Gar Forman and John Paxson have built a great team before, and you only need to flip the calendar back four years to find it. The 2012 Bulls were that good, the byproduct of a roster that was more athletic, more disciplined and better coached than their opponents on a nightly basis.
That team won the most games in the NBA for the second straight season, and finished top five in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If that feels hard to remember now, it's only because that group will always be defined by the hard luck way in which things ended. It's been a common theme for this organization ever since.
It's widely acknowledged that any team, no matter how talented, needs to enjoy a certain amount of luck to win anything substantial. As the Bulls seem burdened with a new cascade of injuries every year, their lack of luck has become a convenient excuse. You might want to reach for it again right now, with Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic all sidelined while this team is collecting embarrassing losses in rapid succession and spiraling out of the playoff picture.
And I'm here to say: forget that. There's mounting proof that the Bulls create their own bad luck, and there's even more support for the fact that luck has nothing to do with it. The 2016 trade deadline offered empirical evidence that the game has passed Forman and Paxson by, and that they no longer have any confidence in their own ability to evaluate talent. And with that, it's hard to believe this shitshow is going to get better anytime soon.
Vlade Divac, the charitable man that he is, tried to throw the Bulls a life preserver this week. He wanted Pau Gasol and Tony Snell, and was offering assets that would have helped the Bulls in the present and the future.
Chicago could have upgraded at the wing with Ben McLemore, a 23-year-old with a nice shooting stroke, boundless athleticism and ideal size for the offguard spot. The Bulls also could have acquired the defensive complement they've been missing in the front court with Kosta Koufos, a 27-year-old center locked into a under-market contract during a period when player salaries are about to explode.
Forman and Paxson rejected it, instead choosing to drown in their own incompetence. It keeps in line with the unique brand of insular ineptitude the Bulls' front office has been promoting the last few years, when it seems like they have no real plan to get this franchise back to true contention. The Bulls' streak of not having made a trade to improve the team in seven years lives on.
There was a tangible turning point with this front office, and that's when lead college scout Matt Lloyd left for the Magic after drafting Jimmy Butler. Lloyd had an eye for the game, which is more than Paxson and Forman can say. Without him, the Bulls have opted to value intangibles over tools and production, a crutch that only exists because the team's GM tandem has zero ability to judge talent.
Gar Forman: "We value Pau. We value him on the floor and the leadership he brings. We see him as a part of our core."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 18, 2016
The Bulls draft players because the front office has a connection to them from previous jobs, like Doug McDermott, Snell and Cameron Bairstow. If there's no one who meets that absurd criteria, they'll simply go for who fell to them. We hope (and think) it'll work out with Bobby Portis, but we know it didn't with Marquis Teague.
With so much crumbling around them, there's always easier targets to blame than management. If Derrick Rose was tougher, if Fred Hoiberg yelled more, if Jimmy Butler would stop breaking the offense, everything would be fixed. Hoiberg might prove to be a bad coach -- he hasn't offered any evidence to the contrary yet -- but I truly believe Forman and Paxson haven't given him a real chance to win.
The roster was flawed last season, and the front office was delusional enough to think a new coach would fix everything. It's even more ridiculous when you consider that roster was built under the guise of Thibodeau's hard-nosed, defense-first identity. Thinking those same pieces would be able to thrive in Hoiberg's radically different system was incredibly delusional.
During a time when wings are at a premium, the Bulls have a serious lack of playable wings. During a time when roster versatility is taking over the league, the Bulls have very few players with positional flexibility. During a time when slow-footed players like David Lee are being run off the floor, the Bulls are content to ride with Pau Gasol.
Gasol is the shining example of everything that's wrong with this franchise over the last few years, a beacon of their wrong-headed approach to the game and the fundamental inability to diagnose what's killing them. That's not Gasol's fault. The front office has enabled him, and they're proud of it. It's no wonder Gasol wants to stay in Chicago when Forman and Paxson give him more authority than the head coach.
Ultimately, it goes all the way up to the top. Jerry Reinsdorf has always been defined by his loyalty, and that's handcuffed the franchise. It should be clear as day for everyone to see at this point, but the owner has other things to worry about. After all, basketball is a game -- not a religion and certainly not American like baseball.
The best thing about being a Bulls fan over these last seven or so years is that they always give you the opportunity to talk yourself into their chances. If a few things go right, if they stay healthy, if that veteran free agent signing works out, the Bulls will be right there. The truth is that has a lot more to do with just how bad the Eastern Conference has been than anything the Bulls are doing themselves.
LeBron James is on his way to his sixth straight NBA Finals appearance, and the Bulls can't do anything about it. They were uniquely equipped to be James' biggest challenger, especially when the front office hit the jackpot with Butler's rapid development out of blind luck. Instead, they've mismanaged this roster straight out of contention during a time when they should have been competing for titles.
And guess what? The East might not be so bad for long. The Bulls can keep telling themselves their pointless playoff streak matters. They can believe this will finally be the year they bag that big free agent. They can take another kid from Iowa or New Mexico who isn't good enough to make a difference. It isn't going to matter.
Forman and Paxson don't understand what's burning them, and so they can't fix it. It's not going to get better anytime soon. By mismanaging their own assets once again at the trade deadline, the Bulls are looking at a long, slow decline into irrelevance.