Why the Chicago Bulls Will Never Win Another NBA Championship
After their 2016–17 ended with a blowout loss to the Boston Celtics, the Chicago Bulls did what they always do. John Paxson and Gar Forman, the front men for the team and decision-makers in the front office, trotted out in front of the media and tried to explain the Bulls’ failure in a 41-41 season. In short, they refused to take any responsibility for the mess.
Instead, Paxson casually laid out the problems with the roster — 10 players with three or fewer years of service time and the worst three-point shooting in the NBA — at the feet of second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg. Paxson is almost certainly one of just a small group of people in the world who can’t contemplate the absurdity of blaming the team’s dysfunction on a coach he hired (in fact, the fourth head coach he’s been allowed to hire during his Bulls tenure).
This finger-pointing and lack of accountability at the top makes the Bulls one of the most poorly-run franchises in the NBA. Let’s dive into what’s going on and why the Chicago Bulls will never win another NBA championship.
The rebuild is poorly thought out
The Bulls will essentially sat out free agency again this year, instead opting to re-sign big man Cristiano Felicio and trade star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. In return for Butler, the Bulls received a package that featured injured guard Zach LaVine, poor-shooting point guard Kris Dunn, and a pick swap that moved them up a few spots in the first round of the 2017 draft.
This is what Paxson and Forman’s idea of rebuilding looks like. They traded their best young star but didn’t get any future draft pick assets in return. They believe that simply adding a few solid young players — in place of one of the best guards in the league — and clearing out some cap space will help them go after the big fish in free agency in the summer of 2018.
But the Bulls aren’t the kind of free agent destination that attracts valuable star players. They famously missed out on past stars such as Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Eddie Jones, LeBron James, and even the Chicago-native Wade (back in 2010, when he was still one of the better players in the league). When was the last time the Bulls signed a star player in his prime?
The roster is bad
Paxson and Forman’s past head-scratching moves (often called “GarPax”) include trading for and immediately releasing a young J.R. Smith; doing a salary-dump deal on a young Tyson Chandler; and being adamant about not giving up their young, core players in exchange for Kobe Byrant in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers.
In recent years, the team drafted Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, and Marquis Teague. While Valentine and Portis remain with the team, playing sparingly and providing occasional glimpses of potential, they’re deeply flawed players. Valentine has speed and athleticism issues while Portis struggles defensively. There’s no guarantee that either player develops into a player worthy of minutes on a contender.
Teague is long gone, and was never really good enough to play in the NBA in the first place. The Bulls traded Snell to the Milwaukee Bucks for Carter-Williams (Snell has developed into a solid role player there). The Bulls gave up a second-round draft pick to get Oklahoma City to take McDermott and Taj Gibson; they received only failed first-round draft pick Cameron Payne in return.
And really, the Bulls didn’t technically draft McDermott. They traded guard Gary Harris and forward Jusuf Nurkic to the Denver Nuggets on draft day in 2014 to acquire McDermott. In essence this deal gave up the two best players to the Nuggets. This details just a handful of recent moves that fans and analysts should scrutinize.
Chicago is left heading into the 2017-18 season with a mismatched roster that generally can’t shoot from the outside. This allowed teams to crash the lane when Butler had the ball. The Bulls do still have free agent Nikola Mirotic on the market weighing his options, and he could return to the team again next year. Mirotic is an outside shooting threat that probably has some development left, even at the age of 26. He shot 39.0% from three-point range in 2015-16, but saw that drop to 34.2% last season.
But as of now, the Bulls’ projected starting lineup next season looks like the ghost of Dwyane Wade, Paul Zipser, Robin Lopez, rookie Lauri Markkanen, and Dunn. The Bulls probably won’t be able to shoot too well from the outside yet again. Why, again, are big-time free agents going to sign with this team next summer?
Ownership doesn’t care
Jerry Reinsdorf’s purchase of the Chicago Bulls came in February 1985 for a reported total of $9.2 million. But that deal took months to materialize and actually began the previous August — mere weeks after the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. Since Reinsdorf walked in on a franchise that just acquired a player who eventually transcended the game, it wouldn’t be until after Jordan finally left for good that fans could really see some of the disturbing trends in Reinsdorf’s behavior.
He’s loyal, but loyal to a fault. Reinsdorf allowed General Manager Jerry Krause to drive out head coach Phil Jackson in 1998, prompting Jordan’s retirement and the dismantling of the dynasty. When the rebuild took too long for Reinsdorf’s taste, he allowed Krause to quit. Then, the franchise replaced him with Paxson. This was back in 2003, mind you.
Paxson’s directive was to make the Bulls competitive quickly at all costs. He was able to acquire talented young players such as Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng, making the team a middle-of-the-pack playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.
Paxson hired hard-nosed head coach Scott Skiles to lead those teams, until eventually Skiles wore out his welcome. The Bulls had a rough season in 2007–08, missed the playoffs, and lucked into the No. 1 pick in the draft, Derrick Rose. Paxson hired Vinny Del Negro, a former player with zero coaching experience, to lead the rookie Rose and the leftovers from Skiles’ teams. Two 41-41 finishes later, and Chicago sent Del Negro packing, too.
Along with Rose and new head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls built up one of the better NBA teams. But it wasn’t ever quite good enough to get past LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Then, Rose’s ACL tear in the 2011–12 playoffs sealed their fate for years to come. In 14 seasons under the watchful eye of Paxson (and nine with Forman as the general manager) the Bulls experienced one trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But Paxson and Forman’s jobs are safe. Reinsdorf won’t fire them so long as the Bulls continue to be profitable. Fans continue to fill the United Center to see the team play. The franchise has led the NBA in attendance in each of the last eight seasons. Since 2004, the Bulls haven’t finished lower than second in attendance.
Moves like bringing in Wade on an above-market contract are the organization’s way of drawing fan interest, not improving on the basketball court. The former Heat superstar doesn’t fit Hoiberg’s system, which relies on a high-tempo pace and outside shooting. But the Bulls spent the money anyway. Why? If it was truly for basketball reasons, you could make the argument that Paxson and Forman are completely out of touch with not only the offense of their own, hand-picked head coach, but also the direction of the entire league — moving toward more three-point shooting.
But it wasn’t for basketball reasons, at least not first and foremost. Having Wade’s championship pedigree on the roster and in the locker room is attractive, despite his heavy decline on the court. But signing him was way more about selling tickets and jerseys than it was about, you know, winning basketball games.
Let’s be clear: This is a toxic environment. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Suntimes reported this season that there was a mole in the front office. Someone spied on the players so that Forman could stay a step ahead. Paxson once got in a physical altercation with Del Negro, and got a promotion out of it. The best asset the franchise has had since Jordan (Thibodeau), was mercilessly run out of town. Unless Reinsdorf’s major priorities begin to change — when competing for a championship becomes the actual standard that Paxson and Forman are held to — the Bulls will to be a punchline around the league.
The Chicago Bulls are one of the saddest stories in the NBA. Once a proud franchise that boasted the greatest player to ever put on a basketball jersey, they’ve become remarkably mediocre. Unlike other professional sports leagues, such as the NFL or MLB, where merely making the playoffs can give you a chance of winning a championship, the NBA is not set up to allow for parity.
The Bulls have committed to rebuilding, but it’s hard to trust this front office with doing the process right. So long as the fans continue to show up and spend their hard-earned money, none of it will matter anyway. With Reinsdorf’s priorities clear, the Bulls simply don’t need to win a championship. Considering the ineptitude of Paxson and Forman, they probably never will.
Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Basketball-Reference.