This wasn’t supposed to happen. The seventh overall pick in the draft is not why the Bulls tanked an entire season. Having a choice between Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Mizzou’s surgically repaired Michael Porter Jr was not where the Bulls envisioned themselves on that June night nearly a year ago when they traded Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, embarking on an aggressive rebuild that they hope will set up them for sustained future success.
The first step in that rebuild was supposed to be securing a top three pick in the draft, after last night’s lottery results, the Bulls sit at seventh. In the eyes of many, this would be considered a failure, tanking an entire season only to pick outside of the top five. Not in the words of John Paxson though, speaking to reporters after the Jimmy Butler trade in June, Paxson had this to say about the purpose of the Jimmy Butler trade. “what we’ve done tonight is set a direction.”
The key word in that sentence is direction. The primary objective of this year was for the Bulls to begin shifting a culture that had become toxic, as the egos of Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibedou had rotted a locker room that was long removed from the harmonious attitudes of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Repairing a fractured locker room, and pointing the arrow upwards after it had been teetering between pointing sideways, and at times, due south.
Prior to the trade, the Bulls locker room had become something more reminiscent of a high school lunch room rather than a professional basketball team, as cliques, gossip and mean words ruled the day. The team had become fractured when Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade teamed up to undermine coach Fred Hoiberg, and publicly called into question the commitment and work ethic of their younger teammates. The third so-called alpha in this situation, Rajon Rondo, came to the defense of his young teammates, but it was clear the locker room had broken for good. The incident came on the heels of years of rumors and accusations that the Bulls front office was spying on players, did not stick to their word, and were among the most undesirable duo to work for in sports. It was abundantly clear something had to change.
Everyone praises the White Sox mantra of “Ricky’s Boys Don’t quit”–the Bulls displayed that same heart on a regular basis this past season. The nightly effort from tip off to the final whistle was a far cry from Bulls teams past who had often been defined by playing “down” to their opponents level. That is a testament to coach Fred Hoiberg, who in his first two seasons was subjected to criticism everywhere he looked, from the media down to his own players. The sustained criticism of Hoiberg was, in retrospect, unwarranted. Any coach dealt the hand Hoiberg was given would struggle. He was handed egos, players that didn’t fit his system and an overall under-talented roster. This past season, Hoiberg showed he is more than capable of being an NBA coach, and his confidence was rebuilt. Hoiberg’s evolution this year helped in part to shift that culture that had gone so wrong for the Bulls. As John Paxson put it:
“Fred and our guys set the tone when our guys came back and they just had the everyday attitude of working.” He continued, “that needs to carry over and it will. Our guys need to continue to buy in which we believe they will.”
As the Spurs, Warriors and any team LeBron James plays for shows, winning is a mindset and a culture as much as a talent issue. The Bulls did not have that winning mindset, and Fred Hoiberg managed to instill that on his team this year, despite being the less talented team on a nightly basis. If that had failed to happen this year, and the Bulls had won 15 games and secured the first overall pick, a 19 year old Slovenian was not going to fix a culture that had not taken a step forward. So even as the talent on the floor took a step back, the culture shifted dramatically this year and it was something the Bulls needed in the worst way.
Speaking of talent, this roster is not exactly as devoid of talent as everyone makes it out to be. In fact, the infusion of young talent that occurred this year, as well as huge developmental steps from players once considered afterthoughts such as Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine and Cameron Payne are even more reason to consider this year a success. The shift in organizational philosophy allowed these players to play more consistent minutes and to learn from their mistakes, rather than be benched. The development of those is yet another testament to the dramatic culture change that occurred this year that will set the Bulls up for great future success. Not to mention that Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn established themselves as core pieces for the Bulls moving forward as long as their development continues. Yes, Zach LaVine needs to up his game in a major way, and his contract could turn into a sticky negotiation for the Bulls, but that is one of the few areas where this year cannot be considered a rousing success.
Make no mistake, the Bulls needed a top 10 pick in order for this rebuild to continue forward in a meaningful way. It was clear the higher-ups in the organization were aware of that as well. What was not necessary, was for the Bulls to flounder their way to a top three pick in the hopes of finding their savior in one of DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic. The reality of the situation is, if the Bulls savior isn’t on the current roster now (debatable) there is no rush to find him this offseason at all. What the Bulls did this season was begin to cultivate an environment and culture that may one day be a superstar away from truly contending.
As far as where that superstar will be coming from, this offseason is not when that question is at its most pressing. The Bulls just finished their first year of rebuilding, a look around the league would show that the first full rebuild offseason is not where you need to find your missing piece. The Bulls are ahead of the game already when it comes to rebuild timelines. The additions of Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine pushed the rebuild timeline up significantly, which is something Bulls fans should be thankful for. So if the Bulls fail to find their key superstar this offseason (once again that player may be on the roster) it is no reason to fret, and certainly no reason to deem the past season a failure.
So yes, the results of the lottery are a disappointment to be sure. Obviously it would have been preferable for the Bulls to receive a top three pick and have that much better chance at acquiring a superstar, but by no means does receiving the seventh pick constitute a failed season. The player the Bulls select at seven will be a key rotation player and a major part of the Bulls moving forward. More importantly, they have begun to build a culture, and will now be ready to add a new key piece when the time comes.
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Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune