How did we get here? Dysfunctional and rudderless. A storied franchise that just a handful of years ago had the most promising future in the NBA. The Bulls rostered a league-topping defense, the youngest MVP in history and most exciting player in the league, plus. A future that could conceivably arrive at two peaks over the next decade. One that was just starting, and another when these young talents were grizzled veterans. A team that could have grown together and been the next Bulls dynasty. So, how did we get here?
The story that led to this moment in Bulls’ history is a long and complex one. Those twists and turns over the last decade have been well documented. From the lost years, to the Baby Bulls, to the rise of Rose. If you are a Bulls fan, you already have this story etched in your mind. While that story might differ from person to person, the path is roughly the same. The problem Bulls nation seems to have right now is figuring out who is the true villain of this story. And we all know that every good story needs a villain.
Rose’s career altering injuries forcing him to miss two consecutive seasons and three playoffs runs make him the easiest scapeGOAT for the Bulls. Only needing to villainize the almighty basketball gods allows everyone, including Rose, to escape free of blame, especially the front office. Rose led his team to 62 wins and an Easter Conference Final in his third year in the league, wins the MVP, and proceeds to do it all over again the next year when he tears his ACL in the first game of the playoffs after a 23 point, nine rebound, nine assist game against Philly.
This was obviously the first domino in how we got here, but that’s hardly the entire story. Since then, Rose has worked hard to recover from two injuries that would likely end the career of any lesser player but has suffered continuing injuries even through today. Even though he is getting his step back, it is safe to say we will never see prime Rose again, and the NBA is worse off for that.
Rose, on the other hand, is not. Due to the Rose Rule, Derrick has been getting paid major dollars while rehabbing. He has also been slow to push himself to full throttle and is no longer the best player on the team. He has made bizarre, completely out of context statements that seem to question where his priorities lie. Is he trying to win a championship, or is he trying to get paid? Is this the media piling on out-of-context quotes from a guy who was never the most gregarious guy? Can you even blame an NBA player for trying to get paid? All this has turned a significant part of the fanbase and perhaps the locker room against him.
Defensive genius. Heralded as one of the best free agent signings in Bulls history. The guy who was going to push us over the edge and heal our eyes from the burn Vinny Del Negro left there. And he did. 255-139 in his first five seasons, two of those seasons played without an MVP-level talent. Over and over it is said that one of the hardest things to do is to go from good to great. From making the playoffs, to contending for a title, and that is exactly what Thibs did to the Bulls. By forming a defensive juggernaut.
But at what price? Thib’s hard-nosed style of “win every game at all cost” brought the Bulls to a championship contender level, but there is evidence that it might have shorted that contention window and the long-term productivity of the players. For every 40+ minute game Deng played, (71 under Thibs to be exact including two 50+ games), every late position the starters ran in a meaningless game, every mile that Rose and Butler put on, it meant less energy for playoffs, less time to heal, and greater potential for a severe injury.
The Bulls led the league in defensive efficiency two out of the five years under Thibs, and never dropped out of the top 10. His offense, on the other hand, was never something to write home about. Middle of the pack at best, Thib’s offense became predictable and stagnate during the playoffs. Granted three of those playoffs were without their point guard and best player. Still, defense wins championships, or at least it used to.
The league adjusted to the Thibs factor. The rest of the league started designing their defenses around the Thibs philosophy. That dominate Bulls defense became just one of many defenses that creative offenses started to work towards breaking. Ball movement and passing led by the Spurs and now the Warriors force perfection out of that type of defensive scheme and exploit inefficient rosters. Thibs was no longer an outlier in the NBA. The league caught up while he was waiting to get his star back. By then, he had lost his window and lost the locker room.
Thibs made the Bulls a contender, something that few teams can ever say they were in a given decade, let alone over only half of one. Windows are short. Was it Thibs fault that he lost his MVP for three of those playoff runs as a contender? How did he lose the locker room? Was he just too stubborn to adapt to the science and schemes of the new NBA?
The masterminds behind the design of those contending teams, and the chess masters of the Bulls organization, Gar Forman and John Paxson hit on their draft picks and signed puzzle-piece free agents to complement the Bulls’ starters. Rose number one was a bit of no-brainer, but Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler are great finds. Tony Snell and Jeff Teague’s little brother whose name I choose to not look up weren’t so great. Niko and Portis could be something special. Overall a pretty solid to good track record.
Gar/Pax just hasn’t been able to land that one big free agent, though. Boozer being the major signing during the Thibodeau era. A lot of people want to pile on Boozer’s horrible defense in a squad that was literally built around defense, but won many games for the Bulls over those first two years of his contract. Everyone remembers his horrible last year, terrible haircut, screaming that you could hear from the rafters at the United Center, and this. But that 19 points and 10.6 rebounds over his first two years were sorely needed on a team lacking an offensive punch, especially in the paint.
Gar/Pax are supposed to make these types of decisions for the organization, but then it seemed that they wanted more say in the day-to-day versus leading the direction of the team. They thought they knew the best way to bring Rose back. They wanted to limit his minutes, dictate his playing time; essentially coach. When Thibs pushed back, they realized they couldn’t control him. And when Gar/Pax can’t control someone, it’s time to go. Right Vinny?
So, they decided to force Thibs out, but how when the players and the fans love him? Well, maybe they could tell core players to tune Thibs out. Let’s try firing Thib’s top assistant Ron Adams for no apparent reason. Luckily he found a nice job in the Bay area. Perhaps looking for a new coach before they fire the old one. Why not use the press people that they own due to the fact that they control their access to the team to write stories favoring their viewpoint, shaping the narrative. Frank Underwood would be a nice replacement for these guys. Maybe waiting to fire him until all the other coaching jobs are taken. How about writing this?
Well, Gar/Pax were up to their old tricks this year. After Butler public criticized Hoiberg’s coaching style, all of a sudden all these articles about how Butler is forcing his leadership upon the team, that he has been hanging out in LA too much, and other nonsense started coming out. I’m sure that couldn’t be good for team chemistry, especially a team that didn’t have much of that the previous season.
Controlling the team is Gar/Pax’s job. The best organizations have leaders, not micro-managers. That said, they put the bench mob together. They drafted well. They created an environment for this team to contend. But did they also tear the environment to pieces? Do they deserve another chance to rebuild? Are they looking at the long-term? Planning to have another window after the unstoppable Warriors are taken down a peg? Are the playing chess or checkers?
Seriously, what does Kirk Hinrich have on the Bulls front office that forces them to keep signing him? I would not be surprised to see him back as a Bull one more time.
Butler’s bet on himself and semi-unpredictable leap has been huge for the Bulls (even though you could see progress in preseason and maybe if the front office was listening to the coach at the time we would have signed him at 4 years, $48 mil). Butler has catapulted himself to All-star, max-player level and became the best player on the Bulls while Rose was coming back from injury.
But the role-player turned superstar was hoping to become a leader, while the team already had an emotional leader in Noah and an alpha-dog leader in Rose. Rose has never thought of himself as not the best player on the court (up until the injury) in his entire life. And most of the time he has been right. Now Jimmy is the alpha-dog talent on the team. Both need the ball in their hand to be productive, and the offense has yet to adapt to their games when playing together.
Reports are now coming out that show the sudden rise of Jimmy Butler has created a split between the old guard and the new. Noah/Rose no longer the dominate players they once were, though not far removed either, have not wanted to relinquish control of the team to the new kid.
Straight out of the college game into the pros, Hoiberg had the full trust and confidence from the front office to change the style of play in Chicago. And that style change… for the first games of the preseason. Hoiberg never went full after his offensive scheme because the team didn’t take to it. He even threw in some old Thib’s plays to keep them comfortable. But hey, that’s just a good adjustment, right? Well, he couldn’t figure out the rotation for most of, if not all of the season. But hey, we have a weird roster and injuries to deal with. Well his coaching, in-bounds plays, crunch time decisions never really improved. But hey, it’s his first year and that NBA leap his hard. Well, he never really controlled the locker room. You expect him to control that locker room? With only one year with the Bulls, Hoiberg is almost a victim of circumstance, but he certainly didn’t make the circumstances better.
How do you explain this type of press conference if you didn’t have an owner who wanted to make the playoffs? Or at least wanted the revenue that comes from making the playoffs. When your team is considered contenders during the preseason and you end up in the lottery, there is no reason you should be happy. But how did you not see this coming? You can also say that the Bulls organization isn't stupidly throwing around on 8-year deals for Gilbert Arenas or paying Enes Kanter $16 million a year. Savvy? Cheap? Or both?
Either way, Reinsdorf runs the Bulls old-school style. He isn’t trying to Mark Cuban, Silicon Valley, or Russian Mafia his way to a championship. But making small moves in today’s NBA might not cut it. What direction are we moving in? Why does it seem like it is every direction and no direction at the same time? Do we hear about the investment in advance metrics or personnel the Bulls are making? We see Gar/Pax pulling strings instead of leading, yet they still have their jobs? Honestly, we aren’t hearing or seeing much of anything. Does this Hall-of-Famer deserves the benefit of the doubt, and will once again lead us to another dynasty
Well, not so much MJ himself, but the spectre of his greatness. When you were a city that couldn’t lose, that had the best basketball player the world has ever seen. Who witnessed the greatest team of all time (yes, better than the 15-16 Warriors), night in and night out. That type of city demands perfection. Unlike teams new to the contending circle, when you spend a decade basking in greatest, everything else just a little duller.
So, when the savior of the city, home-grown Derrick Rose goes from youngest MVP ever to chronically injured, we look for someone to blame. It has to be bad coaching or the controlling front office. Maybe it’s the new guys, maybe it’s the old guys. We didn’t sign the right people, run the right system, hire the right people.
Or maybe by not accepting anything but the best in this sports city, we need something to be unsatisfied about. Contending once for a championship is not only difficult but rare. To have multiple years of contention is something few teams can say. To have consecutive years of the best record and a coach that changed the game is something only a handful of franchises can say. To have an MVP on your team just once let alone twice in 13 years is just sport’s magic. But sometimes the sports gods unleash the perfect storm that comes through to ruin everything.
How did we get here? We got here together.