Some assembly required: management must hold up their end of the bargain, construct contender
There’s nothing more irritating in life than putting together furniture. Struggling for three hours reading directions in a mishmash of French, Portuguese and English. You open a bag of screws, plastic caps, faux wood rods and pour them into a huge pile. About half way through, it hits you that none of the self-tapping screws will tap. You’re missing five screws. The bookshelf kind of leans to the left. One side is about six inches shorter than the other, by by the grace of God, it didn’t fall apart! You’re even able to put weight on it. Call it a moral victory, albeit an ugly one.
Less than four years after the Bulls brain trust assembled a squad to thwart the evil empire of South Beach, it’s apparent that Gar Forman and John Paxson forgot to pick up a few important pieces. Now more than ever, NBA franchises are assembling rosters spearheaded by a collection of superstar talent, a few key role players and a slew of also-rans. Whether fans agree or not, that’s the new blueprint.
After missing out on the LeBron/Wade duo during the “Summer of LeBron”, the Bulls snagged double-double machine Carlos Boozer to a lucrative deal to nestle between front court mates Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. They rounded out their bench with sharpshooter Kyle Korver, basically stole CJ Watson from the Warriors, and then picked up Ronnie Brewer for good measure. They were also able to coax Turkish big man Omer Asik to cross the pond, forming one of the deepest rosters in the league.
We all know the story — the Bulls steamrolled through the regular season, dispatching the East until meeting their untimely demise in conference finals. The year after — another epic regular season. This time, something happened no finely-tuned roster can overcome:
**I’ll spare posting the picture of Derrick Rose lying on the floor, clutching his knee. It’s burnt into the Bulls’ collective’s head forever. Give me a minute, I need to throw a chair through my living room window.***
The elephant in the room during the “Summer of LeBron” was the lack of payroll flexibility the Bulls had over the next three seasons. Feast or famine, our roster was set. We were going to win with these guys or lose with these guys… and pay them a lot of money.
Two years in, the front office began panicking and dispatched a large portion of the Bench Mob. Conventional wisdom to fans was simple — our starting rotation is still in tact, so we can still handle anyone! After the second devastating Derrick Rose injury, the narrative is the same. Building a roster focused on defense and Derrick Rose’s ability to burn point guards off the dribble is fine, but never giving him a crutch (I swear the pun wasn’t intended…) was bound to blow up in GarPax’s face. We need that Ray Allen-type urning off a defender’s shoulder on a screen and finding a cozy spot 20 feet from the basket that he can drill on command.
Even with Rose back in the fold this year, the Bulls were once again struggling to fill the bucket. Near last in the NBA in true field goal percentage, points per game, offensive efficiency, turnover ratio, among others, makes it evident Rose desperately needs help. Carlos Boozer continues to give Chicago 16 and 8 every night and Luol Deng will always offer up defensive versatility on the wing and the occasional glut of offense, but neither is that cornerstone guy who Rose can depend on.
If last year is any barometer, the rest of the league knows this team is going to scrape to the tune of 40-something wins and a brutal one or two series playoff performance. Thibs’ defensive mindset and ridiculous ability to squeeze 150% out of any player will prove to over-achieve. At the end of the day, 40-something wins won’t result in an NBA championship.
The dichotomy of “tank” and “play for rank” will loom over the Bulls season. Some talking heads are calling this the deepest draft since 1984. Franchise players abound, the Bulls could offer up a godfather deal to a lottery-bound team in hopes to score a top five pick, which is almost certain to net a future superstar. But with tantalizing names like Parker, Wiggins, Randle, Exum, and Smart hovering over each loss, most teams will be hard pressed to give up such lofty potential unless they’re sure to duplicate it.
Unlike the last few seasons, the Bulls do have salary flexibility that could be enticing to contenders looking to add a complimentary piece. Luol Deng ($14.27M), Kirk Hinrich ($4.0M) and Nazr Mohammed ($885K) all represent expiring deals. The Bulls could look to make a deal in order to add an elite talent in return for salary relief. They could also wait until those salaries fall off the books and look to deal Carlos Boozer in the offseason, when his massive salary ($16.8M) becomes an expiring deal. Potentially freeing up nearly $36 million would give the Bulls plenty of room to add multiple impact players and replenish their once stifling bench. If you throw in the rights to Nikola Mirotic and the juicy Bobcats pick that keeps decreasing in pick protection, a team could get antsy and pull the trigger.
It’s a conflict of interest for Thibs, though. If his baritone drawl, stifling demeanor and equally imposing defensive mindset is any indication, there’s zero chance he’d agree to a mulligan season. But uh, news flash, coach — that’s what last year was. This could finally be the window the Bulls need to renovate their roster on the fly and position themselves to score big both in the draft and subsequent offseason.
The Bulls future isn’t a matter of Derrick Rose’s health, despite the overwhelming sentiment from fans. From day one, the Bulls made it clear he’d be the focal point, healthy or not. With nearly $60 million owed to him over the next three years (not including this year), he isn’t going anywhere, especially now that he’s sporting RoboCop’s knees. One would think that after this year, the Bulls will look to build around (a hopefully healthy) Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler. It comes down to finally adding that piece, because with or without Rose, the secondary scorer is absent.
But can the Bulls win a title with Joakim Noah as their second best player? What about Jimmy Butler? Will he be able to take a Paul George-like leap into superstardom? And the biggest question — is Derrick Rose ever going to be Derrick Rose again? Typing that made my stomach hurt, but it’s the reality Bulls fans live in.
I’m banking on a change in philosophy from the front office. Letting Luol Deng walk would be tough. Risking giving big money to star is always stressful, but if the Bulls want to make sure their furniture looks the same as the picture, they absolutely have to take that step. Who they might get doesn’t matter, they have to make up their mind that it’s a path (and risk) they’re willing to take. Heck, they’ll already risking it by having to put their faith back in Derrick Rose. It’ll be interesting to see who they get to join him on the ride.