There has never been a better time to embrace the tank campaign of the Chicago Bulls than right now.
Two months ago, the Bulls were boasting an awful-riffic record of 3-20, and clearly appeared poised to become the front-runner for the first overall pick in a talent-ripe NBA draft. While Lauri Markkanen looked far better than any of the fans could have hoped for this early in his career and Kris Dunn made some encouraging strides from his disappointing rookie season, the only other team that looked even remotely capable of matching the Bulls’ overall ineptitude was the Atlanta Hawks.
Then Nikola Mirotic came back and totally derailed what had been a stellar display of disgusting basketball up to that point. The Windy City’s former favorite beard did what he typically had done the last three seasons by improving the Bulls’ overall on-court product, and a suddenly reinvigorated Chicago squad ripped off a seven game winning streak. The Bulls were playing some of their sexiest offense in years behind the efforts of Dunn, Markkanen, and Mirotic; and fans began to speculate if the Bulls’ “rebuild” would actually look like more of a “reload.”
For Bulls loyalists that had already fully devoted themselves to the idea that Chicago needed to be in the gutter this season, the nightmare scenario was playing out before their very eyes. In a bit of hilarious irony, it seemed only fitting that Gar Forman and John Paxson—fresh off a six year long plummet from the top of the NBA—would find a way to tank incorrectly.
They had been doing so well, too:
- Trade up to blindly draft a player that they didn’t schedule any workouts or interviews with? Check.
- Only sign Cristiano Felicio and Justin Holiday during the July free agency rush? Check.
- Refuse to sign the best remaining free agent interested in your team until the end of September? Check.
- Slap Bobby Portis on the wrist for punching a teammate in the face during a practice? Check.
- Exercise the team option on Cameron Payne’s contract? Check Plus Plus!
Of course, there were obviously signs before the season started that GarPax might even somehow be bad at being bad. The entire franchise is still getting publicly ridiculed for the Jordan Bell trade over seven and a half months after the fact. They have given themselves roughly a half-season to evaluate Zach Lavine before making a decision on his future. Giving up draft picks—regardless of value—to cover expenses elsewhere while acquiring potentially expensive question marks is not a good recipe for a rebuild. It’s hard to “trust the process” when the process at hand involves shipping out possibly useful assets and playing The Price is Right with a player in a contract year coming off a major knee injury.
But such insecurities are easily quelled by the fact that, again, this is GarPax we’re dealing with. These guys were born to make things worse regardless of their actual ambitions. Every Bulls fan has seen the result play out when these guys try to prop up a contender: GarPax will trade away stars, overpay undeserving free agents, get rid of coaches that don’t play nicely with them, and have more success in the draft when they pick at random rather than going off their own scouting efforts. There was never any real reason to believe Bert & Ernie could craft an NBA team with championship aspirations without falling ass-backwards into a superstar draft pick, and anyone deluding themselves into thinking otherwise is simply sticking their head in the sand.
Thus, as February loomed, I had a great amount of optimism that the Bulls’ front office would get this tank back on track after Mirotic’s return steered Chicago up out of the prime lottery selections. Nobody knows what it takes to make a team worse at a moment’s notice than GarPax, and I had full confidence that they would recognize which players didn’t fit in with the franchise’s distant aspirations.
However, let’s make something perfectly clear: Giving people praise for doing what is required in their job description is incredibly stupid and short-sighted. It’s one thing for a team aiming for the bottom to offload their best talent to get there; it’s another thing entirely to get the right assets in return. I highly doubt the Bulls could have found a better trade partner for Mirotic than the New Orleans Pelicans. Yes, GarPax hilariously gave away another second round pick in the final push for a deal, but the Pelicans are almost certainly poised to be worse in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins injury and that pick has a very legitimate shot at falling into the low-end of the lottery.
What’s more, the Bulls got no salvageable players back in the deal for Mirotic, so the Chicago roster for 2017-2018 absolutely got worse. This is exactly the kind of maneuver you want your team’s front office to make if the objective is a rebuild. It remains to be seen what the Bulls will do with Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant as the trade deadline looms; however, the deal with New Orleans has to give fans optimism that GarPax know what they’re doing…with respect to making their team as bad as possible. That the Bulls are likely to get even one tangible asset in return for this relinquishing of present talent is just anchovy icing on the crap cake.
But perhaps best of all, the Bulls are getting substantially worse at the perfect time. The bottom eight teams in the NBA all find themselves within one and a half losses of the worst record in the association, and the Bulls (currently picking 6th) are in the midst of a seven game skid with their latest loss coming at the hands of the Sacramento Kings (currently picking 3rd). Having three Western Conference bottom-feeders directly in front of them isn’t great, but Chicago will play the current bottom eight of the NBA nine more times before the season is over, with six of those games coming against teams presently slotted to pick alongside or in front of them. That gives the Bulls plenty of time to manipulate their lottery position in hopes of scoring a top—if not the top—pick. They’ve already completed more minor maneuvers like giving Lauri Markkanen a paternity leave so generous it could be seen as an homage to his native Finland. Even if the Bulls are only able to move Robin Lopez prior to the deadline, that still gives them an even greater amount of backwards momentum heading down the home stretch of the tankathon.
Tearing a team down is easy, and something GarPax has done before. Ultimately, the true judgement of this rebuild will be on their ability to build a team up. That means upcoming draft selections, the development of current and incoming young talent, and—eventually—their ability to help attract free agents to Chicago. The jury is still out, but fans that have been paying attention know there is little if any reason to be optimistic: the same people are in charge. But as far as steering the tank goes, GarPax just proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are comfortable in the driver’s seat.