Stuck in a rut

The Chicago Bulls sit in one of the NBA’s most feared places; “Basketball Purgatory.”

The NBA is a weird sport in that we already know who is likely to make the NBA Finals, and know it now, even before a single team has played a regular season game. The Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers sit atop each conference and as a Bulls fan you ask yourself, where do I fit in?

The Bulls will finish in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, sporting a team that would have been great in 2010, but one that cannot even scratch the surface of NBA glory in 2016. They will have their moments, and have a playoff run that mirrors the Ben Gordon Bulls run in 2009 against the Celtics or the Nate Robinson Highlight Reel in 2013 against the Nets, but will inevitably end with an early exit, giving way to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers once again.

This early pessimism is not how anyone wants to start the season, but the way in which Gar Forman and John Paxson have structured this team leaves little hope, and an uncertain future. The team has names in Wade, Rondo, Lopez and Butler, but besides Butler, all they are, are names.

Wade’s Chicago ties will fill the seats, Rondo will be electric at times, and Butler will always be your primary scoring option. But what happens after this year?

In the last 4 years, the Bulls have finished 5th, 4th, 3rd, and 9th in the Eastern Conference; in other words, “basketball purgatory”. While last year was nothing short than an embarrassing season, the three previous playoff teams could not get over the hump, stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference. 

Because of these “bad” teams making the playoffs, the team has not been able to stockpile high draft picks and rebuild. They have continued to piece-meal the team together, and sell fans on the idea that Jimmy Butler and a supporting cast of Rondo, Lopez and of course Wade, will bring the team to the top. But everyone knows that is almost impossible to believe.

So the question becomes, are the Bulls committed to winning an NBA title? Or is the unsustainable piece-meal model, consistent revenue-generating approach acceptable to Bulls management, and therefore supposed to be acceptable to the fan base? The Bulls need to tear down and rebuild, but Bulls management would never cave to that reality. Instead, they have chosen to sell you on an aging roster, that again has the right names, but they don’t go hand and hand with the players they truly are.

In my eyes, the tear down would have begun by trading Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline or this past offseason. Butler has proven to be one of the biggest surprises (including being an All-Star) in the recent history of the Bulls drafts and because of that, he would have given you the most return as a trade piece.  By holding onto Butler, this team has not gotten any closer to competing for a title. While I am a fan of loyalty in sports in regards to players staying longer with the teams that drafted them, the Bulls have to be realistic and know that if and when they do become NBA contenders again, it will probably be after Butler has already moved on from Chicago. As long as he is there, they cannot move forward with both his large salary and his skill-set making the team just good enough to keep them out of the Top 10 in the draft. This team has to get younger and more athletic, which the front office has preached, yet they are now older and slower with the additions they made. Along with a departure of Butler, I am also still not sold yet on Doug McDermott nor Nikola Mirotic, and they too could have been prospect pieces sent away to stockpile draft picks, and take flyers on young developing players in return that could have been included in the deal.

I understand that unlike baseball and football, stockpiling draft picks is difficult in basketball. Just ask the 76ers. There are only two rounds to play with every year, and it is always a huge gamble. But as the Bulls front office, what do you have to lose? Use your biggest trade piece to build for a sustained successful future. The Bulls too often look at the current make-up of their team, when a well-organized organization would invest more into the future then a make-shift quick-fix solution for the now, with no guarantees.

The 1996 Spurs knew that an aging roster (and an injured David Robinson) would not allow them to be any better three years down the road, so what did they do? They tanked and drafted Tim Duncan and won the 1999 NBA Title and 4 more after that. The 1996 season (20-62) was the worst in its 50 year franchise history, but they have made the playoffs for the last 19 years ever since. So was that one awful season worth it? The Spurs and I would argue a resounding yes.

If the Bulls continue to follow their current model and don’t look at stories like the Spurs, they will have a very hard time scratching the surface to compete for a title in the near future. While the flashes may be there this year in a short playoff-run that management will enjoy due to ticket revenue, there is no development of young exciting players to make Bulls fans confident moving forward.

Rookie Denzel Valentine may turn out to be a nice compliment player, but with probable 5th place finishes this year and next, Rondo and Wade will be gone, and what do you have to show for it in 2018? It will be time again to sign another “Big Name” of yesteryear to sell tickets on a promise that only would have been valid 3 or 4 years ago when their new roster of Paul, Harden and Griffin is sold to the fan base.

The Bulls need a complete rebuild to sustain success moving forward but Bulls management seems too scared to do it in fear of losing money on ticket sales and fan interest for the current season.

Even if the rebuild takes a few years of last-place basketball to stockpile draft picks so be it. Staying in the middle of the pack will get this team no closer to competing for an NBA title.  More and more Bulls fans seem open to this idea. But, with a management team that tells its fans that 36-year old free agent-to-be Pau Gasol is part of the future of the team and will not be traded at the deadline, it leaves a lot to worry about in terms of the future of the franchise.

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