If you hear John Paxson review his 16 years at this job, he’s convinced himself that there’s only been one rebuild prior to this one. That was a core first led by Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich, who in their first year together helped the Bulls jump from 23 to 47 wins and made the 2005 Eastern Conference playoffs.
A summer later, after a fleecing of Isiah Thomas, they had the No. 2 pick in the draft. There’s an alternate reality where LaMarcus Aldridge is never traded for Tyrus Thomas. That would’ve been something...it gets even juicier when considering that one year later, Joakim Noah was to join this collective.
All of this was possible then. As Michael Reinsdorf recently dismissed as a mere ‘trip’, the Tyrus move was the first Paxson misstep in that team absolutely collapsing. That was followed by the Ben Wallace disaster (and subsequent Tyson Chandler giveaway), leading to a ‘trip’ of a different sort: back to the lottery to win the No. 1 overall pick in 2008.
So that original group, especially with a hypothetical selection of Aldridge, never materialized. But maybe we no longer need to ponder it, as the 2019 version of the Chicago Bulls may be on that path to building something similar.
Take, for example, the potential partnership of Aldridge and Noah, a jump shooting, offense-first big man playing alongside an all-round defensive phenom. That sounds similar to the Bulls’ present day frontcourt in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., two players with a similar skill-set to their predecessors, those of whom also happened to be acquired through a franchise-altering trade.
Taking this comparison one step further, pairing Markkanen and Carter with a scoring guard with a sweet stroke (Zach LaVine) and a big, defensive guard with an inconsistent offensive game (Kris Dunn), is reminiscent to that original ‘backcourt of the future’ of Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. And maybe De’Andre Hunter — who is a potential option at No. 7 in the upcoming draft — is the new-school version of Luol Deng.
Sure, I’ve taken some liberties in outlining this fictitious scenario. Some of the player comparisons are not exactly on point (comparing Dunn to Hinrich was charitable at best, and Luol Deng was a two-way force by age 20), and in context of overall league talent the NBA has a much higher standard of greatness now than even ten years ago.
But the methods don’t look like a coincidence given the main driver; Paxson using the same old playbook from his early days as general manager on the current iteration of Bulls. And even if that era — with Aldridge in place — ever coalesced into an improving team, it’s reasonable to assume they would’ve amounted to nothing more than a second-round out.
So days after falling to No. 7 in the 2019 draft lottery and missing out on the one true franchise-changing draft prospect in the 2019 NBA Draft, it is worrisome that such an ultimate result is the best-case scenario for the current day Bulls.
Now, in a vacuum, building a team capable of winning 50 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs shouldn’t be slighted. But there is a key difference between that rebuild and this one: despite the perceived ceiling the 2004-07 Bulls seemingly operated under, Paxson had equity built with a suffering fan base eager to see a change from Jerry Krause’s post-dynasty chaos. This rebuild, after a 16-year tenure, comes with no such goodwill. Nor should it — this time it’s Paxson cleaning up his own mess.
And that mess is another big difference in this rebuild that simply can’t be ignored. Paxson took over a team that was already in the basement. Whereas this time, the decision to reset the roster by trading away Jimmy Butler was motivated (or at least should’ve been) to create something more than a fun-but-flawed 46 win team. And so if we give the Bulls the benefit of the doubt that they’d even get to that point with this group, it’s hard not to wonder what the point of all this truly is. Because that’s what could’ve realistically been built around Butler.
That’s why the result of the draft lottery hurts. Just as Derrick Rose accelerated the progress and raised the ceiling in 2008, Zion Williamson was the most realistic chance of providing the Bulls the same lucky out all these years later. That was what supercharged the playbook before. It won’t be this time.
Instead we’re relying on another version of luck if wishing to be optimistic. That the Bulls leave next months draft with a young prospect that exceeds any reasonable expectations normally heaped upon a No. 7 pick, and former selections Markkanen and Carter stay on track to do the same. That one of them develops into the superstar necessary to propel the team into contention. Paxson said himself in his end of press season press conference that luck and hope are not a strategy or a plan. Ironically, that is where it feels like we’re headed.
A third successive No. 7 pick feels like more of the same, even if projecting optimistically will harken back to playoff eliminations gone by. For a time, that felt good. There was faith in Paxson after his initial takeover of the team, and the arrow was pointing up. But it fell apart, and even at best never compared to the heights of the Rose era. This could be the same, only with no No. 1 pick coming to save the franchise.