The Chicago Bulls have been the definition of mediocre since Michael Jordan left following their sixth championship in eight years, all the way back in 1998. In the 19 seasons prior to 2017-18, the Bulls have totaled a 709-801 record. If you cut that down to just the last 13 seasons, however, Chicago has compiled a 590-460 record and has appeared in the playoffs 11 times.
But in those 11 trips to the postseason, the Bulls have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals just once. That comes with zero trips to the NBA Finals. In maybe only two seasons could the phrase “championship contender” have legitimately applied to the team.
In their most recent rebuilding effort following two painfully mediocre seasons, the franchise seemed to finally admit that consistently grabbing a No. 5 seed in the East isn’t getting them anywhere. So they hit the reset button and bottomed out. But somewhere along the way, the team decided to start winning again. And that could really cost them. Let’s look back on what happened, and why the Bulls’ recent winning stretch could doom their rebuild.
7. Signing Wade in a misguided attempt to win now
To look at why the Bulls are actually attempting a rebuild, we need to first travel back to the summer of 2016. Chicago had added free agent point guard Rajon Rondo to play alongside star forward Jimmy Butler, but their big splash was yet to come. Dwyane Wade was interested in leaving Miami and coming home to Chicago, despite being well past his prime at the age of 35.
The Bulls gave Wade a two-year, $47 million contract that was obviously a terrible idea from day one. Not only would Wade, Rondo, and Butler make for an awful fit on the court, but the team’s dysfunction and overall lack of success in their 41-41 season (complete with the requisite first-round exit) made the need for a rebuild painfully obvious.
The Bulls reached a buyout with Wade, but they ended up paying him $23.2 million for the mediocre 2016-17 season and $15.5 million to play with LeBron James in Cleveland in 2017-18.
6. Breaking up the Bulls … again
After losing to the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, the Bulls committed to the rebuild with a surprising draft night deal. They sent Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves (shockingly, along with their own first round draft pick) in exchange for guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, as well as the No. 7 pick that they used to draft forward Lauri Markkanen.
Later, Rondo’s option would be declined and the buyout would be reached with Wade. The Bulls did bring back Nikola Mirotic on a one-year deal (with a team option), but the direction was clear: Chicago was set on seeing what young players such as Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser, Jerian Grant, and others might have to contribute. And if that squad ended up being as bad as many assumed, they’d get a top-three pick in next June’s draft.
5. Fighting among teammates is a sign of trouble ahead
The early signs with the 2017-18 Bulls pointed to a lack of cohesion. Head coach Fred Hoiberg was back for his third season after being viewed largely as a failure in his first two. Players openly undermined the head coach last season, which caused a major divide in the locker room. Hoiberg was viewed by outsiders as sitting on the hot seat.
Things didn’t get any better in training camp. Mirotic and Portis got in a serious altercation during practice, leading to the latter punching the former in the face. Mirotic suffered a concussion and several fractures, causing the Bulls forward to miss a large portion of the season. Portis, for his part, was suspended by the team for eight games.
The drama continued through the media, with Mirotic reportedly refusing to acknowledge Portis’ attempts at reconciliation and refusing to speak to him when they’re not on the court together. The rest of the players have largely sided with Portis, giving off the vibe that it’s Mirotic that needs to go. And there’s a great chance he will be traded when he’s eligible after Jan. 15, but that could depend on a few different factors.
4. Possibly the worst team in the NBA
The Bulls struggled without LaVine, Mirotic, and Portis for the early part of the season. They went 2-6 in the eight games during Portis’ suspension, then 1-14 in the next 15 games before Mirotic finally made his season debut on Dec. 8. Heading into that game against the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago sat at 3-20. That put them on pace to win 10 or 11 games.
At that time, it looked like the veterans of the team would be traded for draft picks and future assets to further the rebuild. The young kids remaining on the roster would play out the string, tanking their way to the worst record in the league. Indeed, at 3-20 the Bulls had the worst record in the NBA. But that all changed in a very big way.
3. Mirotic returns and LaVine is on his way, too
In the first 12 games with Mirotic back on the floor, the Bulls were a very different team. They went 10-2 in that stretch, with the forward coming off the bench and averaging 18.1 points and 7.3 rebounds with 48% shooting from three-point range. Chicago then lost their next three games (all to serious playoff contenders) to bring their record to 13-25. That’s not good enough to think about sneaking into the playoffs just yet, but they entered play on Jan. 3 just six games behind the Indiana Pacers for the No. 8 seed.
Outside of Mirotic, there are other positives. Valentine and Portis have furthered their development, while Dunn has started to show flashes of talent that could someday make him one of the best point guards in the NBA. He has averaged 16 points, 7.6 assists, and 46.2% shooting over his last 18 games.
On top of it all, LaVine will soon be returning to the court after requiring ACL surgery late last season. Prior to his injury, the former Slam Dunk Champion was averaging 18.9 points per game. Even if the Bulls don’t find their way back into playoff contention, their recent run has knocked them down to the seventh-worst record in the league.
2. The bad outweighs the good
It should somewhat go without saying, but all of this is objectively bad for the Bulls. The idea behind the rebuild and the timing weren’t an accident. The front office wanted to get a high pick or two in the next draft to add another star-quality player to go along with Dunn, Markkanen, and LaVine. Along the way, the Bulls could deal Mirotic, Robin Lopez, and maybe even Justin Holiday to contenders in exchange for young players and draft picks.
Now, there is serious concern that the Bulls’ front office will fall in love with their exciting young playoff-challenger. It’s an uphill climb to get back to .500, but once they’re completely healthy it’s not out of the question. The good part is that young players like Dunn and Markkanen have developed quicker than originally hoped, and that’s fantastic. But holding this team together to chase the eighth seed, while good for player development, would cost the Bulls the ability to add assets and finish with a record that’s bad enough to hit gold in the draft lottery.
1. Franchise-altering talent in the 2018 draft
The difference between drafting in the top three and No. 14 or 15 — where an eighth seed might pick — is a large chasm. In 2018, the difference between the top three and No. 7 might mean missing out on the next LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh to grab the next Kirk Hinrich, Chris Kaman, or T.J. Ford.
DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, and Michael Porter Jr. all have the talent to become franchise-altering superstars for the next decade. Beyond that? Plenty of talent, but it’s questionable whether Mohamed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Collin Sexton will ever develop into top-five NBA players at their respective positions.
If the Bulls are lucky, they’ll lose just enough games to allow management to get away with dealing Mirotic, Lopez, and anyone else not in their long-term plans before All-Star Weekend. They currently are just three games ahead of the league-worst Atlanta Hawks in the standings, which leaves open the chance of landing one of those top picks. But without a doubt, the Bulls’ recent winning ways have put their rebuild in serious danger.