The Chicago Bulls Are At A Crossroads

Bulls VP John Paxson and General Manager Gar Forman
(Photo Credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

Just two years ago, the Bulls came into Tom Thibodeau’s final season as contenders.  Finally, Derrick Rose would be healthy and Pau Gasol would push this team over the top. It didn’t happen. The Bulls collapsed and gave up on Thibs in the second round.  A new era was to be ushered in with the hiring of Fred  Hoiberg and he was going to get the Bulls over that hump with essentially the same that Tom Thibodeau had.  “Pace and space” were going to be the norm in Chicago.  The Bulls went 42-40 last season and failed to make the Playoffs for the first time since 2008.  Bulls management decided to shake things up a little bit with the mantra of getting younger and more athletic…by signing 30 year-old Rajon Rondo and 35 year-old Dwyane Wade.  Their recent draft picks (Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, and Bobby Portis) haven’t developed the way they wanted.  McDermott is getting better, but none of them are consistent and frankly, Portis doesn’t look like an NBA player most nights.  Rondo was recently benched for no real reason and things just generally seem like a mess.  Then Ric Bucher reported that the Bulls were looking to trade Jimmy Butler, which Marc Stein refuted a few days later.  Marc Stein also wrote about how hot Hoiberg’s seat was getting and the team has continued their inconsistent play.

The Bulls are a mess.  Management pined for a team with pace and space and the Bulls are currently 30th in three-point percentage and 23rd in PACE.  They’re average on defense (12th in Defensive Rating) and mediocre on offense (18th in Offensive Rating).  It’s fair to point out that Bulls management had expectations for Fred Hoiberg‘s offense and then failed to deliver personnel that could execute those plans, but this disaster goes beyond simple personnel changes.  Hoiberg looks overwhelmed as an NBA coach.  He makes bad in-game decisions and doesn’t seem to really know what he wants.  Just last night, he said Rajon Rondo would likely stay in the rotation after completely benching him even in garbage time of most games.  Does Hoiberg have a plan?  Does he know what he’s doing?  It doesn’t seem so and Hoiberg feels very Vinny Del Negro-like.  Big Dave and Chris on BAWL on Bulls labeled him a substitute teacher, which is hilarious and absolutely fitting.

The roster is a mess, the coach is a mess, the Bulls haven’t drafted well since the departure of Matt Lloyd in 2012, the players they have drafted aren’t developing like they hoped, and historically they don’t land top-tier free agents.  Where do the Bulls go from here?  What’s the plan?  The way I see it, they have a few options:

1) Stand pat, hope they fight to the Playoffs, hope the Kings make the Playoffs, and take their chances in free agency:  The Bulls could very well become a team over .500 and make the Playoffs.  If they do, they’ll be a tough matchup for opposing teams.  Wade will undoubtedly be more engaged in the Playoffs and Jimmy Butler should continue to play like the star that he is.  I wouldn’t want to play them in the Playoffs.

However, they aren’t a championship team and they aren’t likely to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.  A strong Playoff performance could convince a potential superstar free agent (say Chris Paul or even Paul Millsap) that they are the missing piece and help piece together a contender behind Butler and Wade.  It’s a risky proposition, but with nine of their main rotation players over the age of 25, this would be the time to take a risk.

The Kings pick is getting really interesting. Currently, they have the 11th worst record in the NBA, but they’re right there for the 8th seed in the West.  The Bulls will get that pick if it’s outside of the top 10 and that’s looking like it could seriously be in play.  This seems to be a pretty strong draft and if the Bulls could land a valuable piece with that pick and also have their pick in the mid 1st round or in the late lottery, this could help get them back on track.

2) Keep the roster, fire Hoiberg, and see what Jim Boylen or Pete Myers can do in the interim:  Maybe the roster is good enough and Fred Hoiberg is holding it back.  Could Jim Boylen, who was a Gregg Popovich assistant from 2013-2015 and has NBA championship experience – sound familiar? – or Pete Myers, who was really impressive coaching the Summer League team and was an assistant with Mark Jackson in Golden State, take this team to a different level?  Boylen has been around the league since at least 1992 and Pete Myers was a player and has been a coach for a while.  Could they relate better to this team and encourage this team to buy into their philosophies better than Hoiberg?  The vibe I get watching this team is they don’t respect Fred Hoiberg and that he doesn’t push them hard enough.   If that’s the case, wouldn’t a change be warranted?  Would Bulls management be bold enough to do that?  Gar Forman pressed for Hoiberg to be hired and fired the coach with the second best winning percentage in franchise history.  If this goes south, I can’t imagine Gar will be spared.  Paxson seemed to distance himself from some of the moves this past summer and seemed to shine the spotlight on Gar Forman.  I can’t imagine Gar Forman willingly admitting that Hoiberg isn’t the coach of the future for this team.  If Hoiberg is fired, it would have to come from Reinsdorf or Paxson directly and I can’t imagine that will happen.

3) Trade Butler, acquire assets, and let the young guys play and start building for the future:  I’ve never been in favor of trading Jimmy Butler.  I’ve written before how he’s a franchise player and he’s one of five players averaging at least 25 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists – the other four being Westbrook, Durant, Harden, and Lebron.   The question I have is Jimmy Butler is 27 years-old (a young 27 because of his college experience, but still 27): Can the Bulls turn this around quick enough to make use of Butler’s prime or could they use him as an asset to acquire more assets to rebuild this team more quickly?  Again, this draft is deep and if the Bulls were able to, say, turn Jimmy Butler over to the Celtics for a Brooklyn Nets pick and maybe a couple of young players, would that be the worst thing?  The Celtics say they need a closer and have insinuated that they are missing something to compete with the Cavaliers in the East.  Jimmy Butler might be the guy that could push them over the edge.  Are the Celtics interested in winning right now or are they content to draft high this season in a deep draft and potentially develop a franchise player?  They also have the Nets pick next year and that’s almost a certain lottery pick too.  This isn’t just wishful thinking.  This is a possibility. Celtics Hub just recently wrote about Zach Lowe’s comments about this on “The Lowe Post.” The Celtics were interested in Butler before the draft and I’m certain they’re still interested.

But the price to trade Jimmy Butler would have to be high.  He IS a franchise player and one of the best two-way players in the NBA.  I’m not 100% for sure I would go down this road – particularly with the Bulls’ recent cold streak in the draft – but if they were going to sell high on Jimmy Butler, this might be the time to do it.

It’s a difficult time to be a Bulls fan.  You never know what team is going to show up on any given night.  There are options for Bulls management, but will they react to the team’s poor play or simply stand pat and hope for the best?  History suggests they’ll stand pat and see what happens, but I’m hoping they at least try a coaching change or shaking up the roster slightly.  Any basketball team that has both Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler shouldn’t be hovering around the .500 mark.  The Bulls could be better than this and that’s the most frustrating part of the season.  The Bulls have to decide if they want to win now or later.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Brandon Pence is the co-founder of “B2 Hoops” and the founder of “The Bulls Charge.”  Follow B2 Hoops on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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