We finish up CAN or KEEP 2017 with four men that really are intertwined: Gar Forman, John Paxson, Fred Hoiberg, and Jimmy Butler. It’s almost impossible to discuss the future of this franchise without evaluating these four together.
Gar Forman and John Paxson
As usual, I’m grading Gar and Pax together. Who does what in this Bulls regime gets fuzzy at times and all indications are that it is a collection of decision makers, which includes owner Jerry Reinsdorf and his son and President of Basketball Operations, Michael Reinsdorf. I’m giving Gar/Pax an F this year after being generous the past few years. Here are the transactions they’ve made: Signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade even though it went against all logic on the basketball court and against their rhetoric of getting “younger” and “more athletic” which seems more like a punchline now, signed Isaiah Canaan, traded Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams…and LOST THAT TRADE, traded Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday for Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant, and Jose Calderon (won that trade), and finally traded Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 2nd round pick for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Anthony Morrow (definitely lost that trade unless Payne shows something surprising). They lost 2/3 of the trades they made and their free agency signings made sense in a vacuum, but in reality, the fit of Rondo/Wade/Butler was just never going to work.
Now we’ve reached the offseason and it’s time for Gar/Pax to lead us, right? This tweet from KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune had me frustrated and confused:
Wade said he wants clear direction from organization. “I respect Gar and Pax.” Said management told him they want defined direction too.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) April 29, 2017
Wait, you’re the ones making the decision on which direction to go! Pick a direction! But this also goes back to the group mentality of Bulls management. With rumors leaking around the All-Star break of trading Jimmy Butler, it was widely reported that management couldn’t decide to fully rebuild or stay the course with Jimmy Butler. But that decision has to come soon. Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago dropped this little nugget in his season end piece on Gar/Pax deserving blame after the collapse against the Celtics:
“The difference between last season and the present is that fans seem to be angrier than ever at the lack of direction from within the organization. Stories of longtime season-ticket holders stopping their payments are popping up all the time. The money and loyalty that the Bulls have counted on for decades isn’t as Teflon strong as it used to be.”
We know the Bulls have long been financially conscious and if season-ticket holders are stopping their payments and are not willing to give their money to the organization, then that’s a huge issue. We’ve already seen the ramifications: There are grumblings that Jim Paxson, John’s brother and the man who drafted LeBron James (and declares it like it’s some kind of accomplishment – LeBron is the surest thing I’ve ever seen in the NBA draft) and Bulls director of basketball operations, could see an increased role and it was also reported by Marc Stein that John Paxson would be taking back some of the day-to-day responsibilities. What does this mean for Gar Forman? I’ve always assumed that Gar would be the fall guy in any Bulls related crisis, but maybe they’re gradually phasing him out. KC Johnson also reported that Bulls President, Michael Reinsdorf, is exploring other organizational structures and encouraging open debate and discussion. I think we’ll see changes to the front office, but they will be back. I think this is a make or break season, though. If the Bulls bring back Butler and stumble, then there will be a major change. We’ll see. If it was my decision? I’d can them. At least Gar. Enough is enough and judging by yesterday’s season ending press conference, they still don’t have an idea of what direction they want to go. They seem to hope the young guys develop and the veterans stay relevant. Ugh…
CAN or KEEP: Can
Photo Credit: Randy Belice/Getty Images
Fred Hoiberg is a horrible head coach and it’s unbelievable that he’s coaching an NBA franchise. We’re never seeing another Tim Floyd – and Hoiberg isn’t in that league – but he’s in the Vinny Del Negro category. For an organization that desired communication and trust, Hoiberg has been the opposite of that. Rajon Rondo was benched earlier this year, in a decision that seems more unbelievable seeing how the Bulls fell apart in the Playoffs without him, and he stated he didn’t know why he was being benched. Fred Hoiberg stated that the shorter rotation and defense were the reasons Denzel Valentine didn’t get a shot against the Celtics in the Playoffs…only he said this after he used 11 guys in a game 4 loss, desperate to find something that worked. Jerian Grant was unexpectedly benched in March even though he was playing well and had been a starter earlier in the season and then he was brought back as a starter with Rondo’s injury late in the season and again in the Playoffs before being benched again. Then there’s the inexplicable decision not to play Robin Lopez at all in crunch time or waiting too long to bring him back in. Lopez is clearly the best center on the team and he ranked 343rd in fourth quarter minutes played per NBA.com/stats.
The only reason Hoiberg didn’t get an F from me is I don’t think we can place the blame solely on him. Bulls management has done a pathetic job of getting him players that fit his system and in the ultimate irony, these guys would probably be more successful under Tom Thibodeau. Management did make the horrible Taj Gibson trade and that, combined with Wade’s injury, opened a door of opportunity for “Hoiball” to finally be on display and we saw glimpses of what it could be. However, the Bulls still only went 13-12 after the All-Star break, but their offensive production increased: They were 6th in the league in three-point shooting after the All-Star break, 19th in points, and 3rd in assists. While the system looked better, the results weren’t much better, but again, how much of that is on Hoiberg?
I’m more upset about the stupid and frustrating decisions Hoiberg makes in-game. Roster construction isn’t something he can control, though, Bulls management wanted that communication with their coach upon firing Thibodeau. But when he’s making questionable decisions in-games or benching guys for no apparent reason and showing no consistency whatsoever? That’s a problem. It was embarrassing that he was still fishing for a starting point guard in games 3-6 in the Playoffs. If Rondo goes down, you should have confidence in that next guy up – and that next guy up should be Jerian Grant. He didn’t play the best, but jerking him in and out of the lineup is liable to kill his confidence and hinder his development.
Speaking of development, why haven’t we seen guys develop under Hoiberg? Mirotic looks exactly the same, Portis is no better, Felicio hasn’t improved measurably, and it seemed like Grant, Valentine, and Zipser stayed consistently inconsistent all season. Can Hoiberg and his staff develop talent? If not, the Bulls are in major trouble.
The reality of this is Chicago will keep Hoiberg until it is financially reasonable to fire him if he doesn’t improve. Remember, he signed a five year, $25 million dollar contract that’s looking questionable at best. He has a career record of 83-81 and if the Bulls don’t see improvement next year, he may be the first domino to fall. If it were me, I wouldn’t wait until next year. I’d can him. I would’ve canned him in December. The guy is a terrible coach and it’s frustrating and embarrassing that the Bulls didn’t even entertain any other replacements for Tom Thibodeau. His job is safe – management has made it clear that they support him – but I wonder how safe he will be going into next season. Paxson said there would be some staffing changes on Hoiberg’s bench. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out, but I’m over the Hoiberg era. I just think there are better options out there.
CAN or KEEP: Can
Quick, name the other players in the league that averaged at least 23 points, at least 6 rebounds, and at least 5 assists this year? There were four: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, and Jimmy Butler. Of those four, he had the lowest turnovers per game by far and also averaged the most steals by far. To say Jimmy Butler had a great season would be an understatement. There’s only one other Chicago Bull that has ever averaged at least 23 points/6 rebounds/5 assists: Michael Jordan and he did it 7 times. Not Scottie Pippen, not MVP Derrick Rose, just Jimmy and MJ. That’s saying something.
Butler has cemented himself as a top 10 player in the league. It sounds crazy, but start listing them: LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis…there’s 7. Then the next few would be Gordon Hayward, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving maybe, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jimmy Butler. Personally, I’d take Jimmy Butler over any of those guys except Giannis and John Wall. That puts him right in the top 10 or right around it. He’s a fantastic player.
But here’s the question: Will Bulls management ever truly hand the keys over to him? We thought it would be this year, but then they brought in Dwyane Wade and his presence just overshadows basically anyone. He’s a future Hall of Famer. It was like they didn’t totally trust Jimmy Butler to be that franchise player. After the All-Star break, Butler again showed he can be that guy. He averaged 22.8 points, 6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2 steals, and shot 46.2% from the field and 43.8% from three. The Bulls went 7-4 without Dwyane Wade after the Taj Gibson trade. As I said in Part 2 yesterday, there was just so much redundancy between Wade, Rondo, and Butler. Ideally, Rondo and Butler would be your starters while Wade anchored the bench unit, but how are you going to ask the great Dwyane Wade to come off the bench, especially if you’re Fred Hoiberg? It just isn’t feasible. But Bulls management is still split on Butler with President Michael Reinsdorf not wanting to trade him under any circumstance and Vice President John Paxson “seeing the writing on the wall” that they need to go a different direction.
What direction should the Bulls go? To me, it boils down to a simple question: Jimmy Butler is under contract for two more seasons and a player option for a third. Can Bulls management put a quality team around Jimmy Butler with a competent coach and give them a legitimate chance to compete in the Eastern Conference? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then it’s a no-brainer: Keep Jimmy Butler and surround him with talent that complements him. If the answer is “no” or even “maybe” then it’s simple: Try and move him this offseason and get a high lottery pick in return. I think the Boston deal will be gone. They’re doing really well without him, but what about Phoenix, the Lakers, or even the Timberwolves? They’re all likely to have a top 10 pick in this draft and the Bulls could land an impact player. At 4-10, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith, De’Aron Fox (love how he destroyed Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16), Malik Monk (the next Ben Gordon in my opinion), and Lauri Markkanen (poor man’s Kristaps Porzingis) should all be available. If you pair that with whatever you might be able to get in next year’s draft, providing you aren’t good next year, then you’ve got a nice rebuild on your hands. I also think that Grant, Valentine, Zipser, and Portis could be good pieces moving forward.
But should the Bulls part with Jimmy Butler? I’ve struggled with this. I’ve been a Jimmy Butler guy since day one and I remember having many Twitter arguments scoffing at the notion of trading Butler and Joakim Noah for someone like LaMarcus Aldridge. I kept preaching patience and telling people Jimmy had this in him. I still believe in him, but I don’t believe in this organization at all. For me, you keep the sure thing and build around him.
CAN or KEEP: Keep
*All player headshots courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted
Brandon Pence is the co-founder of B2 Hoops and the founder/editor emeritus of “The Bulls Charge.” Follow him on Twitter here.