There was definitely some sort of poetic justice in play Thursday night when the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled off what will surely be remembered as the most spectacular NBA trade heist of 2017.
Tom Thibodeau, the man fired by the Chicago Bulls’ front office hive mind because he refused to respect their basketball opinion, somehow conned his former bosses into coughing up Jimmy Butler—the best two-way player in the NBA not named Kawhi Leonard. He did so while only surrendering a point guard that shot less than 38% from the field last season, a shooting guard coming off of an ACL tear whose primary talent was/is athleticism, and a pick swap of merely nine spots.
I’m going to restate that again because the irony of this situation is so remarkably hilarious: Gar Forman and John Paxson kicked one of the best coaches in the NBA to the curb because he was unapologetic in telling them that they had no clue when it came to basketball, then a little over two years later they gave him their best player for two turkey sandwiches and a Finnish cabbage roll.
It was a spectacular finale to the end of the Thibodeau Bulls that could not have happened were it not for the sheer incompetence of the worst front office in professional basketball. It was only appropriate that the Bulls’ night be then punctuated by GarPax electing to ship their final remaining asset from the 2014 Luol Deng cash dump for ... more cash.
When the swirling dust storm had finally settled, all that remained were the ashes of an organization that as early as a little over five years ago found itself hovering around the top of the NBA food chain. Today, after residing in basketball purgatory for the last few years, Bulls fans awakened engulfed in flames as their favorite team’s fall from grace finally touched down in NBA Hell.
I am not being hyperbolic when I say that this Bulls team is one of the biggest laughingstocks in the National Basketball Association after what happened Thursday. Following what is widely speculated to be one of the most talented drafts since the legendary class of 2003, many teams that previously had no hope now at the very least have some tangible player to attach their dreams of success to. The Sixers got their point guard of the future to add to their enormous trove of young but unproven talent. The Lakers flipped their original point guard of the future for the leading scorer in Nets’ franchise history and then drafted a player to run the new Lake Show that many consider the second coming of Jason Kidd on offense. Hell, even the former biggest dumpster fire in the NBA—the Sacramento Kings—scooped up a hyper-athletic point guard that can certainly be built around in the coming years.
But every element of how this trade went down—and how it relates to the Bulls’ roster as currently constructed—speaks to why this Bulls team inspires no hope for the near or distant future. There are layers to the front office's ineptitude and perplexingly preposterous decision-making that are now as clear as a summertime Chicago day for the entire basketball world to see. I want to make sure I address all of them so that everyone can appreciate this grand finale to the Thibodeau Bulls for what it really means.
So with that, let me begin with the man that completely finessed the absolutely moronic milquetoasts that he once begrudgingly called his superiors: Tom Thibodeau.
It is critical in the equation of this downward spiral to remember the reason directly stated by Bulls’ management as to why they fired Thibs in 2015. Tom Thibodeau was not fired because he could not get along with his players. Tom Thibodeau was not fired because he could not develop the talent given to him regardless of whether they were young prospects or incoming free agents. Tom Thibodeau was not fired because he could not win basketball games. Regardless of whether or not he actually did, Tom Thibodeau was not fired because he could not manage player workloads correctly.
No, Tom Thibodeau was fired because he refused to play nice with Gar Forman and John Paxson. Tom Thibodeau was fired because he did not welcome input and value from all parts of the organization. Tom Thibodeau was fired because he did not participate in a free flow of information and commit to the betterment of interdepartmental communication. Tom Thibodeau was fired because he worked to preserve his culture—the culture that gifted the Bulls their greatest success this millennium—over the culture that management envisioned for themselves, a culture that has since been described by those familiar as the worst in the NBA.
Two years later, the choice to foster a culture of [insert corporate white-collar buzzword here] over a culture of winning now has the Bulls and their fans plummeting into an endless abyss. Jimmy Butler was the final part of the franchise desperately clinging to the edge of a bottomless pit as he made superhuman efforts to hoist up his teammates and a coach completely out of his element in Fred Hoiberg. When the team didn’t have Butler this past season, it posted a record of 1-5 that included a 15-point loss to the lowly New York Knicks, a 28-point loss to the T-Wolves, and a 31-point obliteration at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Their lone win in those games came against a Kings team hopelessly lost in chaos.
I have to imagine that seeing what the Bulls had become was a double-edged sword for Tom Thibodeau. Sure, it’s always fun to see your ex descend into insanity relative to yourself—especially if they called it off because they think they can do better than you—but seeing Jimmy Butler left behind in a septic tank of a basketball organization had to eat at Thibs just a little bit.
Jimmy Butler was Tom Thibodeau’s baby, and the two were a match made in heaven for each other. Thibs literally referred to him as a puppy with bite when describing his first impressions of Butler when he got to the Bulls. One has to imagine how smitten the work-hard-then-work-even-harder Thibodeau was when he realized fate had gifted him a player so obsessed with bettering himself that his personal offseason conditioning program consisted of three-a-days without any internet access. Fans may recall the two of them even had a nice dinner together at Gibson’s Steakhouse a month after the fateful firing of Thibs:
All of this information just makes the reality of the trade itself even more strange. GarPax knew how much Thibs coveted Jimmy Butler because they saw it first-hand every day in the Advocate Center for four years. They also had to have known how rotten the egg on their face would look if they were to get fleeced in trade negotiations for Butler by a guy they fired barely two years ago. Given the Celtics, Suns, and even the freaking Cavaliers were all allegedly teams interested in trading for the Bulls’ best player within the last week, it makes even less sense that management would settle on the Timberwolves as the trading partner for Butler.
That leads me to what the Bulls actually got back in this deal for Butler, because each element of this trade not only inspires no hope for a successful rebuild, but the rationale behind acquiring each of these assets just reeks of classic GarPax mentality.
Kris Dunn was a player the front office coveted as a prospect a year ago, and my assessment is that’s all that mattered to them when gauging his value in this deal. They were willing to overlook the fact that Dunn had an abhorrent true shooting percentage of 43.2% this past season, which is roughly 10 percentage points less than league average. They were also willing to overlook the fact that Dunn will turn 24 next March and will be set to turn 27 years old during the first year of his post-rookie deal. It didn’t matter to them that Dunn was an elderly asset by drafting standards or that all indications thus far in his NBA career illustrate that he is not a point guard worth building a team around. All that mattered was that Dunn was a guy they liked a year ago, and the Bulls famously like their guys. It’s the exact same admitted logic that the Bulls’ management used to convince themselves four months ago that Cameron Payne was their point guard of the future (although YFBB’s detective work unearthed a throroughly unsurprising element of cronyism at play there as well).
Then we get to Zach LaVine, a player that had a breakout season last year before tearing his ACL in early February and sitting out the rest of the Timberwolves’ schedule. There are several levels of ridiculousness regarding this acquisition that are definitely worth mentioning for those not familiar with the recent history of the Bulls.
For one, Zach LaVine was on the board in the 2014 NBA Draft when the Bulls traded up to select Doug McDermott at the cost of five draft picks, and the front office shipped McDermott out of town this past season during another trade they humorously lost. The Bulls also traded for LaVine knowing full well of the difficulties involved with a player that relies heavily on athleticism regaining the full scope of their abilities after a devastating knee injury. I also found it odd that the Bulls opted to ask for a shooting guard that can’t play as a wing from the 3-spot given a few days ago Dwyane Wade said he would come back to the Bulls this season to the tune of $24 million. Then again, maybe this whole trade was a ploy to try to force Wade out of town as free agency looms, but apparently that’s not going to have any effect on Wade cashing in. It’s also worth noting that LaVine is set to enter the final year of his rookie deal, so the Bulls could have around half a season to evaluate him before having to make a decision on his long-term future.
Finally, there’s the selection of Lauri Markkanen with the seventh overall pick. Now, I’m not mad at the pick itself so much as I am upset with all of the actions—or lack thereof—that led up to it. All week, the reports coming out indicated that the two lottery targets the Bulls had in mind were Josh Jackson and De’Aaron Fox, both players that were locks to be top five picks. The Bulls had two teams drafting in the top five as potential trade partners, and instead of trying to make it work out with one of them, they folded and at the last minute opted to go with a team drafting outside of the spectrum where they had been evaluating prospects. It’s uncertain whether or not GarPax were gambling on Jackson or Fox to fall to seventh overall, but what is certain is that the Bulls did not work out Markkanen once or even interview him at all. They traded up nine spots in the draft to make a blind pick at the additional cost of a top 15 NBA player. The lack of anticipation and planning for what to do with these assets in the event that they were to pull the trigger on a Jimmy Butler trade is astounding.
How could any Bulls fan have any hope for the future after Thursday evening? How could any player have any hope for the Bulls’ future after Thursday evening? Even if the Bulls decline Rajon Rondo’s team option and find themselves with cap space to play with both this offseason and the next, who’s going to want to sign off on a rebuilding project with no sturdy building materials? What free agent is going to trust a front office that trades away its most beloved players—whether from the perspective of fans or the locker room—for not even nearly equivalent value? Do you really think Wade—one of the most connected players in the NBA that knows how heavily free agency is influenced by pre-existing relationships—is going to have anything nice to say to other players about the Bulls’ front office or their culture after he collects his final salary from them? What front office isn’t going to froth at the mouth every time the Bulls are on the line asking about what kind of trades they can work out together?
This, my fellow Chicago Bulls devotees, is the beginning of the Bulls’ residence in Basketball Hell. The players have no reason to be out on the court other than to go through the motions of games in the pursuit of future paychecks. Free agents have no reason to come to Chicago other than to go through the motions of games in the pursuit of future paychecks. Fred Hoiberg and the coaching staff—with no talent to speak of to build around—have no reason to patrol the sideline other than to go through the motions of games in the pursuit of future paychecks. Fans are now lost souls cast hopelessly adrift into the River Styx that is the journey of a modern-day Chicago Bulls loyalist.
But hovering over all of this are the ruling demons of this self-created NBA Hell the Bulls now find themselves in. Gar Forman and John Paxson have now cemented the remarkable accomplishment of taking a team that finished with the best record in professional basketball two years in a row back in 2012 and dragging it all the way down into the role of lottery team with the smallest amount of upside. It is no small feat to be able to plunge from such titanic heights into such unfathomable depths in such a short amount of time.
The Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau saga has finally come to an end, and with Jimmy Butler’s departure ends all hope for a bright basketball future in the Windy City. As long as GarPax reign supreme over the fate of the Bulls, See Red Nation should get used to the sting of Satan’s pitchfork stabbing them in the behind with every impending free agency strikeout, bungled trade, disappointing draft pick, salary dump, and blowout defeat in this coming season and beyond.
Then again, if you followed this team in recent years all the way down to the bottom, you might already be numb to it anyway.