How do the Chicago Bulls define success this season? It’s a question that not even the team’s front office can answer with any bit of authority.
“Our goal is to be the best basketball team we can be. And that’s through this group coming together. We have talent. I believe that. How we come together, how we play, will determine what type of win total we end up with. But we’re not going to focus on that.”
These are the empty words of John Paxson at media day, spoken like a man who has never faced even the pretense of accountability in his second professional life. It’s a way for the front office to renounce its own role in this mess from the very start, putting the burden squarely on the shoulders of its players and its coach and anyone but itself.
It’s not John Paxson’s fault for compiling a team full of deeply flawed one-way players that are once again widely projected to finish near the bottom of the standings. It’s the players’ fault for not being better, and Fred Hoiberg’s fault for not willing them to conquer their shortcomings.
So begins Year Two of the rebuild.
Twelve months ago at this time, the Bulls found a strange comfort in rock bottom. That’s the place the franchise occupied as it began a new life without Jimmy Butler, at the onset of a rebuild that seemed both limitless in possibility and promise. Success is often viewed as a reflection of expectation, and the Bulls found solace in having none. It was still a trash year by any measure, one that saw the organization get reprimanded by the league for tanking a little too transparently while still finishing with the seventh damn pick in the draft.
The Bulls flopped in their mission to fail upwards, but at least there was a plan. As the second year of the post-Butler era begins, the Bulls can say with confidence that they aren’t trying to be bad anymore, not after re-signing Zach LaVine to a huge contract he won’t live up to, not after nabbing Jabari Parker for a big money-low risk flier on the free agent market.
A true tank requires intent, and that intent is gone. Instead, the front office has done the only thing we can count on them to do: they’ve built a bad team on accident.
The grift of this season is the idea that there’s talent here on paper. You can see the mirage if you look close enough. Parker was once the second overall pick in the draft and has the markings of a go-to scorer. LaVine should be fully healthy now 19 months removed from ACL surgery and has loads of raw offensive talent. Kris Dunn got the pro seasoning he desperately needed last year and looks to build on it in his third year. Lauri Markkanen showed defined strengths as a rookie and should continue to get better. The Bulls have no idea how lucky they are to have Wendell Carter Jr.
There are some around town who believe the Bulls can make the playoffs this season, both a testament to a feeble Eastern Conference and a belief in this on-paper talent. To see the error of this team’s way requires a more critical eye. There’s a reason Vegas has them pegged as the fifth worst team in the league — when there’s something more tangible than hope on the line, it’s easy to see where this all falls apart.
The currency of the year is going to be Twitter videos of Parker and LaVine getting lost on defense, be it in transition, in half-court rotations, in failing to properly navigate their way around screens. This is where the eye test and the analytics will overlap, because both will bear out how truly heinous the Bulls will be on the defensive end. Dunn can’t guard the entire perimeter by himself, though he’s going to have to try. And when the defense is unsuccessful in getting stops, the Bulls’ offense will suffer a death blow, too.
Hoiberg is wise to insist on getting this team to run, run, run. Parker is at his best as a grab-and-go rebounder in transition. LaVine, who has looked so fast and so explosive in the preseason, is a nightmare for opponents in the open court. Even Bobby Portis runs the floor hard. But the problem with banking on transition offensive is it can’t happen without stops, stops this Bulls defense just won’t get with enough consistency. In the halfcourt, the Bulls simply don’t have enough facilitators, enough high-IQ players to form the foundation of an efficient offense.
It’s a symptom that comes back to the construction of the roster: the Bulls simply don’t have enough guys who play both ends. Dunn is a terrific defensive point guard, but he can’t make a layup, a free throw, or a three. LaVine and Parker’s defensive shortcomings will continue to be well documented. Even Markkanen, who we all love, only optimistically projects to be just average on defense, while there’s a real chance the perimeter guys freeze him out of the offense. The bench is the same story: Portis and LaVine have some real offensive skills, but neither projects as a winning player because they’re too limited physically to make a two-way impact.
Yeah, there’s talent here on paper, but all of it is flawed and none of it fits. Just don’t blame John Paxson for it, because he’s blaming anyone but himself.
The truth is that nothing will really change for the Bulls as long as the same people remain in charge. This franchise’s problems have always stemmed from the top-down. Any small victories the Bulls find this year will come in spite of the front office, not because of it.
The Parker signing badly exposed these executives once again, proving they remain far from analytically inclined while still priding themselves on the bottom line of their finances more than wins on the court. Parker’s flaws are plain to see, and that’s even while playing his best position. That the Bulls signed Parker to play small forward tells you everything you need to know. He has no chance of real success there, but the Bulls can still point to his pedigree, his truly meaningful social impact in this city, and his ability to sell some tickets and call it a win. This reeks of Dwyane Wade signing in every way, from their misplaced sense of entitlement to their lack of commitment to physical fitness. The Bulls wouldn’t have signed either if they were born in Texas.
This is where I credit Fred Hoiberg for being smarter than the people upstairs. It took Hoiberg only three preseason games to realize how dense his bosses are, forcing him to take matters into his own hands. Before this season, Hoiberg had a reputation for being a push-over, for being unable to “coach harder” as Butler once said. Well, in moving Parker to the bench, and even deputizing him as a point-forward on the second unit, Hoiberg is proving he gets it in ways Paxson and Gar Forman don’t. Putting Parker at small forward was going to be an obvious disaster. Right now, he isn’t even better than Portis. Good for Fred for standing up for himself, and for not being a total dunce like his superiors.
For all the blame this front office deserves, we must address the elephant in the room: Wendell Carter Jr. The kid — who doesn’t turn 20 years old until April — is going to be a stud. He’s easily the team’s biggest keeper (ahead of even Markkanen), a high-IQ, two-way star who already plays like a 10-year veteran.
Does the front office deserve credit for this? Hell no. They would have drafted a worse player if given the opportunity with a better pick. Even Michael Reinsdorf is saying they’re pleasantly surprised by his skill. As always, the only way this front office finds success is when they fall ass-backwards into it.
The good news is that it doesn’t really matter. Carter is going to be here for at least nine years, and he’s going to be awesome. He represents the Bulls’ greatest hope of pulling themselves out this mess eventually. Paired in the front court with Markkanen, the Bulls have two excellent building blocks. Now it’s the rest of the roster that’s the problem. Maybe the front office will continue to get lucky in drafting players they didn’t realize were good, but I wouldn’t count on it.
The reality is that this era of Bulls basketball remains defined by the Butler trade. The Bulls are eager to count themselves as the winner of the trade, especially with Butler cursing out everyone on his way out of Minnesota, but it’s important to remember the Bulls haven’t won shit until they actually win. The better take on the Butler trade is that both sides lost. Throw another parade in Grant Park for that one.
I’ll give this to Paxson: he admitted he still has a lot of work to do. That’s damn true. If only we could have faith in him to do it.