Inside the Tank: Chicago Bulls

The season doesn’t start for almost two months, but the Bulls losing more than 50 games sounds like a sure thing.  In the twenty years since Michael Jordan left Chicago after winning his sixth title, his former team has been on a see-saw. From 1998-99 to 2003-2004, the Bulls failed to finish above 12th in the Eastern Conference.

As with every basement team, the top draft picks didn’t work out: Elton Brand, Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry, Jay Williams.  The losses eventually led them to the first pick in the 2008 draft.

The Bulls have been a staple in the Eastern Conference ever since they drafted Derrick Rose nearly ten years ago. They had it all: rising stars in Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, strong frontcourt players who could rebound and play lockdown defense. They had former Celtics assistant and defensive specialist Tom Thibodeau as their head coach. The Bulls had everything… except LeBron James, who stood in the way for the duration of the Bulls’ title window. LBJ aside, the Bulls were a promising team that looked ready to take over the East if LeBron were to get shot into the sky.

In their quest to get younger, cheaper power forwards, the Bulls struck gold with local product Jimmy Butler, an athletic defensive wing that can drive to the basket and score. His name quickly earned the NBA’s respect.

Unfortunately, Derrick Rose faced one injury after another: an ACL in 2012 (
“Holding on to his knee”), a torn meniscus in 2013, and a second torn meniscus in the same knee in 2015. He still stayed on the Bulls since he was under a hefty contract from his 2011 MVP season, but he wore out his welcome when reports came that he and Butler didn’t respect each other. Things continued to go south for the Bulls, as Joakim Noah went from Defensive Player of the Year in 2013-14 to losing his spot to Nikola Mirotic in 2015-16. Pau Gasol was brought in to get stronger on the boards.

After spending 2014-15 and 2015-16 in the middle of the pack, Gar Forman and John Paxton wanted to shake the team up. Old Thibs got the ax in favor of Fred “Bargain Brand Brad Stevens” Hoiberg. Either Jimmy Butler or Derrick Rose had to go, and they chose Rose. He was sent to the New York Knicks for no substantial return, except that Chicago could shed his contract in a salary dump. Jimmy Butler signed a 4-year max deal, and the Bulls struggled to make the investment worth it.

Their next moves were textbook examples of poor management. After the Heat refused to honor their promise of rewarding Dwyane Wade, the Bulls gave Wade everything he asked and more; 2 years and $47.5 million. But why stop there? The Bulls signed Rajon Rondo to a 2 year, $28 million deal, fresh off playing for a shitshow Kings team. MCW, Wade, Butler, Rondo. Put it all together and you have a team last in chemistry and 26th in 3-point percentage!!!

Unsurprisingly, photos leaked from Bulls training camp that there was already feuding in the Bull-pen. The result was one of NBA Twitter’s greatest gifts to the world:

The sloppy 2016-17 Bulls finished 41-41, but they came close to upsetting the top-seeded Boston Celtics before losing four straight after winning the first two games.  At the trade deadline, the Bulls dealt Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder for Cameron Payne, a prospect who played just 33 games last season.

Just as before, GarPax blew up the team again, except without signing another free agent to a bloated contract.  On draft night, the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to old pal Tom Thibs and the Timberwolves to swap picks, taking the Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and Zach LaVine in exchange.

A week later, the Bulls bought out Rajon Rondo and officially hopped in the tank. But wait, let’s not forget about Dwyane Wade, who’s still on the books for $24 million big ones. That’s not going away, since the Bulls sound firm on not wanting to buy Wade’s contract out. Instead, Chicago hopes to trade Wade to say, Houston and save money, or they’re going straight to the source and demanding Wade take a pay cut.

Remember, tanking destroys free agent interest in a team, even for a destination city like Chicago. Nobody wants to sign with the Nets right now because they can’t make a commitment to winning. The same is now true for the Bulls.

Signing a player to a huge contract and forcing them to give it back is suicide. If you wanna play hardball with players to escape your own mistakes, nobody’s gonna play for your team. Try as they might to make Wade look greedy, it only makes management look bad for signing the player to a big deal and not honoring that unspoken agreement. Ironically, or maybe not ironically, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf started as an IRS attorney before making his fortune as a lawyer and CPA.

The same goes for trading Jimmy Butler a year after signing him to a long extension. Why should any player believe that Gar Forman wants to build around them when they’re still treated like they have a year left on their deal? No way.  Now that Chicago’s ruined their other avenues for acquiring talent, their only option now is to build through the draft. The Bulls are faceless, and as flashy as Zach LaVine is, he’s not healthy or consistent enough to be a star at the moment.

The Bulls are in luck though, as they’re in the running for the top pick in next year’s draft, for a shot at Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley Luca Doncic, or Mo Bamba. Their problem is that they’re stuck competing with ten odd teams who are also tanking.  Stripping their team of NBA talent is one such way to do it. Since NBA teams won’t be thrilled with having to negotiate with Gar Forman, it seems most likely that the Bulls will eventually buy out Wade’s contract, and Houston or Cleveland will scoop Wade up if and when he becomes available.

In a deep dish of bad contracts, aging players, awful decisions by the front office and flat out bad luck, the Bulls rebuild is off to a sluggish start. Speaking of returning money, Jerry Reinsdorf can start a second team in Chicago with all of the players off the Bulls’ roster that are still on the payroll.

In the past week, the Bulls received a second round pick for taking on Quincy Pondexter’s awful contract from the Pelicans. Sound familiar?  Oh, you can just hear those tanks rolling in. It’s as close as it gets to Donald Trump’s wish of military intervention in Chicago.

Now the Bulls hope to move on from their return in the Thunder trade, Cameron Payne, due to his injuries. To make matters worse, an anonymous source says the Bulls knew Payne was too hurt to play and still did the deal. Why though? The Bulls would receive an injury exception that allows the Bulls to go over the cap to sign his replacement to up to half of Payne’s salary, or the mid-level exception, whichever’s less. In other words, free cap space to take more bad contracts to get more picks. Cap space and picks are what a tanking team needs.

Now the Bulls are primed to win less than 30 games even in a terrible Eastern Conference. Could a tank season be enough for Reinsdorf to send the clown show of Gar Forman and John Paxton out of town? Moving forward, it’s best that the Bulls find someone else. The same goes for coach Fred Hoiberg, who has failed to keep the egos on his teams in check.

The Bulls lucking out and selecting Porter Jr. first overall is just what they need, but can they do it? We will find out in nine months.


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