CHICAGO – Bulls players soon will depart to offseason destinations, and their All-Star, Jimmy Butler, returns to his Los Angeles home base far from the debris of the season. Once clarity forms for the summer, a face-to-face meeting awaits Butler and his co-star, Dwyane Wade, regarding Wade’s player option for $23.8 million. Between now and then – a season-ending loss in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics and two players seeking organizational direction – the franchise is on the clock.
From stagnant player development to locker-room turbulence, to middling acquisitions and performances, the Bulls’ lackluster season ended in a 105-83 defeat on Friday night. Out of a 2-0 series lead behind Rajon Rondo’s energetic and inspired play, four consecutive losses followed and a reminder crystalized for the team’s stars and front office. Should Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf remain loyal to president John Paxson, general manager Gar Forman and coach Fred Hoiberg, a new course must be charted for these Bulls, a decision to rebuild responsibly around Butler and possibly one of Wade or Rondo – or retool entirely.
Chicago’s front office had aspirations for these Bulls centered on Butler, Wade and Rondo, but the framework for sustainability remains unclear.
Butler has expressed his desire to stay with the Bulls even as the team discussed him in trade proposals during the 2016 NBA draft and this year’s trade deadline. He has two seasons and a 2019 player option remaining on his maximum contract, an appealing deal under the old collective-bargaining agreement.
Wade, however, was noncommittal on his status Friday night.
“That’s far away,” Wade said about his option decision. “I have time.”
For his part, Butler says he will give Wade time to mull his decision and then the two will reconvene “face-to-face when the time comes. We’ll talk it out.”
Chicago will need to make sharp roster moves now, starting with potential trade scenarios and the No. 16 selection in the June draft. Throughout the roster, decisions loom along with Wade’s option: Rondo’s $13.4 million full guarantee by June 30 and the free agencies of Nikola Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow, all of whom expressed interest in re-signing. So far, the Bulls have yet to give Rondo any indication about his guarantee decision.
The Bulls traded three impactful players in Tony Snell to Milwaukee, and Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City for Cameron Payne and Michael Carter-Williams. Payne and Carter-Williams fell out of Hoiberg’s rotation as the team started the playoffs, and both enter the most critical offseason of their professional careers.
In the end, one of this season’s most prominent “What if’s” will be the Rondo injury during Game 2, when the upset of the No. 1 Eastern Conference seed looked apparent. Rondo made a strong push to return from his fractured right thumb for Game 5, but follow-up examinations on Wednesday morning ruled him out for good. These Bulls valued Rondo’s leadership to keep everyone accountable, his production when it mattered most, but the search for the point guard of the future could extend beyond him, Jerian Grant, Isaiah Canaan, Carter-Williams and Payne.
“Of course,” Butler said when asked about if he preferred the Bulls to guarantee Rondo for next season. “He’s been huge for us this year, molding the young guys and getting in the film room. The way he plays the game, getting everyone involved, I love playing with him and D-Wade.”
Added Wade: “We got a chance to see this team at full strength, and we won two road games. You can always say, ‘What if?’ But it guarantees nothing. We went out and competed together, and we won and lost together.”
Around Butler, the sentiment is clear: Winning is his priority, an undeterred vision. It can come with a veteran team or a blend of vets and youth, as Boston proved in this series with leadership in Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Gerald Green to anchor Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. Boston now faces the Washington Wizards in the second round, a series threatening to be a rivalry matchup.
The roster construction for Chicago this season couldn’t help supplement Butler, who has soreness in his arms and legs and will soon begin his offseason recovery process.
Butler and Wade walked out of the United Center separately late Friday, but their face-to-face meeting will come when Wade is ready, Butler said. The onus is on these Bulls to calibrate a blueprint for sustained success, and the moment of truth for this ownership – and perhaps this management/coaching regime – could come now.
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