CHICAGO -- They say the last thing an NBA franchise ever wants to be is stuck, as in stuck in the middle of the pack, not good enough to contend for a championship yet not bad enough to land a high lottery pick as the surest way of getting unstuck.
There is, however, something worse than stuck. There’s lost.
That’s what the Chicago Bulls are. Lost on top of stuck.
Oh, they might not think so because, at any given moment, the Bulls are going this way or that way. Cinching the straps on their pith helmets tighter and striding boldly forward, it’s understandable Bulls management might mistake that for an actual direction -- until the drone soars higher and reveals them to be stomping through the jungle aimlessly. Sometimes in circles, sometimes in trapezoids, their Garvin gone buggy, crisscrossing and then doubling back.
The proud franchise of Jordan and Pippen has gone hither and yon.
The takeaways from the Bulls’ trade-deadline maneuvers and subsequent explanations by vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman were:
1. The Celtics’ interest in Jimmy Butler never translated into a tangible offer too good for the Bulls to refuse. But that could change by this year’s Draft.
2. Butler is the Bulls’ guy today, right now. As in, wait, here it comes … right now! There, that moment. Oops, there it goes. OK, this moment. Uh, can everybody just synchronize their watches for this?
3. Although rebuilding is a really tough process in the NBA, it also is slow. So Chicago will try to do in 25 games what it should have been doing in 82.
4. The Bulls were well within their rights to have gone all Fred Sanford on Doug McDermott. That is to say, they brought him into their world and they’re the ones who took him out of their world.
5. Everybody’s job is safe. Except for, y’know, the players’.
Having traded veteran forward Taj Gibson and underdeveloped scorer Doug McDermott with a second-round pick to Oklahoma City Thursday for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne, the Bulls finally acknowledged eight months late what this season should have been about.
Now, without further ado (but after a whole lot of ado through the first 57 games), coach Fred Hoiberg is going to hand long minutes to Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine. Thus kicks in the “younger and more athletic” portion of 2016-17 for the Bulls. Which was supposed to be the theme all along except for the older and less athletic players who soaked up so much time through the season’s first four months.
It would be time to play McDermott, Tony Snell and Marquis Teague, too, except those three -- three of the team’s past five first-round draft picks -- aren’t around anymore. So look for Portis, Valentine, Cristiano Felicio, Paul Zipser, Michael Carter-Williams, Jerian Grant and however many other point guards-of-the-future the Bulls can procure to help them close out the schedule.
Will Chicago maintain or firm up its grip on an Eastern Conference playoff spot from here out? Actually, it seems well-positioned and better equipped now to backstroke its way out of the postseason entirely. Landing that owed, extra first-round pick from Sacramento looks to be a long shot -- it’s protected through the top 10 and the Kings no longer have Boogie Cousins to help them win a few additional games -- and they pried nothing loose from Boston, but the Bulls still have their own pick to bathe in lottery waters.
Based on the names cited above, of course, fans have no faith that one will deliver a bonafide player either.
McDermott represents the last bit of draft craftwork by Paxson and Forman and it got sealed as a failure with Thursday’s trade. They don’t like being reminded that they swapped two first-round picks in 2014 -- Denver turned those into Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, since turned into Mason Plumlee -- along with three second-rounders to get their hands on McDermott, one of the biggest scorers in NCAA history.
McDermott was hobbled by knee surgery as a rookie, dealt with a couple concussions this season, was overseen by two different coaching staffs and, through all that, still is shooting a career 40 percent from 3-point range. Only now he will do so for OKC, despite what was supposed to be the perfect match of coach (Hoiberg) and player. That mentorship is over after 125 games and the Bulls, last in the league in 3-point shooting (31.6 percent), just got worse.
Gibson was moved because NBA prudence says you don’t lose for nothing an impending free agent you’ve already decided not to re-sign. The Bulls let that happen with Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah last summer and so were determined to extract something, anything, of value for Gibson.
Except that now they’re missing a voice they need in their locker room over the next two months. It was Gibson’s voice they needed when the team nearly pulled apart in January -- think Butler’s and Dwyane Wade’s criticism of teammates, followed by Rajon Rondo’s notorious Instagram post -- and it was Gibson’s voice Hoiberg has needed, defending the coach, for most of his tenure.
Some bottom-up Hoiberg supporters still might emerge in the locker room, but none will be able to speak with Gibson’s authority or sincerity.
Mostly it will come top-down in the sort of reassurances his bosses offered to reporters Thursday.
As for the Bulls’ plan or, as stated above, lack thereof, pulling teeth in slow motion seems to about cover it. The roster is threadbare, weighed down by a bargain bin of dubious point guards. Butler surely has no more confidence now in the folks pulling the strings than he had days, weeks or months ago. Rondo will remain a hostage for a while longer, since the Bulls see his $3 million guarantee for next season as a legit trade chip. Meanwhile Wade has to be busy figuring out how he can both get his money for next season ($23.8 million) and get the heck out of this mess.
It’s ironic because if the Bulls’ alleged plan resembles anyone’s, it is most like the Miami Heat’s of about 10 years back. In 2007-08, only 16 months removed from winning the NBA championship, Miami faced the grim task of hitting the reset button. It breathed deeply, held its nose, then took a dumpster-dive in the East standings, plummeting from 44 victories the season before to 15.
With Wade (51) and a 35-year-old Shaquille O’Neal (33) combining for just 84 appearances but with Ricky Davis making a robust 82, Miami fleshed out its roster as if casting the non-descript opposing team in a Hollywood move. Their horrible season was rewarded with the No. 2 overall pick, which Pat Riley used on … Michael Beasley?
Riley did flip the coaching reins to Erik Spoelstra, though, who coached up the Heat to 43 and 47 victories and consecutive playoff berths the next two seasons. But the real turnaround came in the summer of 2010 thanks to Wade’s friendships with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, the Heat’s stellar salary-cap management, Riley’s six-ring persuasiveness as a closer and all of south Florida’s sunny appeal to the NBA’s elite free agents.
The Bulls presumably have Butler in the Wade role, an in-his-prime All-Star capable of making a recruiting pitch. They even figure to have cap space. But everyone with six rings who mattered at the Bulls’ basketball level is gone. And for whatever reasons -- from the weather to management’s player-unfriendly reputation lingering since the Jordan-Pippen years -- Chicago is not a reliably appealing free-agent destination. Hasn’t been for going on two decades.The Bulls went shopping for LeBron James but all they came home with was this Carlos Boozer T-shirt.
The bosses got a little defensive Thursday, making sure to share any blame for the McDermott move in 2014 with the coaches at the time (that would be Tom Thibodeau and staff) and reminding Bulls fans that Derrick Rose got hurt.
They seemed especially motivated, too, to quell rumblings that there was division in their ranks. No way, no how, were there differences on the team’s talent and direction from the group that includes Paxson, Forman, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and president/chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf.
A monolith, though, is a lot less reassuring these days than a compass would be.
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