Chicago Bulls management may not be able to spearhead a rebuild
I struggled for a while with a way to open this article that didn’t involve a curse-laced tirade towards the two men perhaps most responsible for my pain and suffering over the past five-ish years. Finally, I decided on a fun fact: the longest-tenured Chicago Bull is three-year forward and current free agent Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic has seen postseason action, he’s seen DNP-CDs, and like every other player on this roster, his future is in flux as the Bulls enter their second full rebuild since the Jordan era.
This time, however, it feels different. The draft-day trade that sent All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler to Minnesota and former mentor Tom Thibodeau gave Chicago fans no illusions about the next few years. They will be full of draft picks and low win totals, as the team tries to find their home run player. However, the haul itself was lacking, and it highlights the longstanding inability of Bulls management to properly conduct a rebuild.
Evaluating the Return for Butler:
Headlining the trade was two-time Dunk Contest Champion and one-time ACL-tearing guy Zach LaVine. The high flying 2-guard scored admirably in Minnesota, but did little else — 3 assists to 1.8 turnovers, less than a steal a game, 3.4 rebounds — worth noting. While even a healthy LaVine is a questionable lead piece in a Butler trade, the fact that the explosive guard is coming off an ACL tear injects increased uncertainty into his future. Chicago fans are perhaps warier than most about knee injuries in young, explosive guards. Every tumble or awkward landing LaVine suffers will be accompanied by the gasps and bated breath of Bulls fans.
Even worse than this is that LaVine’s time in Chicago may be short-lived. The front office is notoriously cheap, and with his restricted free agency looming on the horizon, there’ll be a hefty sum of money thrown at a guy who’s played one season in a Bulls jersey. LaVine is a terrifically gifted scorer from nearly every part of the floor, and being the primary option on a zero-star team will give him the opportunity to stamp some impressively inflated stats onto his résumé. Given the FO’s track record of going to lengths to avoid paying free agents large sums — trading Rose and Gibson, allowing Rondo to walk, forcing Butler to accept a below-market deal after a stellar 2014-15 — it seems unlikely they bring back LaVine on a healthy deal.
I expect one of two things. Either another team ponies up for the UCLA product after he plays terrific basketball in the United Center, or he doesn’t play very well and Bulls management locks him up for 5/95. While it may seem a pessimistic outlook, the track record of management has been anything but confidence-inspiring.
Of course, Chicago didn’t just receive LaVine. In addition, they got Kris Dunn, who the team nearly traded up for in last year’s draft. Dunn had an extremely disappointing rookie season and was then still acquired by the Bulls. He was supposed to be one of the most NBA-ready prospects in the 2016 draft: a defensive point guard with excellent athletic potential that led a middling Providence team to the NCAA tournament. Instead, he was a mess, demonstrating a remarkable lack of feel for anything offense-inclined. He couldn’t pass, shoot, or participate without tripping over his own two feet, leading to an abysmal –1.2 Offensive Win Shares. It was visually better on defense, and Dunn’s defensive skill (1.3 Defensive Win Shares) was just barely enough to raise his Win Shares to a positive number (0.1).
The offense is still more worrisome than the defense is reassuring, though. Dunn posted nauseatingly-low efficiency numbers during his rookie season, with regular splits of 37.7 FG%, 28.8 3P%, and 61.0 FT%. Those numbers boil down to (wow, I actually gulped after reading this) an Effective FG% of 41.1% — that is not a typo folks. I understand that not everyone is stats-inclined, so putting that number in context, Dunn is shooting about 10% lower than what you could consider “acceptable” eFG% numbers.
He stinks. My blood pressure is skyrocketing just thinking about it. There was hope that Dunn could turn it around, but Summer League reports aren’t promising; Dunn was worse than miserable in his sole Vegas (11 points on 25% shooting, three assists) appearance. As with any rookie, there’s the hope of marked improvement in following years, but Dunn is no spring chicken. He’s 23 already, making him older than Giannis Antetokounmpo and only two days younger than Joel Embiid. Especially compared to those two, Dunn is nowhere near as NBA-ready. Any improvements need to happen quickly; Dunn has about five-to-seven years before the athleticism that he leans on so heavily starts to leave him.
I’d be remiss to run through this trade without talking about the 7th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, Lauri Markkanen, who the Bulls selected when they swapped (because of course, they couldn’t keep their own pick) picks with the Wolves. Markkanen was an exceptional shooter in college, and while that’s certainly a valuable skill in a 7-footer, he lacks any real star potential. He’s not physically gifted, nor does he excel at creating for himself off the dribble. Instead, Markkanen relies on someone else (Kobi Simmons or Allonzo Trier in college) to draw the play for him.
The Finn did some things right in Summer League — namely shooting and rebounding — but his wild inconsistency hurt the team on more than one occasion. Going 0–10 from three-point range in one game is never a great sign for a player whose main talent is supposedly long-range shooting. Of course, there is some optimism for Lauri’s future, which stems primarily from his play with Finland’s national team. Markkanen has been far and away the team’s top scoring option, which is, at the very least, encouraging for his offense against grown men. Still, Markkanen struggled somewhat in Eurocup play prior to the return of Finland’s Petteri Koponen, who set up Markkanen for a lot of his success in later matches. It’s hard to say if Dunn or Jerian Grant will have the necessary chops to generate the same open looks.
Markkanen certainly has time to develop, but early showings have not been exactly jaw-dropping. This was the Bulls’ first chance to pursue a franchise player during this rebuild (I need to forget that Dennis Smith was still available), and the selection of a one-dimensional player like Markkanen with such glaring weaknesses does not bode well for the future.
Chicago’s Track Record in the Draft
Of course, if the Bulls are rebuilding, they’ll need to start nailing the draft, which is typically the only real way for a team to regain its status as a contender. While it’s tempting to label the Bulls front office as a solid drafting group, a closer look reveals that’s hardly the case. We can go on all day about how the team of the early 2010s was almost entirely homegrown, but how much of that can really be accredited to Chicago’s scouts? Rose, the MVP and driving force behind Chicago’s explosive success, fell into the Bulls’ laps in 2008, and he was almost guaranteed to go first no matter who held the pick. They couldn’t miss on that.
Thanks to the New York Knicks giving away their 1st round picks for Eddy Curry, the Bulls were in a position to also acquire Joakim Noah in 2007. The key players for the 2-time NCAA Champion Florida Gators all declared for the draft that year, and both Al Horford and Corey Brewer were selected ahead of Noah. While the concerns about Noah’s limited offensive game were — and continue to be — valid, his vaunted defense at Florida translated well to the NBA. Picking 9th in so shallow a draft, it again would be hard to miss on Noah, whose name was plastered across ESPN and the like from collegiate success.
The two best picks that can really be attributed to Bulls management are those of Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, both of which were late-round picks whose success is nearly entirely a product of world-class work ethic and blue-collar grit. Who did the Bulls miss on, then? Let’s look at all those first-round picks the organization struck out on:
2009: James Johnson — This is almost more Thibs’ fault than GarPax. Johnson has proven himself to be a wonderful player when used properly, and he hadn’t been until Miami. Taken before Gibson in the same draft, Johnson failed to reach Gibson’s contribution level for half a decade.
2012: Marquis Teague — Boy oh boy, did they ever miss on this one. Teague is still a running joke among Chicago fans, who blame GarPax for ignoring Thibs’ pleas to draft Draymond Green.
2013: Tony Snell — Hoiberg gave Snell so many chances to be great and he waited until being traded to step up. Disappointing. Bucks Snell is very valuable, but don’t be confused; he was horrid in Chicago.
2014: Doug McDermott — Doug himself wasn’t a disappointing pick, but the price Chicago paid (16th and 19th picks of the 2014 draft, 2015 2nd rounder) was too high, especially considering what the Nuggets acquired (Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, and Sir’Dominic Pointer, respectively) with those picks.
2015: Bobby Portis — It’s possibly too soon to give up on Portis, who played some of his best basketball against the Boston Celtics in the 2017 playoffs. However, he lacks any real defensive ability, and his inconsistent offense is not covered by his motor.
2016: Denzel Valentine — Deemed a day-one NBA-ready player by scouts, Valentine had an abysmal rookie season and didn’t show much improvement in this year’s Summer League. While concerns about Valentine as a defender were apparent from the outset, his shooting and passing inefficiencies were debilitating.
I’ll give credit where credit is due; the Bulls have drafted above average in the second round, which is confusing to me, but not quite upsetting. Omer Asik, Paul Zipser, Chris Duhon, and Aaron Gray are/were all contributors at some point. While it’s encouraging to see a team excel at finding cheap gems, it also compounds the frustration from the Bulls selling this year’s 2nd-rounder to Golden State for a $3.5 million consolation, which likely goes to cover the salary of some White Sox rookie. It hurts more because they acquired Jordan Bell with that pick, who nearly dropped a 5×5 in Summer League and looks to be as skilled as — and potentially more useful than — the aforementioned Markkanen.
Operating in Free Agency
The Bulls’ moves in free agency have steadily worsened in recent years too. While Chicago has generally been a homegrown team, free agency is a necessary part of retaining or obtaining relevancy. With that in mind, the biggest names to sign with Chicago have been Carlos “AND-1!” Boozer, an ancient Pau Gasol, and the equally ancient Indiana-Jones-and-the-Waders-of-the-Lost-Ark-edition Dwyane Wade.
Each player commanded a huge chunk of salary at the cost of roster flexibility, and each had a questionable fit with the team dynamic. Boozer and Gasol struggled to a very noticeable degree at defense, and while Noah was spry enough to somewhat cover for Boozer, he lacked the mobility to help Pau on every single botched pick-and-roll. Wade, meanwhile, has been soaking up the sun while rumors fly that the young players on the team dislike him. If a future Hall of Famer isn’t having a positive veteran influence on a developing team, then what’s the point?
This raises more interesting points. Forman and Paxson don’t really seem to care about surrounding the team with positive veterans, so long as the veterans they keep have an impressive résumé. While Wade was kept around, Rondo was dumped following a season where he was frequently commended for his work with the rookies. Sure, Rondo had his fair share of chemistry issues, but it was with other veterans (like Mr. Wade) rather than with the future of the franchise.
Who else has the franchise shed with a good reputation? Taj Gibson (worked out and helped with the development of Bobby Portis and Cris Felicio) comes to mind, as does Luol Deng (instrumental to the rise of Jimmy Butler), who the Bulls strung through a botched surgery and then traded for a bag of Lima beans. If the Bulls plan to find themselves in the upper echelon of the lottery, then having players to coach their young stars through the NBA adjustment is hugely important.
There are some things that Chicago has done well. The addition of a G-League team has been hugely helpful, and, along with the Summer League, has been a source of undiscovered talent like Cristiano Felicio and new two-way signee Antonio Blakeney. The summer’s resigning of Felicio also reflects a positive move; while many NBA fans may stagger at the $32 million that the Bulls have committed to a backup center, Felicio’s tremendous growth over two years in limited minutes is the kind of potential that a rebuilding team can afford to invest in. Letting Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan walk in free agency was also necessary if Chicago wants to give young guards like Dunn and Grant (and yes, Cameron Payne) adequate chances to run the offense — not to mention that both of the former guards were unpromising garbage during most of their Bulls tenure.
For the most part, it does seem like the young players are jumping at the bit to fill the veterans’ void. Jerian Grant posted on Instagram that he’s hoping to make a run at the Most Improved Player award this year, and with no clear leader at point guard, his road there is wide open. Bobby Portis has been active on Snapchat, posting near-daily workout videos where he seems to be working on ball handling, a huge weakness for the Arkansas power forward. Payne has said he’s putting on weight, though strength is hardly his biggest weakness, while Felicio has continued to add to his skillset, and potentially could have a working three-point shot by the regular season.
While the players will do their best to win games, the onus falls squarely on the shoulders of two men for whom red and black is confined to ledgers instead of uniforms. It’s true that Chicago’s management has never actually been put in a position to fully rebuild, and that they could, in fact, pull off a series of dynasty-building moves that restore the Bulls to their 90s glory. Unfortunately, nothing they’ve done in the past suggests that will be the case.
Gar Forman and John Paxson have absorbed the concentrated ire of Finals-hungry Bulls fans for almost half a decade; now is their chance to affirm or refute the justification of that anger.