The Chicago Bulls made the big, mad coach go away during the 2015 offseason, as they had to. The relationship between the Bulls front office and former coach Tom Thibodeau, due to massive missteps on the part of both sides, was beyond repair. Thibodeau had to go, and while it would have been just as effective to lose the presidential pairing of personnel chiefs John Paxson and Gar Forman along the way, teams can survive with a good-enough roster, sound coaching, and a front office with a series of screwups in its past.
It turns out that the roster wasn’t good enough, the coaching was far from sound, and the front office had dug itself too deep a hole after years of matching solid basketball work with impersonal cataloguing of assets alongside its disastrous unending commitment to its own family tree. Mixed in with the comfort derived from the knowledge that the team’s family ownership is typically far more concerned with how its beloved Chicago White Sox were doing in a Cactus League game than it is a Bulls playoff contest, and you’re left with a roster full of underachieving ne’er do well’s understandably waiting out senior year.
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We don’t blame the Bulls players for waiting for that final bell to ring. The 2015-16 season began with the team’s new coach, Fred Hoiberg, completely blowing his relationship with what a person he could have expected to be his hardest worker in Joakim Noah, betraying him via the media, as big man Pau Gasol counted down the days until he could make good on his blown 2014 opportunity to become a San Antonio Spur. Go-to star Jimmy Butler would not stop talking, while former MVP Derrick Rose took off just about every play that didn’t feature him.
The result was a mess of a season that saw the Bulls miss the playoffs for the first time since Joe Smith was a member of the team, with the squad falling off precipitously offensively even in the wake of losing Thibodeau’s too-thin playbook. Hoiberg’s new players acted the martyr all season, abandoning his hoped-for setup with even a chortle from the coach on the sideline.
No distress from any direction, it seemed, as the ownership barely raised a hackle while the front office stayed hidden throughout. The Bulls limped down the stretch in what should have been a race for the final playoff seed in the East, only bothering to compete when the national television cameras were focused on them, betraying their basketball gifts and potential all along the way.
Apathy reigned, from the ownership on downward. And downward. And downward. And …
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less
Sometimes it snows in April
— Joakim Noah (@JoakimNoah) April 2, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Probably not. Unless you love to laugh and laugh.
Some 13 years after Paxson reportedly chafed at giving up Donyell Marshall as part of a deal that would have sent draftee Dwyane Wade to Chicago, the Bulls ended up signing the 34-year old future Hall of Famer after the former (and future, if we’re honest) Miami Heat star threw an understandable snit after years of being asked to hold the line financially while Heat president chased down other boffo free agents.
Two years and $47 million for the former franchise-type that nearly signed with the Bulls all the way back in 2010. Wade will no doubt resume contact with Riley midseason, prior to finalizing a massive deal with Miami that will pay him deep into his late 30s, as the new NBA collective bargaining agreement will likely allow for. This hometown turn for Wade will be a brief, ultimately embarrassing, turn for everyone involved.
The cash-in for Wade came a few weeks after the Bulls finally put a cap on the Derrick Rose era, dealing the 2010-11 MVP to New York along with sprightly swingman Justin Holiday (one of the rare bright spots late in Chicago’s 2015-16 season) for a package including big man Robin Lopez and combo guard Jerian Grant (Jose Calderon, a serviceable veteran also included in the deal, was later moved to the Lakers in exchange for payroll and cap relief for one of sports’ most profitable franchises).
The deal is a clear win for the Bulls, even if Rose (as expected) moves closer to his formerly productive form in his free agent year with the Knicks in 2016-17. The former All-Star was too much of a millstone on the defensive and offensive end for the team to stomach, and though Lopez’s contract runs until 2019 he will (barring injury) remain well worth the price.
Pau Gasol made life right again by joining the San Antonio Spurs, and soon after the Rose deal New York native Joakim Noah (who missed the final chunk of 2015-16 with a shoulder injury) decided to leave the Bulls in order to sign a free agent deal with his hometown Knicks. Noah remains highly regarded, but the sad truth is that both the Thibodeau and Forman eras sapped him to no end due to routine overuse, and he was unlikely to even approximate what he gave Chicago in 2013-14 (when he nailed a top five showing in the MVP race) in his early-to-mid 30s.
The team added late lottery all-around guy Denzel Valentine from Michigan State and a possible shooting gem in Paul Zipser through the draft, while Rajon Rondo was brought in for the slurs and slide passes at two-years and $28 million, with only $3 million guaranteed for in 2017-18 as Rondo enters what could be his third straight contract year. Because the first two worked out so darn well.
Reserve shooter Isaiah Canaan was also signed on the cheap in a desperate bid to at least pay some lip service to long range shooting. Canaan has some history of shooting well on national TV, which is enough for this team’s ownership group.
Potential breakout stud
The hope here is that Doug McDermott, two years after Chicago dealt Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris for his services, will find enough time to bust out in his third season. The issue here is that McDermott is still pretty miserable in all areas outside of lining up from long range (save for the occasional running hook surprise), and he’d have to make about 55 percent of his three-pointers in order to justify heavy minutes considering how much he gives away due to his limitations. One wonders how things would have turned out had his rookie year been handled properly by Tom Thibodeau.
Second-year big forward Bobby Portis is big on hustle, he has nice touch and striking potential, but his defense was shockingly poor (even for a coltish rookie) during his rookie year, and quite a bit would have to change in order for him to turn into a consistent force in Year Two. Michael Carter-Williams probably won’t engage in a career-altering turnaround this late in the game (especially after a limited training camp with Fred Hoiberg; though we don’t know if that would act as a benefit or a mitigating factor at this point), and while Christiano Felicio should steadily improve with more responsibility, he won’t set Chicago afire in limited minutes.
So, who’s left?
For longer than any Bull, Taj Gibson. Seven years at this point, the team’s longest-tenured player, working in what could be his last season with the franchise.
The center/forward won’t make anyone’s jaw drop with fantasy-shifting rebounding numbers (that’s never been his thing as he attempts to cover the waterfront defensively), but if coach Fred Hoiberg thinks on his feet Gibson should end up seeing extended minutes while working in what should be his prime (Gibson, who came into the NBA at age 24, is a late starter). His ability to swing in two positions and underutilized screen and pop and/or post up game is still waiting for someone to turn over to that particular portion of the menu, and there is a very good chance he’ll act as the team’s most consistent and trusted-upon player in 2016-17.
An NBA team, in 2016 (or even 2017!) can succeed without hitting copious amounts of three-point shots. If Chicago manages to move into its offensive sets with alacrity, something that was a problem with Derrick Rose leading the show last season, the Bulls could have myriad options on that end if the team submits to endless cutting while taking advantage of the superior passing of Rondo (and when Rondo deigns to give box score notches to a teammate) alongside Wade and Butler.
The team will boast depth if everyone plays to capacity and coach Hoiberg finds a way to make the group work at a level stronger than the sum of its parts. Isaiah Canaan would work well alongside arching passers like Denzel Valentine and Michael Carter-Williams, for instance, while Doug McDermott could shine in an off-ball game with Robin Lopez. Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic could play well alongside each other, and there is the very real chance that an inspired Wade and Rondo could turn their careers around in red and black, with a not-at-all put-off Jimmy Butler clearly taking the reins.
If everything falls apart
Those are likely pipe dreams, of course. This is a business team, not a basketball one, and too much has to go exceedingly well for this team to play to its potential.
Coach Fred Hoiberg was brought in to coach a group of willing listeners who were set to push the ball into quick sets featuring heaps of long-range bombs. This season he’s been saddled with a series of non-shooters that like to dominate the ball, while taking the air out of the shot clock. The defense will likely be terrible no matter the rotation – Rondo and Wade have a chance to act as the worst backcourt in the NBA on that end – and the same “you better hit that 25-footer, because that’s all you’re here for”-pressure heaped on Mirotic and McDermott in their first two years will be just as prevalent in their frustrating thirds. Every blue moon some hope should hit, but then it’s back to the downs after that.
Forget the call-out from Jimmy Butler in 2015-16: Fred Hoiberg wasn’t keen on standing up to the barely-audible Derrick Rose, working with one foot out the door, when it came time to impress upon his players how the offense is going to be run. How is he going to do in the face of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade?
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record
45-37, fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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