I come not to praise the Chicago Bulls, but to bury them.
Some context: I have been a Chicago Bulls fan for as long as I’ve been an NBA fan, starting right around the time Michael Jordan came into the NBA. This was not a coincidence. I endured some endearingly bad teams (Granville Waiters! Dave Corzine!) and some transcendent Jordan performances as they grew into championship contenders. I watched them batter themselves against the thuggish Detroit Pistons until they finally, gloriously broke through. I saw Michael Jordan retire—twice—and survived the Tim Floyd era. I watched them trade Elton Brand for a draft pick they turned into high-school kid, watched Jason Williams end his career in a motorcycle crash, slowly (or maybe not so slowly) understood that the trade of LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas was an unmitigated disaster. I celebrated the arrival of Derrick Rose, hometown savior, and winced as he endured injury after injury. The growth of Joakim Noah, the explosive impact of Taj Gibson, the emergence of Jimmy Butler, the miraculous arrival of Pau Gasol, Tom Thibodeau’s rough bark—all of these were wonderful things. Only...now what?
Thibodeau’s departure, as it turns out, was the beginning of the end. Front office duo Gar Forman and John Paxson brought in their man, Fred Hoiberg, who was supposed to revitalize the offense—instead the offense has stagnated (19th in points, 24th in offensive rating) and the defense has slipped badly (they’re giving up 103.1 points per game, up 3.3 from last year). At 36-35 they’re a game and a half out of a playoff spot, but should be even worse off—they’re one of only two over-.500 teams with negative point differentials. They just lost a home-and-home to the Knicks—a “trash team” in the words of Gibson—results which should have set off all kinds of sirens and alarms in Bulls HQ. But did they?
The Bulls are something of an anomaly in the NBA, a spendthrift big-market team with an intensely loyal fanbase who has needed their stars to consistently overachieve to maintain the illusion of being a contender. This has come at enormous cost, starting with Rose’s torn ACL in the first game of the 2012 Playoffs. Nearly everyone played hurt, nearly everyone got injured. Noah played through foot and shoulder issues until he couldn’t, Luol Deng, traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for basically nothing in 2014, played huge minutes almost every game and nearly ruined his career. Now, Jimmy Butler seems to be following that same dangerous path. It was thought that Thibodeau’s intense, defense-first system was the problem. He’s gone now. That’s not it.
It’s difficult to pinpoint one problem, although the two-headed front office monster of GarPax is as good a place to start as any. Their solution to any problem seems to be “bring back Kirk Hinrich,” and it appears they hired their medical staff from a diploma mill in the Bahamas. Injuries are part of the game, yes, but the Bulls’s injury problems have transcended mere chance. Meanwhile, owner Jerry Reinsdorf seems content to lavish much of his attention (and money) on his beloved White Sox. Maybe six Bulls titles were enough for him, maybe he implicitly trusts the people he hired to run the basketball operation.
The Bulls aren’t bad, although maybe they’d be better off if they were. At least then they’d have more immediate incentive to improve. Right now they just seem to be treading water, waiting for, well, something. Derrick Rose, who dunked in a game for the first time LAST WEEK pretty much is who he is at this point. Pau Gasol isn’t getting any younger (although the Bulls apparently want to re-sign him for some reason), and Butler, the type of two-way star every team covets, is in danger of being used up just like Deng was. And for what? It’s been 18 years since Jordan’s departure, and they’ve been to the Conference Finals exactly once, in Rose’s MVP 2011 season. Even that was five years ago.
The Bulls aren’t bad, although maybe they’d be better off if they were. At least then they’d have more immediate incentive to improve.
Let us make this perfectly clear: The Bulls’s championship window, if ever existed at all, is closed. Re-signing Gasol, who turns 36 in July, would be pure madness. Gasol could still contribute to a championship contender, but the Bulls are not that, and won’t be next year either. Noah, who’s out for the remainder of the season following shoulder surgery, shouldn’t be retained either. He’s done a lot for the city of Chicago with his Noah’s Arc Foundation and #RockYourDrop, he’s a fan favorite, but at 31 his best days are behind him. Plus, his unorthodox style is a tough fit in today’s NBA. See also: Varejao, Anderson.
Then there’s the matter of Rose, who will make $21.3 million next season in the final year of a five-year deal he signed in 2011. Expiring contracts are no longer the attractive chip they once were, especially with the salary cap expected to rise, and Rose’s skillset—he’s a 30 percent shooter from three who attempts fewer than three a game—is less valuable than ever when paired with his diminished athleticism. Given his Chicago upbringing, it seems likely the Bulls will try and retain him at a salary more commensurate with his current game, one that hasn’t seen him make All-NBA since 2011 or an All-Star game since 2012.
I, as a lifelong Bulls fan, have an alternate proposal: BURN IT ALL DOWN.
All of it. There’s a danger of missing the playoffs this year? GREAT. Get a lottery pick, even if that means only the tiniest chance of lucking into Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. Hope Sacramento somehow falls out of the top 10 so you get their pick too. Fire everyone who can be fired, from GarPax to Hoiberg to the hapless team doctors. Trade Rose—or waive and stretch him if you must—let Gasol and Noah walk, shop Mike Dunleavy and Taj Gibson, both on reasonably inexpensive deals. Start over with the young guys—Bobby Portis and Doug McDermott and maybe Nikola Mirotic, although if the right offer came along, he could go too. Send Tony Snell to a farm upstate.
Which brings us to Jimmy Butler. As noted, he’s probably THE most coveted type of player these days, a two-way wing who’s just 26 years old and seems primed for an All-Star level career, signed to a five-year, $89 million deal right when the cap is set to increase. Trading him would be supremely difficult to sell to the Bulls fanbase. It’s perhaps worth remembering that Michael Jordan turned 26 during the 1989-90 season—and won his first title the next year. That said, the ‘15-16 Bulls are nowhere near the ‘89-90 squad (who took the reigning champion Pistons the full seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals) and Jimmy Butler, good as he is, isn’t Michael Jordan. Blow up the whole thing, start from scratch, and, dare I say, #TrustTheProcess
And this is where I start to pull myself back from the brink, just a little bit. Assuming a team isn’t willing to give what’s necessary to get Butler—say, a young All-Star level talent and an unprotected first rounder—go ahead and build around him and Portis. Pursue guys like Al Horford and Kent Bazemore in free agency, add another lottery pick or two. Bring in a new GM and allow them to hire a coach suited to today’s NBA, whether it be Luke Walton or another blossom from the ever-blooming Popovich tree. Start over, start fresh.
And this time, for the first time in a long while, do it right.