began. By sizable margins, the Bulls lost their next three games, and sat at 3-3. For the remainder of the season, the streakiness would continue. For reference, the team had seven three-games-or-more losing streaks.

On December 13, Tom Thibodeau and his youthful Timberwolves invaded the United Center. At first, it seemed like the Bulls would spoil Thibs’ return, as they jumped out to a 21-point lead. However, the Timberwolves stormed back, and stole the contest, 99-94. It was the first of many incredibly frustrating moments for the team.

On December 15, around the quarter-mark of the NBA season, there were clear pros and cons. Butler had solidified his superstar label, and Wade was fairly productive, but they had minimal support. Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez were adequate, but Rondo was underwhelming, and the young guys were severely disappointing. Mirotic was shooting 28 percent from behind the arc, Valentine and Portis barely ever scored, and Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant were inferior to Rondo’s average play. The narrative became: Could Butler and Wade really carry the team that far?

To start the new year, Butler brought legitimacy to that question. He started off 2017 with a 38 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game, and 6.3 assists per game week, one which included a dazzling, 52-point performance. But that was clearly Butler’s peak, as his production slightly declined for the rest of the season.

Another new-year development was the benching of Rajon Rondo. Hoiberg, trying to, in his own words, “inject some energy and change the flow of our team,” inserted MCW as the starting point guard. Rondo explicitly vented his frustrations, and soon the Bulls were experiencing off-court turmoil. Although the issue subsided, the damage was done, and tension between players and management had been exposed.

Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

Carter-Williams struggled with his starting opportunity, and the rest of the season comprised of Jerian Grant emergence, Grant resurgence, some mixing and matching, and an eventual recapturing of the spot by Rondo. In stark contrast, Jimmy Butler, the picture of consistency, was named a starter for the Eastern Conference team in the all-star game.

For the next couple weeks, the Bulls were mired in mediocrity, and it spilled over into further off-court tension. On January 26, Rondo openly criticized Butler and Wade for publicly suggesting that the team lacked enthusiasm to win. Puzzling enough, none of these players were traded, and by season’s end, they all seemed to get along. Still, it wasn’t a good sign.

Yet, the trade deadline wasn’t totally uneventful, as the Bulls dealt Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City for…do I have to relive it? They received Joffrey Lauvergne, Cameron Payne, and Anthony Morrow. Oh yeah, they gave up a 2018 second-round draft pick too. Widely and rightly considered an awful trade, it was yet another bewildering move by the front office.

Losing two regulars, and getting only one in return, the Bulls were clearly a worse team than before.  Winning some here, losing some there, the mediocrity continued. Then, on March 15, Wade fractured his elbow. However, the story line remained the same, as the team didn’t clearly suffer or benefit from Wade’s absence.

On March 24, Philadelphia beat the Bulls, 117-107, and it appeared that there would be no playoffs for a second straight year. However, the team mustered all of its energy and resilience, and snuck into the playoffs with a win in their last game against the Nets. Dwyane Wade was healthy again, and some hope existed for an exciting playoff run.

Under the direction of Rondo, the Bulls grabbed both games against the 1-seed Celtics in Boston, and legitimate belief arose that a deep playoff run could ensue. Of course, Rondo then injured his thumb, and without his skills running the offense, the team faltered, and dropped four in a row to the Celtics.

Looking Ahead

Source: Michael Reaves/Getty Images North America

After years of disappointment, I and many other Bulls fans would be happy to see Gar Forman and John Paxson go. Detailed in many of our articles, their draft picks and trades have been sub-par, and they’ve left the team with no direction. Fred Hoiberg has been underwhelming, but he’s under contract for three more years, and hasn’t really been able to run his up-tempo style of offense. I wouldn’t cry over his firing, but he deserves a chance with a young, fast team.

If Jerry doesn’t fire Forman and Paxson, they sure as hell better have a perfect plan for the future. I honestly can’t predict if they will depart, since Jerry’s infamous loyalty may prevent him from firing them. I do think Jerry isn’t an idiot, however. I believe if  he doesn’t replace them, he’ll force them to commit to a full-on rebuild or a Griffin signing, like finally committed to a White Sox rebuild this year.

Whoever is in charge, the team itself has problems. Where they currently stand, the Bulls have essentially no hope for the future. Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine improved this year, but both will be pedestrian starters at best. Wade is sure to deteriorate in the next two years of his contract, and Rondo is pretty old himself. So, does the team invest in Wade/Rondo’s last years of adequacy, and pursue a star to complement Butler? Or do they trade Butler for draft picks, and look to the future for success?

Going for it All

This strategy is surely the road less traveled. Forman and Paxson weren’t able to land LeBron James in 2010, and never pursued a trade to pair Rose with another superstar. But with the pressure mounting, might they fork over a huge contract? Stephen Curry is undoubtedly returning to the Bay, and Chris Paul has expressed his intentions of remaining with the Clippers.  Let’s take a look at their other options…and oh wait it’s just Blake Griffin.

Battling with the Jazz, and with teams like the Spurs and Warriors on the horizon, the Clippers have basically no shot at a title this year. For the past five years, they’ve failed to reach the conference finals, and Griffin has got to be frustrated at this point. But he has excuses- For each of the past two years, injuries have sidelined Griffin in the playoffs.

He’s also developed chemistry with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, and it would be considered a betrayal on the level of Kevin Durant to leave them. But you never know. With Durant and Curry teaming up in the West, and LeBron’s teams not even dominating, Griffin could recognize the East as his only shot at a championship appearance.

If he does test the free agency waters, the Bulls could definitely be a destination. Jimmy Butler is a superstar, and who wouldn’t want to play with him? Teams like the Bucks and Celtics also possess the cap space to go after Griffin, but they too only have one true star, (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Isaiah Thomas) , so there’s not much extra appeal there.

If the Bulls have any shot of competing in 2017-18, it resides in Blake Griffin.

Dismantling it All

The other, more likely option is to trade away Jimmy Butler.  Trying to rebuild without doing that is a half-assed measure, like I said, their young players have minuscule star potential, and their current draft position is in the mid-first round, and those types of players almost never blossom like Butler did. Year after year, picking high in the lottery is the only good chance of getting a franchise player, and the Bulls can’t do that without trading Jimmy. Who would be his suitors?

To the dismay of upstart Marcus Smart, who quarreled with Butler in the playoff series, the Boston Celtics are an easy candidate for Butler’s next team. They currently own the best odds of a number one selection in the 2017 NBA draft, and are guaranteed to pick in the top four. They have a great roster assembled now, but stand little chance against the might of the Warriors, Spurs, and (playoff) Cavaliers. Dealing for Butler would immediately vault them into championship contention.

Additionally, the Celtics possess quality young players like Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, who could complement a high draft choice like Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. And don’t forget about their multitude of future draft picks, shown here (courtesy of Boston Celtics):

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If they go this route, whoever is making the calls will dispose of Wade and Rondo as well. This will free up cap space so, in the future, when the rebuilt team starts to develop, they can sign a big-name free agent when the market is teeming with talent, as it wasn’t this year. Portis and Valentine should stick around, as they could be somewhat decent. Everyone else is a transitional piece, or currency for getting younger, or getting second-round draft picks.

In summary 

With frustration throughout the year, and fans chanting “Fire Hoiberg” in the Bulls final loss, team management will recognize this is a pivotal moment for the future. There’s no doubt in my mind the Bulls will make drastic changes this summer. There will be plenty of angry opiners in either case, but only future results will tell the tale. For now, Bulls fans can at least take solace in the fact that change is on the way.

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