Let's all live in reality, ok?
The Bulls are not going to tank and rebuild. At least not this year, and likely not next year, and if we're being realistic it won't be a real possibility as long as Zach LaVine is on the roster.
Several large national NBA media members had "will the Bulls blow it up?" discussions last week. Most of these conversations were framed around hypothetical trades involving the Los Angeles Lakers, Russell Westbrook, and their two future first round picks. Zach Lowe said on his podcast Friday that the Lakers have had "internal discussions" about a possible deal to acquire DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic and capitalize on the Bulls slow start to the season.
The Bulls are disappointing to be sure, notching victories against the top teams in the East while dropping headscratchers against the Magic and Thunder. And all the front office talk about "continuity" being more valuable than a meaningful free agent addition proven inaccurate. LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic have a negative point differential when they all share the floor, and the offense has a distinct "your turn, my turn" feel to it most nights.
But just because the team is sub-.500, the stars don't mesh, and some people are positing that they're the most depressing team in the NBA, don't expect Artūras Karnišovas to hit the reset button on this roster.
The Bulls will not rebuild as long as LaVine is on the roster. LaVine has not looked himself this year after offseason knee surgery, and is tethered to a five year max contract signed over the summer. Still, the contract and his underwhelming play this year are not why I highlight him as the reason the Bulls won't go into a full rebuild. The Bulls won't go into tank mode because Zach LaVine is the symbol of hubris and idiocy that governs this organization. So long as he remains a member of the Bulls rotation, they will refuse to tank.
The Original Sin
Remember draft night 2017? That was Day 1 of the current era of Bulls basketball. Faced with the difficult question of paying top dollar to a top-15 player in the league entering his prime, Gar Forman and John Paxson (with the blessing of Jerry Reinsforf) decided to pivot to a rebuild. They flipped Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for Kris Dunn, the number seven pick (who became Lauri Markkanen), and an athletic shooting guard recovering from an ACL tear: Zach LaVine.
It didn't seem like that crazy of a plan at the time. There was legitimate debate about how far a Butler-led team could get (something the Miami Heat proved silly), and Butler had spent the previous season feuding with coaches and young teammates. Joel Embiid flashed as an impressive young star that year, and the idea of a big rebuild so the Bulls could get an Embiid of their own was fairly appealing.
The good vibes of the young rebuild were remarkably short lived. 31 draft picks after selecting Markkanen, the Bulls sold their second round pick to the Golden State Warriors for cash. Suddenly it seemed like the decision to rebuild through the draft had not been fully thought through, as Gar Forman later admitted his draft board had "dried up" and they didn't have anyone they liked to use the pick on.
The Wilderness Years
That embarrassing admission was a telling sign for the how the GarPax brain-trust would execute their rebuild strategy:
They prioritized getting Dunn in the Butler trade after they drastically misevaluated him during the prior year's draft, and ignored his unimpressive rookie season.
They fired Fred Hoiberg 24 games into the second year of the rebuild and replaced him with Jim Boylen, who wasted no time in loudly announcing himself as the worst coach in the NBA.
The biggest drag on the rebuild was something they had no way to control. They constructed awful rosters, employed a horrendous coach, but never managed to get lucky in the draft lottery. The Bulls under GarPax drafted seventh in three consecutive years.
The historical success rate of the seventh pick in the draft is lower than you'd expect, and for 2/3 of the Bulls choices from that position to develop into above-average starters should be considered a win for the scouting department. Of course, those two players didn't flourish until after leaving the Bulls. Why didn't Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. pan out in Chicago? Both were one-and-done prospects who naturally needed time to develop physically and mentally, and perhaps both would have flourished with the Bulls had the team been more patient. But I think it is more likely that both players would have failed to reach the level of play they've shown this season in their new situations.
The Bulls consistently struggle to develop talent and invest in their young pipeline and haven't had a real success story since Jimmy Butler. They were one of the very last organizations to have their own G League team, a preposterously shortsighted and cheap decision from one of the most valuable franchises in American sports. They famously run their scouting and analytics departments with skeleton crews, and definitely do not invest in their player development staff.
They also failed to show any creativity when it came to trades or cycling prospects in and out of the end of their roster throughout the tanking period. They netted only one first round pick via trade during the four year playoff drought when they sent Nikola Mirotic to New Orleans. They promptly wasted that extra pick on Chandler "The Promise" Hutchison.
They also never truly committed to bottoming out. Part of that was LaVine being very effective, but part of it was decisions to give up assets and young players for Otto Porter Jr. and Tomas Satoransky. Neither of them threatened to make an All-Star team while in Chicago, but they provided steadiness that the organization should not have wanted.
Time To Win
GarPax oversaw four long and painful years of rebuilding, and ostensibly had nothing to show for it. None of their draft picks looked capable of ascending to stardom, and they finally destroyed their credibility with the Reinsdorfs after the Boylen debacle, declining attendance, and literal billboards springing up around Chicago begging for them to be fired.
Bulls fans received 50% of their wish with the dismissal of Gar Forman. John Paxson, who apparently inked a lifetime employment contract with the Bulls after sinking a game-winning shot in the 1993 finals, stepped down from his role as VP of Basketball Operations and moved into a "senior advisor" role.
Keeping Paxson on board was a huge inflection point for the trajectory of the franchise. Rather than move fully into a new era, the edict from ownership was to advance to the next phase of the plan Paxson put in motion with the Butler-LaVine trade. I assume that the pitch AK made to win his position was that he could work with the parts he inherited and turn them into a team that could net ownership at least two home playoff games per season. I imagine spending your job interview telling the interviewer about what an awful job they did would not be a winning strategy.
Hiring Billy Donovan as coach was the official signal that the rebuild was finished. Donovan was the reigning coach of the year in Oklahoma City but parted ways with the team after they signaled their desire to dive headfirst into the tank.
Karnisovas took his big swing just before the trade deadline in his first season when he flipped Wendell Carter Jr. and two first round picks for Vucevic. He was extremely aggressive the following offseason, signing Lonzo Ball and sending out another first round pick for DeRozan. The Bulls quietly extended Billy Donovan's contract at the end of last season.
We are barely two years into the pivot from losing on purpose, and I highly doubt that 86-year-old Jerry Reinsdorf is ready to embark on another five years of sucking. To Reisndorf and Paxson, things are going according to plan. They broke their playoff drought and fans are re-engaged. Sure, Jimmy Butler has been to an NBA finals and another conference finals, but Zach LaVine is an All-Star and they just gave him $215 million!
This organization does not strive to win a championship. The goal is to be good enough to get exactly two extra home games per year, and avoid things like the luxury tax and reputable medical staffs. They can tell fans they have three All-Stars AND a hometown kid, and they know that's good enough to sell t-shirts and quiet the billboard enthusiasts.
I feel sorry for Karnisovas, who rose to prominence after building the exciting core of the Denver Nuggets. We'll never know what his true team construction vision is because of the parameters he's been forced to work within.
What Do You Really Want, Really?
Most Bulls fans I talk to want them to blow it up. Everyone fantasizes about a Windy City Process that would end with a championship or two. I feel very confident that this won't happen, and if I'm being honest I don't even want them to try.
Those four tanking seasons sucked. I watched significantly less Bulls basketball over that stretch, and always was quietly hoping they would lose. This was a soul-crushing exercise for any fan, and even worse when there is so little faith that the organization could build a winner. I lost the will to blog.
I understand tanking is technically the best strategy to win a championship. Most dominant teams in the history of the NBA were built through homegrown stars, and the best way to get a home-grown star is to be very bad for a long time.
But that strategy only improves your chances of success on the margins. The Warriors dynasty is built on a seventh, 11th, and 35th pick. The Celtics may be kicking off a dynasty of their own–built with players they drafted–but those picks came via the Brooklyn Nets, and the Celtics never suffered a sustained period of losing after they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. The 76ers have not advanced beyond the second round in the Process era.
And who's to say the Bulls would have more success with rebuild number two? They'd be very reliant on ping-pong ball luck this year, with their pick owed to Orlando if it falls below four. Do you really think they'll make the investments in scouting and development necessary to ensure anything other than a repeat of recent history? The most likely scenario under the Reinsdorf regime is we spend another half decade in despair and re-emerge right where we’re at today.
Do you actually want to go back to rooting for the team to lose? Be honest, I know it's easy to say "yeah, part of the plan!" But I'm guessing that the vast majority of you reading this have real things in your life, like a career or a family, and when you have a free night to enjoy basketball you'd prefer to watch a team built to compete. You want to check the box score while you drink coffee and marvel at another 30 point DeRozan performance. You want your group chat to be alive with Bulls chatter. You will not sleep easier knowing the Lakers could maybe possibly be bad in 2029. Tanking is a younger man's game.
And that's perfectly fine! Me and you are not NBA executives, our self-worth is not tied up in how many championship teams we construct. It's ok to have fun rooting for the eighth seed. So have fun! Don't be frustrated the Bulls aren't maximizing their championship odds–I don't think you actually want them to.