There is a very specific heartache that comes from being a Bulls fan on July 1, the first day of NBA free agency and an occasion that regularly turns the city's basketball faithful into petty, speculative lunatics. This is not because being a Bulls fan is bad or particularly hopeless -- it's objectively better than being a Timberwolves fan or a Kings fan or even a Knicks fan, and I think that's something we should remember more often. If anything, what makes this time of the year on the basketball calendar so dispiriting is the awareness of the Big Market, Big Purse Strings ideal that a franchise like the Bulls should be, but never is. It has a way of feeling so close, yet so unattainable at the same time.
In 2013, Bulls fans are smart enough to recognize a pattern when they see one. Whether it's losing assets in Ben Gordon and Omer Asik for nothing, whiffing on big name free agents like they did in the summers of 2000 and 2010 or failing to complete trades for superstars that seem like they want to come to Chicago, the Bulls deserve something close to full responsibility for turning their fanbase into a group of jaded jerks. They do not get the benefit of the doubt from their most dedicated, cynical observers, and even after an overachieving, almost feel good season it's hard to argue they deserve it.
Bets were hedged even before the calendar met July 1 this time around, which accomplished nothing except for making everyone pre-angry about something that hadn't even had the chance to happen yet. There were reports from multiple local outlets that said the Bulls weren't going to use the mini mid-level exception, a $3.1 million contract that amounted to the only reasonable way the team could improve. I know, I know: there's Kyle Korver's trade exception and Rip Hamilton's non-guaranteed contract, but utilizing those options would take a certain amount of creative and financial gusto that the Bulls have always so obviously lacked.
Instead, the taxpayers' exception served as the ultimate litmus test for the inherent frugality of this franchise. The Bulls avoided the luxury tax like the plague until last year when their love of Kirk Hinrich inadvertently trumped their love of maximizing profits, but it felt like the Bulls got trapped into paying the bill more than anything else. For their part, the Bulls have long maintained they would pay the tax when they had a title contender, and that's what made July 1 of this year such a good gauge of their own B.S.: with Derrick Rose back in the cut next season, it's easy to argue this team as one of the 3-5 best in the NBA.
It would take some good luck for the Bulls to win the championship, sure, but the Heat didn't exactly look invulnerable this season and we know the Bulls have a long history of playing them tough. So if the Bulls were really going to forgo using the one way to moderately improve just to pocket another $6 million, all of the cynicism in the world would have been justified.
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Technology -- who am I kidding, we're talking about the advent of Twitter -- has made following free agency pretty damn intoxicating for a certain breed of news junkie NBA fan in 2013. You can pencil in a few #WojBomb drops, you can bet someone is going to overpay Tyreke Evans by 50 percent (bingo!), you can count on one or two totally out there rumors that gets everyone buzzing. It's fun, so long as you don't let the Bulls ruin the joy for you.
And that is what seemed to be happening. Amid a stretch of free agent rumors and potential trade scenarios, this tweet was dropped into the middle of your feed like a firebomb:
As @KCJHoop reports on Gar Forman's dismissal of Tom Thibodeau's top aide, relationship between Bulls' GM and coach easily worst in NBA.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 1, 2013
And it was at this point that it all felt so worthless. This was the greatest example yet of the Bulls killing the July 1 vibe, and it made all of the vitriol in the world feel warranted.
To rewind, quickly: news broke over the weekend that assistant coach Ron Adams had been dismissed. It barely registered at first because even if you were familiar with his name, his role didn't have much public notoriety. But as the story unraveled it just sounded so classic Bulls in the absolute worst sense of the term.
The story is that Adams questioned a few of management's decisions and basically got canned for insubordination. This is a problem because it angered the great Tom Thibodeau. Adams was also supposedly very close with Derrick Rose. There's been talk of a rift between management and Thibodeau since the coach entered contract extension discussions, talks that would inevitably end with Thibs accepting the deal but choosing not to actually sign it for a long while. Thibodeau's camp said it was because he wanted to focus on the season and let his lawyer go over it, but it was likely passive-aggressive hostility and his attempt to get back at management for things he didn't like.
For the Chicago Bulls, this is a familiar story. Go through Sam Smith's great "The Jordan Rules" and it's astounding that era ended with Michael, Scottie and Phil each wearing six rings. The book documents the 1991 season and the run-up to the first championship after years of playoff disappointment against the Detroit Pistons. The most jarring thing, even ahead of Jordan's outright dickishness, is how much everyone hated each other. Jordan hated Jerry Krause and so did Pippen, Jordan hated his teammates, the teammates hated Jordan. Almost all of it stemmed from two things: a) Jerry Reinsdorf's cheapness, and b) Jerry Krause's shadiness.
It's hard not to draw parallels to today's team. Forman ascended the ranks in large part because he's every bit the mystery man Krause was. The Bulls still don't like spending money. And there remains these dumb little stories that should be avoidable if everyone involved wasn't so tone deaf and unpersonable.
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You need all of this context to truly understand why the signing of Mike Dunleavy turned into such a joyful moment. Yes, Mike Dunleavy is only Mike Dunleavy: he'll be 33 years old next season, he's nothing more than a bench player, if he averages double figures in scoring, everyone would be appeased and no one would ask for more. Mike Dunleavy is largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. If everything goes according to plan, he'll be at best the Bulls' seventh most valuable player next season. But still: when Twitter said the Bulls and Dunleavy had reached a verbal agreement, it felt like a huge weight was lifted from the shoulders of the fanbase. The Bulls were prioritizing winning over profits, at least to an extent. That's all you can ask for.
The Bulls finished second to last in three-pointers made last season, but shot and made a ton of threes in the playoffs. The three moves they've made so far this offseason -- drafting Tony Snell and Erik Murphy, now signing Dunleavy -- have all meant to fix that problem. Dunleavy shot almost 43 percent from three-point range last year on four attempts per game. He'll give the Bulls the off-the-bench shooting they so desperately lacked a year ago. He'll space the floor for D. Rose and give him another option for a kick-out three. Dunleavy also allows the Bulls to play small ball a bit more regularly, with Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler giving Rose three guys who can knock down an open shot, with the latter two acting as solid cutters, rim finishers, screeners, all that.
There's really nothing to dislike about the move. SB Nation's Mike Prada gave it an A without even a hint of irony. The Bulls had done something widely lauded in the offseason, just when it seems like the wheels on the franchise were again coming unhinged. It's not like signing Dunleavy repairs the relationship between Thibodeau and Forman, it's not like they're going to surprise everyone again and bring back Ron Adams. That's over with, and it still may be a big deal in the long run, but at least the organization moved on.
Because if the Bulls' big offseason move was to piss off Thibodeau by firing his lead assistant, well, that would have been extremely disheartening. Thibodeau isn't flawless -- his minutes distribution needs to change this season -- but he's still arguably the Bulls' second best asset. He's a great coach and deserves to be treated as such.
As my friend Zach Lee said to me last night: "Never a dull moment in the league's dullest organization." It couldn't be more true. The Bulls fired an assistant coach, signed a role player for a relatively minor contract, and Chicago had experienced the full gamut of emotions in one day's time.
Hey, it could have been worse. It usually is.