Since 2011, when they rode Derrick Rose’s MVP season to the Conference Finals, the Chicago Bulls have fancied themselves as the greatest threat to LeBron James’ reign in the East.
With Tuesday’s announcement that All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler will be sidelined 3-4 weeks with a knee strain, and tenuous grasp on the Eastern Conference’s seventh playoff seed at 27-24, perhaps it’s time for Bulls front office to disillusion itself. Perhaps, this isn’t the year—or even team—to pursue an NBA championship.
Injuries, most notably, but not limited to, Derrick Rose, cost a quality young core the crucial development time needed to forge a championship identity.
Instead, the team scraped together some quality regular seasons on the strategic brilliance of Tom Thibodeau—a double-edged sword that was just as likely to grind its players as much as it did victories. But with the emergence of Butler, a veteran addition Pau Gasol, and duct tape, glimpses of what the Bulls might have been persisted.
A team that began the season with renewed vigor following the ouster of Thibodeau in favor of head coach Fred Holberg has dissolved into a sloppy mess, barely resembling what once was a formidable contender. It’s sad to think of an injury as the tipping point for an honest self evaluation of a team’s performance, but to this point, given the penchant of inactivity from the Bulls’ front office, maybe that’s what it takes.
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Hoiberg, an inexperienced, but highly respected college coach with NBA playing and front office experience, was supposed to bring about a focus on player health and development and an innovative offense. Instead, it’s become clearer how good a job Thibodeau did, getting the most out of a roster that is ill-fitting and lacking most of the requisite components of an NBA Champion.
Hoiberg was supposed to implement an offense predicated on spacing, ball movement, and pace while attempting to maintain the defensive tenets put forth by Thibodeau, but the transition has been a rocky one. Early on, veterans like Rose, Butler, and Gasol expressed frustration with the coach’s new offense, preferring the sets they were used to under Thibodeau. Hoiberg also made the controversial decision to bench veteran Joakim Noah in favor of Nikola Mirotic alongside Gasol, which ruffled some feathers and was a disaster. The team’s offensive efficiency has dropped from 11th in 2014-15 to 25th this season, and the many warts that still exist on the roster—including the lack of wing talent and mismatched post players—were accentuated.
Butler’s rise to superstardom has been the high point of an otherwise inconsistent first half of the Chicago Bulls season. Even when calling out his head coach in mid-December following a loss to the Knicks, Butler was able to back it up with three 40+ point performances, putting the team on his back in situations that called for it. But given their increasing dependency on him, the question wasn’t becoming whether or not Butler’s ascent would continue, but rather when the heavy burden he carried would finally rear its ugly head.
The Butler injury is just the latest in an avalanche of bad news to hit the team during the past month. From Noah’s season-ending shoulder injury and Rose’s inconsistency, to Mirotic’s regression and complications with an appendectomy, to Gasol’s defensive disinterest and the lack of development from wings Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, a team that once stood at 22-12 should take a hard look in the mirror and get the hint that there is no virtue in fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Butler’s minutes will be divvied up between E’Twaun Moore, Kirk Hinrich, and Tony Snell, with Doug McDermott seeing a corresponding uptick in minutes at small forward. None of these are enticing options and will not come close to replacing Butler’s production.
With only a game and a half separating the Bulls from the playoffs and the lottery, and a month without their best player, it’s time for the John Paxson and Gar Forman to reconsider their unofficial embargo on trade activity.
Now is the time to begin putting together a team that fits, not only in Hoiberg’s offense, but in modern NBA basketball. The change is not going to be immediate, but the reconstruction can begin by selling off assets that hold value for playoff contenders and focusing on this summer. Gasol should be the first out the door. Despite talk of the team possibly wanting to re-sign him after this season (as he has expressed he will decline his player option), Gasol would be an interesting piece for the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors, or even to spell his brother Marc in Memphis, after the latter Gasol was discovered to have a borken foot.
On a relatively inexpensive contract, but on the other side of 30, Taj Gibson holds no long term value for the Bulls, but could provide muscle for the Dallas Mavericks, Raptors, or Miami Heat. Now healthy ,35-year-old Mike Dunleavy is on a three-year contract, but at only $13.5 million total, which is diminished some with a rising cap.
An exorbitant return won’t come from dealing any of these pieces, but instead, the most gratifying thing to result from any dealing of Bulls veterans is the acknowledgement that this squad has run it’s course. The team doesn’t fit. It’s not going to win an NBA title as presently constructed this season or the next, and right now, it’s barely intact, physically or emotionally. Now is the time to take a long view and retool for next season. A team starting with Butler, Rose, and young pieces is a start. But until now, we have yet to see any indication that the Bulls front office sees it the same way.
Jimmy Butler is out for a month. The Chicago Bulls are likely done competing for this season. The building for 2016-2017 should begin now. But are those on the outside the only ones that see it?
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