In what was to be a transitional season, the Bulls will still have our attention.
By Steven Johnson
Are you ready Bulls fans? No, not for the championship parade we hope for every following June. No; not for the hotly anticipated Eastern Conference Finals battle royal with LeBron James. No; not for the return of Derrick Rose to 2010-11 MVP form (more on that later).
Bulls’ fans, what you should be ready for is the first step of a process that not even John Paxson, Gar Forman or Fred Hoiberg are sure of. It is the process of one of Forman’s favourite buzz words: “retooling.” Yes, “retooling.” Translation: a championship is not a realistic option, but we’re going to do whatever it takes to stay relevant. Forman has acknowledged that the organization did not want to go through a full rebuild. Bulls’ fans are not used to rebuilding. Ever since the asinine attempt at a rebuild by Jerry Krause during the post-Michael Jordan dynasty era, Bulls fans and the city of Chicago have been fortunate enough to not see a repeat of such a phase.
The last rebuilding phase the Bulls underwent saw household names such as Corey Benjamin, Trenton Hassell, Dalibor Bagaric, Khalid El-Amin, Lonny Baxter and of course, our current Head Coach donning Bulls uniforms. It was a painful period for fans where 15+ win seasons were the norm and the timing woeful (for example, winning 30 games during the 2002-03 season and hurting positioning for a loaded Draft class). Note: keep the statement in the parenthesis in mind while you are taking the time to read this piece.
Enter former NBA Champion & Chicago Bull: John Paxson. Named Vice President of Basketball Relations after Krause resigned, Paxson led the “Baby Bulls” movement, drafting and developing young talent such as Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Chris Duhon. The young core helped catapult the Bulls to the playoffs for the first time since Jordan’s final shot as a Chicago Bull, which to date, won the franchise’s last championship. The youthful nucleus were fun to watch and gave hope to Bulls fans for the future, as well as making Paxson look strong in the front office.
Adding to the Bulls’ young core proved difficult, however. Numerous times, Bulls management had opportunities to put the team over the top by dealing for franchise-changing players. The recently retired Kobe Bryant was one such game changer. Bryant harboured a desire to play in Chicago when he was frustrated with the direction the Los Angeles Lakers were heading. The Lakers brass was steadfast on including Luol Deng as part of the deal, both Bulls management and Bryant himself nixed the deal, feeling the team would be too depleted to contend.
Another opportunity presented itself in trading for another NBA Champion, future Hall of Famer and local star: Kevin Garnett. Again, the Bulls were unable to orchestrate a deal. Instead, Bulls management opted to add another NBA Champion to the core: Ben Wallace. While successful in the short term (the Bulls went 49-33 during the 2006-07 season), they were never closer to winning a championship than they would have been if they added a player of Bryant or Garnett’s caliber. Then a defining moment came in the tenure of Paxson’s leadership when he drafted LaMarcus Aldridge and traded him for Tyrus Thomas. Hindsight is always 20/20 but the move still rubs Bulls fans the wrong way as Thomas didn’t turn out to be the player Paxson and the franchise envisioned, while Aldridge has gone on to be a perennial All-Star and top 20 player in the league.
During the 2007-08 season, the Bulls would play on to a 33-49 record: a complete reversal of last season’s record. As luck would have it, with a 1.7% chance at the number one overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, the Bulls won the first pick. With that, they selected hometown star Derrick Rose. Rose, a high school Phenom at Simeon and fresh off of leading Memphis to a NCAA Championship game berth, brought optimism and renewed interest to the franchise. Rose was the hometown hero and the new hope for the Bulls elusive seventh championship. His progression was encouraging. He won Rookie of the Year, earned his first All-Star berth in his second season and in the crowning moment for himself and Bulls fans, won the Most Valuable Player award while leading the Bulls to a league best 62 victories and an Eastern Conference Finals berth during the 2010-11 season.
The following season, Rose played through nagging injuries in a lockout-shortened campaign. While the Bulls were once again the number one seed going into the playoffs, a franchise-changing moment occurred in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs vs the 76ers. Rose tore his ACL on a non-contact play and the Bulls championship hopes for the next two seasons were erased. The championship window was slammed shut as quickly as it was opened. As the Bulls treaded water over the next two seasons, Rose began to be viewed as more of a hometown villain rather than a hometown hero. His apparent refusal to play in games while cleared by doctors, comments made by the star point guard as well as the breakout performances of Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler caused a large segment of the fan base to turn on the former MVP.
In addition to the frustrating Rose saga, management and Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s uneasy relationship were being made more public. The friction between the coach and front office was an uneasy site for fans and media alike and served as a dark cloud hovering over a Bulls team in the best position to reach the NBA Finals since Rose’s injury. In the 2014-15 season, a semi-healthy Rose & Noah, along with a rejuvenated Pau Gasol and a most improved Jimmy Butler, led the Bulls to a 50-win season and the third seed in the East. The Bulls were once again matched with LeBron James, albeit with a legitimate chance to dethrone the King as Kevin Love was out for the playoffs, J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games and star point guard Kyrie Irving playing on virtually one leg.
After Derrick Rose’s final historic moment as a Chicago Bull: a game-winning 3-pointer to give the Bulls a 2-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Cavaliers won three straight games to eliminate the Bulls 4-2. Just like that, a championship window was closed as fast as it was opened. After the season, Thibodeau was fired and Bulls management brought in Hoiberg. The identity was changed. No longer was this a gritty, defense-first style team who made sure you got it 100 percent every night on both ends. This was a team who preached rest for players, more effectiveness on the offensive end as well as playing with a faster pace.
The problem was, Bulls management brought back the Thibodeau-style team which did not fit in properly with Hoiberg’s vision. Internal friction divided a locker room which had been the strongest in the NBA for many seasons. A “whose team is it?” concept caused uneasiness, and throughout it all, the Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, completing the fall from grace.
A new era is upon us, Bulls fans. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are both Knicks. Tom Thibodeau is working on bringing the Minnesota Timberwolves, to the top of the Western Conference. Jimmy Butler is thrust into the role of THE team leader and strengthening his relationship with his head coach. Another College player of the year has been brought in, Denzel Valentine, joins Doug McDermott (2014) and Bobby Portis (SEC Player of the Year, 2015). And oh yes… the Bulls signed Rajon Rondo to replace Derrick Rose in order to get more “younger and athletic.”
Just when you thought the Bulls were not only going into a rebuilding phase with a questionable signing in the form of Rondo… the management had one more move they felt they needed to make. In the wake of trading one former hometown hero, another Chicago product will take Derrick Rose’s place at the United Center this season. The Chicago Bulls were once again the talk of the NBA and around the world when the greatest player in Miami Heat history decided it was time to come home. Dwyane Wade, who was reportedly close to signing with the Bulls in 2010 but went on to win two more championships in Miami, agreed to join the Bulls for two years and $47.5 million dollars. The move sent shockwaves throughout the league. The “Heat Lifer” decided it was time to return home to live out his dream of being a Bull.
Wade, one of the most popular and accomplished players in the NBA, does not fit Forman’s off-season vision of getting more “younger and athletic.” At 34 years of age, his best basketball is thought to be behind him. While the move has got fans talking, there is a split between those who are receptive and those who are critical of the move. Wade’s impact has definitely been felt around the city of Chicago. After news broke that he committed to the Bulls, I observed a ton of people, whether it was in downtown Chicago or working out at the local gym, wearing their Bulls gear proudly. In a town where the Bears reign supreme and the Blackhawks and Cubs are enjoying amazing runs, it was a welcome sight to see the city excited about their basketball team once again. When fans watch Dwyane Wade play, they think of the term “box office.”
Truth be told, that is what the Bulls front office is thinking too. Let’s be honest. Dwyane Wade sells tickets. Dwyane Wade is still one of the most popular and elite players in the NBA. You will, as a fan, pay your hard-earned money to watch him play basketball. Bulls’ management knows it. The buzz around the city caused by Wade coming home shows it. Does the signing help the Bulls back into the playoffs? Most likely, yes. Does it get the Bulls closer to a championship? No, at least not right now, which is another reason why Wade was brought in.
Wade receives a lot of credit for being the one to orchestrate the ‘Big 3’ era in Miami that produced two NBA Championships and four straight NBA Finals appearances. If it were not for Wade playing recruiter and repeatedly sacrificing personal achievements and revenue, LeBron James would not have taken his talents to South Beach. Wade fits the role of recruiter well and the Bulls know that. In today’s NBA, recruiting is almost a necessity in order to make your franchise appear more attractive to free agents. Players want to go to teams to play with the teammates they want to play with (and their buddies they ride banana boats with on holiday). Having Wade in the fold, believe it or not, helps that. Looking at it from that perspective, it is a win-win situation for the Bulls and Wade.
Wade, who felt underappreciated by the Heat organization, is now coming home to Chicago where he feels wanted and is being compensated fairly. The Bulls, who have been long considered the red-headed stepchild when it comes to potential free agent destinations, have a golden opportunity to improve their public relations by showing that they took care of a star like Wade, hence the reason he decided to play, and hopefully, end his career with them.
Welcome home @DwyaneWade pic.twitter.com/pHSppl5Tnu
— Bulls On Parade (@ChiBullsLife) July 12, 2016
Players around the league talk and they for sure kept an eye on how the situation went down between Wade and the Heat. If all goes well, Wade has a good season, the Bulls overachieve, and ‘Hoiball’ is a success, Chicago should make for a more attractive destination for the big players in free agency next off-season… with Dwyane Wade alongside fellow All-Star Jimmy Butler, serving in the recruitment roles.
Just as easily as it could all go well, it can be a disaster waiting to happen. With all the talk about Coach Hoiberg’s “pace and space” system, it is not ideal when your three best players are poor outside shooters at best. Arguably, the Bulls projected starting lineup is arguably the worst shooting lineup in the NBA. It will be on Hoiberg to make the pieces work and show his growth at the position. It will also be on the “Alphas” as Rondo called them, to sacrifice for and trust one another to make this season a success.
With all that being said, that is why the Bulls are must-see TV this season. Just like any of your favorite shows right now, you want to tune in to see what happens next. Will Wade, who is coming off another All-Star season where he showed flashes of still being “Flash” (pun intended), take the Bulls to the next level? Will Rondo, who led the league in assists last season, buy in to what Hoiberg is selling? Will Butler, who wanted to be the face of the franchise, also buy in and try to make it work with his two new teammates? Again, Must. See. Television.
Yes Bulls fans, Gar Forman was serious when he said the Bulls would be “retooling.” Retooling comes in the form of multiple NBA Championships, All-Star appearances, all-NBA and all-NBA defensive teams… albeit years later. However, we are going to tune in this season to find out what happens next… and just how far or not this wild, surprising ride can go. So I pose the question again: Are you ready, Bulls fans?
Steven Johnson is a production assistant/field producer for CSN Chicago and the latest contributor to join Bulls on Parade. You can follow him on twitter @SteveJohnson_12