This season was going to be different. There was going to be change. For the first time since trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn on draft night 2017, it felt like the Chicago Bulls were moving in the right direction. The playoffs were once again on the horizon.
Zach LaVine had become a legitimate number-one option and was primed for an All-Star year. Lauri Markkanen finished 2019 on a tear and seemed to be ready to take the next step. Wendell Carter, whose promising rookie year was cut short due to injury, brought in goals of becoming one of the best defensive players in the league. Otto Porter, acquired from the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline in 2019, was going to be the "do-it-all" guy.
Coby White was drafted seventh-overall to provide fast-paced offense and scoring, something the team greatly lacked. Thaddeus Young and Tomáš Satoransky were going to provide experience and leadership to help ease the transition of the young core into franchise cornerstones.
It's March 3, 2020. The Chicago Bulls are 21-40, sitting six games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. With a month-and-a-half remaining in the season, the playoffs are a distant dream crushed by broken promises and gross incompetence from management. The 2019-20 season is a lost cause; is all hope gone for the future of one of the NBA's most storied franchises?
Since Derrick Rose was drafted in 2008, the Chicago Bulls have been through plenty of change. They've gone from a lottery team, to a championship contender, back to the lottery. Vinny Del Negro, Tom Thibodeau, Fred Hoiberg, and Jim Boylen have paced the sidelines as head coach. Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, and Nate Robinson, among others, have donned the iconic white and red jerseys. Once a staple on ESPN Wednesday and TNT Tuesday and Thursday, the Bulls have been mitigated to exclusively local broadcasts.
The only constant? General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson. Since 2009, they've managed to become amongst the biggest enemies in Chicago sports (and NBA). It wasn't always #FireGarPax and billboards calling for their discharge. Gar Forman won Executive of the Year in 2011 following a 62-20 season in which Derrick Rose was named the league's youngest-ever MVP and Tom Thibodeau took home Coach of the Year. The duo has made good signings (Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol) but have failed to draft well (aside from Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler) and can't seem to bring in All-Star free agents, notably missing out on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in 2010 and Carmelo Anthony in 2014.
In 2015, GarPax famously pushed out Tom Thibodeau in favor of then-Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, a move that proved dismal and ended in Hoiberg's firing after two-plus seasons. Players haven't been shy about their frustrations with management. The Bulls' front office reputation is well-known, leading free agents to treat the United Center like a coronavirus quarantine. Until there's change made from the top, success won't be seen.
After All-Star weekend in Chicago this year, it was reported that the Bulls were looking to find a new general manager and move Forman to the scouting department. While it's a hopeful move, it doesn't bring forth change. Forman needs to be fired completely and should have zero say in front office decisions moving forward. This is a man who passed on Draymond Green for Marquis Teague, should he really be the one judging talent?
The last few years have been a circle-jerk of false promises and frequent disappointment. "We want to get younger and more athletic." Proceeds to sign aging Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. "Jim Boylen is our guy moving forward." Boylen instantly makes players do military push-ups after back-to-backs and gets a complaint from the Players Association. "We're making the playoffs this year." Six games back with about a month to go.
These guys aren't politicians who can lie and keep their jobs for decades. In professional sports, you miss your goals and you get fired. For a team that won six (!) championships in the '90s, it's wholly embarrassing to trot out a team that's bad because of mismanagement. At a certain point, the shield of the Rose-era has to be lowered and judgement needs to be placed.
What happens with the front office after the season is a massive factor for the team's short and long-term success. But not all hope is lost. Chicago has an extremely talented group that can grow alongside each other and become perennial playoff contenders.
The second-biggest detriment to the Bulls' success this year is injuries, something that's plagued the team for years. If it wasn't for one of the most famous injuries in basketball history, the Bulls could've been champions last decade (a few times). Just about every player has missed games to injury: Kris Dunn (10, now shut down for the season), Lauri Markkanen (15), Daniel Gafford (22), Wendell Carter (22), Chandler Hutchinson (33), Otto Porter (51).
If it weren't for Zach LaVine and Coby White remaining healthy for the whole season, the dismay felt by fans would be even stronger. The young core simply hasn't had enough time to play with each other and with players being hurt at different times, it becomes difficult to string together wins and build on-court chemistry. It's been the narrative for a few seasons, but if everyone can start the 2020-21 season healthy and stay healthy, playoffs are far from unrealistic.
Once the group meshes, they can be dominant. LaVine would've been an All-Star if the Bulls were better, as he's having a career year with 25.5 points (45/38.0/80.2), 4.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. Coby White is averaging 12.6 points per game in his rookie year and while he can be inconsistent, he just had three-straight games of 30-plus points. He was born in 2000; Coby's going to be good. Wendell is well on his way to becoming a double-double machine and adds a block and steal a night.
Lauri Markkanen, however, comes with the biggest question mark. He regressed this season, seeing drops in points (18.7 to 15) and rebounds (9 to 6.5). It may not be due to a lack of improvement or skill but rather Jim Boylen's system. Before his injury, Markkanen would often find himself on the bench to close out games and have the ball taken out of his hands due to 10 or 11-man rotations. Boylen is too focused on playing multiple guys and has never settled into a set group, never allowing players to get comfortable with each other. With a competent coach at the helm, Markkanen could keep building on the potential he flashed in 2018-19 and blossom into an All-Star.
This offseason is going to be huge. With the Bulls more than likely falling into the lottery, there will be a few prospects that could make a difference depending on what pick Chicago gets. LaMelo Ball, who's projected to go top-three in the draft, could be a perfect complimentary guard to LaVine. It's a pipe dream right now but if the Bulls want to keep building towards success, they need to nail this draft.
The pressure should be on for the franchise. Now is the time to turn a new leaf and finally move in the right direction. No more promises, no more bullshit. The talent is there and waiting to be utilized. The fans deserve better; the city deserves better.
Hope isn't lost, not yet. It's been tough to be a Bulls fan. The lows are low but the highs are like a fresh dab on a summer day. Victory is imminent and while patience is running out, a period of joy shall soon overcome the United Center.