The Chicago Bulls are a basketball team that do not seem to have a clue what direction they want to go. Or if they do, it’s the complete opposite of what the rest of the NBA is doing...
When Gar Forman and John Paxson held their end-of-the-season press conference after the team’s final game of the season, they made it clear changes were coming. The Bulls were going to look different next season, which translated to either Jimmy Butler or Derrick Rose (or both) leaving the team in 2016. Clearly it was Rose that was traded, which was surprising, but not something Chicago fans didn’t see coming. However, with that trade the Bulls front office made it known to the public that the goal for the off-season was to get younger and more athletic. To find players that better fit head coach Fred Hoiberg’s pace and space offense. Along with getting younger, the Bulls were also priming themselves for a 2017 free agency run, which features names like Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook. And so far, they had successfully become younger, with ten of their players under the age of 26, while also securing $26 million in cap space (with that number expanding to upwards of $60 million the following year).
Almost two weeks later, the Bulls would sign Rajon Rondo to be their starting point guard.
Rondo, as confusing as a signing it was, could be justified. The team did not have a real candidate to start at point guard, it was only a two-year-$26 mil deal, and didn’t hurt the Bulls chances at signing a big-name free agent the following off-season. Rondo was also a player that had something to prove, which gave him an upside the Bulls desperately needed. Along with the tantalizing idea of Rondo reaching his full potential, he was in a backcourt featuring the NBA’s best cutting wing and a budding superstar in Jimmy Butler. Rondo, although not the shooter and defender that was thought needed to replace Derrick Rose, was a player who could facilitate and create for others, something the Bulls lacked last season. He is also a smart basketball player, which has gotten him into some trouble in the past, but makes him a great addition for young players like Jerian Grant or Denzel Valentine who are expected to be the future of this team.
But then, in another shocking free agency move by the Bulls front office, 34-year-old Dwyane Wade announced he intended to sign with Chicago.
At this point it is clear that the Bulls were quite literal when Gar/Pax announced “nothing was off the table” during their end of season press conference back in April. Signing Wade at this point of his career was a true head-scratching move, even with Wade coming off one of his more successful season in recent memory. The native Chicagoan makes for a great homecoming story, however, he does not fit the Bulls current roster. Wade is a terrible three-point shooter, shooting a career 28.4% from deep, as the aging shooting guard is essentially the complete opposite of the player the Bulls should’ve been targeting. He and Rondo are now easily the worst three-point shooting backcourt in basketball, with a combined three-point shooting percentage under 60%.
Contract-wise, the Bulls actually did ok when it comes to the market value of these two veterans, spending a combined $75.5 mil on their backcourt for the next two years. Compared to what other free agents attracted this off-season, that isn’t terrible. However, the Bulls did make it extremely difficult to sign any of the top free-agents in 2017, leaving themselves only about $845,000 to work with on the salary cap in 2016. That number should expand after this upcoming season, but only to somewhere around the $7.5 mil range, which will not be enough to even sniff at the likes of Griffin or Westbrook. Taj Gibson’s qualifying offer is roughly $13.5 mil, and it’s very unlikely the Bulls would offer that to him nor would Gibson accept that. So there could be about $20 mil to play with in 2017, but right now that remains to be seen.
As a Bulls fan and NBA fan, it is hard to see what exactly the Bulls front office is trying accomplish here. Especially since they seem to say they want to go one direction, become a younger squad that has more athleticism, but then sign players that completely contradict their entire off-season plan. It makes it hard for a fan base to put their faith and trust into a group that can’t seem to land on a concrete idea of which direction they want their team to go. However, I can somewhat see what the Bulls are trying to do.
By signing both Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade to play alongside Jimmy Butler, the front office has created a trio of proven players (and I use proven lightly here) that can all do certain things well. Rondo is one of the best passers in the league when playing at his best, Wade has developed a strong mid-range game and can still finish above-average around the rim, and while Butler’s game is still blooming, he is turning into the best two-way player the NBA has to offer right now. Combining those three players creates an offense that could potentially have more options than it did last year, and the image of these three running out in transition does get me excited. However, defense and shooting will continue to be a weakness for the Bulls in their backcourt, and with both Rondo and Wade on the wrong side of thirty, it’s safe to assume the veterans will continue to struggle.
Source: Bleacher Report
Now, as strange as all these signings may be, what if the Bulls are a better team in 2016? Let’s say this trio of Rondo, Wade, and Butler meshes alongside players like Lopez, Mirotic, McDermott, and Gibson, and the Bulls prove to be a top four team in the East. Does that not make them a more attractive team in free agency come 2017? What if the Bulls were to stick with the roster they had after the Derrick Rose trade, would that team be any more attractive moving forward? It’s clear Rondo and Wade do not make the Bulls much better than they were last season, but was this team going to be good in 2016 before Rondo and Wade? Probably not. However, they were not going to be terrible either, which in the current NBA is worse than actually being an awful basketball team. So, the Bulls decided that at least with Rondo and Wade, the team on paper, was more attractive. And even if the Bulls were just the last playoff seed in the East, their playoff team looks far more enticing with Rondo and Wade in the backcourt as opposed to Calderon or Grant with Butler. And if by some estranged miracle the Bulls do find the chemistry with this group that they lacked in last year’s roster, Hoiberg and Chicago look like a far more desirable place to play. But even if the Bulls are still a 42-40 team, Rondo and Wade are both free agency flops, and Butler doesn't ascend his game to the next level, are they any less attractive to Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook? Of course the salary cap will become an issue, but the Bulls can get creative and find some money, and will do so if a player like Blake Griffin decides Chicago is the place for him.
So far Rondo is starting to look the part of a player ready to be a true leader for a squad, and he is saying all the right things.
Whether that is actually how this season will play out remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, the Chicago Bulls will have an identity by this seasons end. Whether that is one of a team on the rise, primed for a big free agency class, or a team that is left in shambles, selling off what little assets it has left. It all rests on the shoulder of the Bulls’ new Band-Aid-Big-Three, and that is most worrisome part for Bulls fans.