Allow me to take you back in time for a moment.
It is June, 2013. Derrick Rose has just missed the entire regular season following one of the most devastating injuries in NBA history. The Bulls, after a valiant effort in the first round that included a seven game series win over the Brooklyn Nets, have just lost to the eventual-NBA Champion Miami Heat in the playoffs. Luol Deng just narrowly escaped dying in the hospital following a botched spinal tap. Jimmy Butler has just led the Bulls in minutes played in the playoffs after logging 490 of them over the course of twelve games.
The Bulls are at a crossroads as the draft draws near. Injuries throughout the roster have completely shattered and shuttered what once was a wide-open title window. Rose will be back next season ready to go, but health questions remain abound for Deng, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Kirk Hinrich.
This team needs depth and it needs it now if it wants to stay in the championship chase. Backup point-guards were never a problem for Tom Thibodeau to fabricate, even if Nate Robinson is presumably moving on in search of more money after an absolutely spectacular run in a Bulls jersey and Marquis Teague is borderline unplayable. Marco Belinelli will likely also be moving on, but the sudden arrival of Jimmy Butler as an indefatigable defensive savant of Thibs’ creation makes him primed to start ahead of Kirk Hinrich. There remains a role to be filled behind Luol Deng, but the upcoming free agent market for small forwards is deep (among it, Mike Dunleavy Jr.). Taj Gibson is a perennial sixth-man-of-the-year candidate behind Carlos Boozer. Nazr Mohammaed, though beloved by all, is poised to turn 36 years old behind Joakim Noah and could barely play 11 minutes per game this past season.
Given all of this, it was so blatantly obvious going into the 2013 draft that the Bulls needed to select a backup center, and the options that were going to be available for them at 19th overall were pretty damn good. Gorgui Dieng was coming off of a championship season for Louisville already with great rim-protector potential and a smooth fifteen-foot jumper. Mason Plumlee had just completed a solid four-year run at Duke and had sneaky-great athleticism. Rudy Gobert, a fellow countryman of Joakim Noah, set then-records at the NBA Combine for wingspan and standing reach. Hell, even Jeff Withey looked good back then!
All of these players (plus Mike Muscala, now a stretch-big rotation player for the Atlanta Hawks) were available by the time the Bulls were on the clock. I remember sitting on the edge of my couch pleading and hoping that GarPax would select Dieng. Then the pick came in. “With the ninteenth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls select...” Tony Snell?
Unless you were already aware that Gar Forman had a burning love for basketball in the state of New Mexico, this move was completely blind-siding. Tony Snell wasn’t even projected to go in the first round according to NBA Draft analysis websites such as DraftExpress. Furthermore, even though Snell shot well-above average from three in college, he didn’t exactly jump off the stat sheet as a guy that scored only 12.5 ppg playing well over thirty minutes per game. He never eclipsed shooting 45% from the field in his three years at New Mexico, had a PER of less than 10, and he was rail-thin at less than 200 lbs. despite standing 6’7” when he was drafted.
Tony Snell had bust written all over him. If GarPax knew Thibs didn’t like to play rookies anyway, why on earth did they draft someone that had no chance of immediately cracking the rotation? Eventually, the Luol Deng dump-trade plus the resurgence of the injury bug forced Snell to play in 77 games as a rookie, and he stunk it up. He shot 38.4% from the field (not even his worst in his three seasons for Chicago) and hit only 32% of his threes on over four attempts per game. Furthermore, he got to the freethrow line in only one of every four games on average, and recorded more turnovers per game than steals and blocks combined (something he would continue to do for his entire career with the Bulls).
But perhaps the most frustrating thing about Snell was that he would consistently show glimpses of being so much more than another mediocre NBA wing. He had extremely underrated athleticism that he never seemed to be able to use consistently. Every now and again, Snell would get an open lane to the basket and would absolutely throw down a totally unexpected poster dunk on some poor unsuspecting soul. He earned the nickname “Space Jam Snell” for out-of-nowhere highlights like this:
But it wasn’t just his athleticism, Snell clearly had the potential to be an all-around great player on both ends, and he just couldn’t do it on a consistent basis. At times, he would be making all of the right decisions on offense and, when clicking, he would make the Bulls extremely formidable against almost anyone. I had the fortune of attending what was, in my opinion, his best game as a Chicago Bull against the Toronto Raptors last season:
Snell finished that game by leading the Bulls in scoring with 22 points while also pulling down seven rebounds and making a ridiculous assist to Taj Gibson that showcased both his handle and ability to make a pocket pass. He scored sixteen points in a fourth quarter where he almost single-handedly eviscerated the Raptors with confident perimeter shooting and decisive cuts to the basket to get himself open. It was like watching a totally different player, and for a brief moment, I thought that this game was going to be the coming-out party for Snell that set the tone for the rest of his tenure in Chicago.
It wasn’t. Snell finished last season shooting 37% from the field (albeit 36% on threes) and scored only 5.3 ppg despite logging over 20 minutes per game and starting in 33 contests. He was a +/- darling and somehow finished with the sixth highest DRPM rating for his position according to ESPN, but any Bulls fan that watched the team at length during his tenure knew that Snell wasn’t anything greater than “average” at best on defense. Snell never exhibited that confidence and decisiveness he put on display against the Raptors in the highlight above on a consistent basis, and it ultimately prevented him from carving out a consistent role on the team.
The one highlight that I think perfectly sums up Tony Snell’s time in Chicago came on February 28th, 2014 against the Dallas Mavericks. Late in the game, Kirk Hinrich hit Noah with a nice pass underneath the basket and Noah flipped the ball in to give the Bulls a nine-point lead, essentially clinching the victory. As a fired-up Noah trotted down the court, he hi-fived Jimmy Butler and met Snell coming off the bench. Then this happened:
Other than this being objectively funny, it’s somewhat a microcosm of Snell’s Bulls career. Snell isn’t sure what’s happening and doesn’t show any emotion as Noah runs in for a celebratory chest-bump, screwing up what should be an easy interraction between teammates. As Snell just sort of wanders off, Noah is left shaking his head and clearly irritated at Snell’s inability to execute even the simplest of basketball tasks. Noah could have gotten knocked over by Snell on that exchange and I still think he would have wound up happier as a result. Seriously, how much of a buzzkill do you have to be to kill Joakim Noah’s buzz? But that’s who Tony Snell was: The Buzz Killington of the Chicago Bulls.
I can wholeheartedly say I will not miss Tony Snell when the regular season begins. Common sense doomed him to be a bust from the beginning and when looking back at his full body of work with the Bulls, that’s all he was. Paul Zipser already looks like a better rotation player in the opportunities he’s received this preseason, which I imagine is part of the reason why the front office felt comfortable enough dealing Snell elsewhere. I have absolutely no idea why the Milwaukee Bucks felt that Tony Snell will be the answer to their wing-depth woes, but based on reading the comments on Brew Hoop, their fans are clearly just happy to be getting rid of Michael Carter-Williams. As for MCW on the Bulls, I have no problem with this team potentially having six point guards if it means moving on from yet another player Thibs didn’t want and the team didn’t need.