The Chicago Bulls' Year in Review
Sam Smith reflects on his top 10 for the Bulls in 2017.
We don't much do the year end thing in the NBA. It's seasonal, except perhaps when you're in Chicago, where we know our seasons are only winter and road construction.
The NBA new year begins in September, and for the Bulls this one is the yin for last year's yang, or whatever expletive we ended up calling it. Heck, for the 2017-18 Bulls, there already have been two seasons, the 3-20 one into December and the 10-2 once since then.
So as the Bulls prepare to close the calendar year Sunday in Washington, where the last year often has felt like the end of times, here's a look at the top 10 Bulls stories of 2017.
1. The Jimmy Butler trade.
It was about the fourth end of an era in the last decade following the end of the Hinrich/Deng/Gordon era, the Derrick Rose era, the Joakim Noah/Pau Gasol era. Did Carlos Boozer have an era? Butler grew into one of the elite players in the NBA with the Bulls nurturing, from the 30th pick in the 2011 draft to an All-Star game starter and all-league player. No team “wins” a trade giving up the best player. But it was time for the Bulls after two seasons of mediocrity with Butler the team leader and seemingly little path to significant improvement. So on draft night, Butler was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves and former coach Tom Thibodeau along with the Bulls draft pick, No. 16, for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to No. 7, which the Bulls used for Lauri Markkanen. The trade was quickly labeled a steal for the Timberwolves, who are on their way to their best season in more than a decade. But the three players the Bulls received, with LaVine soon to return from February knee surgery, quickly have established themselves as a potentially effective core for a rejuvenation of the franchise.
This is one of the most bizarre and unusual stories in franchise history. Any franchise. This includes the preseason fight in which Mirotic suffered broken bones in his face after being hit by teammate Bobby Portis in a scrimmage. Portis was suspended a franchise record eight games. Mirotic missed six weeks of the season. And then returned to be a spark plug for a Versa that became a Lamborghini. For three seasons, Mirotic has labored between bust and disappointment. And then he returned to the lineup as an inspirational figure, supporting the Bulls' view, albeit four years later, of star potential. The Bulls current run that is the best in the league for almost the last month coincides with less Mirotic's attendance than his impact, his shooting, defense, playing unselfishly, There were potential excuses before, an emergency appendix operation, coaching changes, lineup and rotation changes, too much flopping and pump faking. It's as if a new guy has taken over his body, which also happens to be the new NBA model, 6-10 with myriad skills. Mirotic often was the recipient of veterans' frustration, an easy target in film sessions for blame. Perhaps he could have handled it better. But in a new and welcoming environment he's prospered and may, indeed, be the kind of potential star with whom a team can restructure. Hey, look what they found!
3. The Bulls defeated the regular season Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics in a historic one/eight upset. Well, almost.
It also probably began the process to trade Butler and buy out Dwyane Wade. The Bulls went into Boston to open the 2017 playoffs and absolutely dominated the Celtics for a 2-0 first round series lead. The Bulls won Game 1 by four points with a big Butler game, 30 points, 19 from Bobby Portis and a late 14-4 run after Boston took a lead with five minutes left. There were circumstances with the automobile accident tragedy of the sister of Celtics star Isaiah Thomas. But then the Bulls led the entire Game 2, outscoring Boston in every quarter with Rajon Rondo staring down and seemingly intimidating Boston players. Rondo had 11 points, 14 assists and nine rebounds. But Rondo sustained a fractured thumb in the game and could not play again in the series. Even with having a healthy Butler and Wade, the Bulls were swept the next four games, essentially giving up in Game 6 at home. It made the case as good as any to come up with a new plan. The microwave bell sounded for that team.
4. My Vets Never Would Do That.
Perhaps my personal favorite story of the year even if it was a very painful time for the team. If the last four games in Boston was the end, this was the beginning of the end. It supposedly started with a blown 10-point lead in the last few minutes in a Jan. 25 loss to Atlanta in which Butler scored 40 points and Wade 33. The other eight players combined for about the same number of shots as Butler and Wade. First Wade and then Butler, the latter a bit less accusatory, blamed unnamed young players for not caring as much as they did. It seemed clear Wade persuaded a somewhat reluctant Butler to get on board for this erratic example of leadership. The back story was a few days before LeBron James had called out his team and organization as a leader demanding more. LeBron pointed to how the leading scorers in he, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were doing all the work. The message to Wade from James was to exert himself as he was also the star. But LeBron had been. Given Wade wasn't playing very well and never practiced and occasionally didn't even travel with the team, it seemed fugazy. Rondo, who was closer with those young players and estranged from Butler and Wade, seemed to recognize this immediately and responded with a social media lecture to Wade and Butler about how real veterans don't act like that since he played with real veterans like Garnett, Allen and Pierce. The best was yet to come, a team meeting in which Wade was asked to speak first and was pounced upon for his poor work habits by many of the young players: Where does he come off not even showing up for some road games questioning the work ethic of others, others who to a player all practiced longer and more regularly than he did. They agreed he was more celebrated, but challenge them on that, not what you never did, which was work, practice, mentor. The three were then benched to start the next game, ironically against Miami, as the Bulls lost and a contrite Butler was in a one for 13 funk for apparently having been talked into something he seemingly didn't believe in. What it also dramatically demonstrated, the same as the Portis/Mirotic incident, is a team isn't necessarily about being friends; it's about being professional. Though getting along better does make for an easier work place. Wade would later intercede to get more prominent roles for Rondo and Mirotic and the team would close the season winning seven of nine to get back to .500 and into the playoffs on the last day. And then almost to the conference finals?
5. The Finissher is just Beginning
Lauri Markkanen is the real deal and may be the prototype for the NBA's modern day and future center. Here's a seven footer who has weight to put on, who has a classic shooting stroke with the ability to play inside and an innate toughness. So I'll get this out of the way now. I was the one who asked him at his opening media conference if he was soft. I did apologize in advance for employing the American stereotype about international players. He seemed mildly annoyed—he's from Finland, after all, and was probably upset at the lack of fresh fish in Chicago as well—and rejected that characterization. More significantly, he immediately showed it, stepping into the starting lineup unexpectedly with the Portis/Mirotic contretemps and being the team's best player the first month. He made the game winner in the team's first win of the season, secured the third win with late free throws (the second win was a blowout in Orlando) and then had 24 points and 12 rebounds and the big three pointer in overtime in the fourth win, the one in Charlotte in Mirotic's return that began the current run. Markkanen is a seven footer from basketball crazy Finland—joking, there—who didn't rebound much in college despite being about a half foot bigger than everyone. Hello, Channing Frye. But this guy fries, bakes and heats up. He was driving and Finnishing with either hand in Friday's win over the Pacers and recovering from a mild shooting slump to pair with Mirotic in a dynamic one/two big man rotation. He's the real thing.
6. Jimmy-ball. The Butler Does it.
It could be unappealing at times, but Butler gave the Bulls a stadium full of thrills for the last several years with the physical declines of Rose and Noah. Butler's improvement was inspirational, from a defensive-oriented role player whom the coaching staff doubted even had starting potential to a go-to guy against some of the best in the game. Butler became one of eight Bulls all-time to play in at least three All-Star games, becoming one of the elite scorers in franchise history. And that being the franchise of Jordan, Pippen, Rose, Gilmore, Love and Walker. Butler had tormented the Toronto Raptors before, previously a 40-point second half that kept the very good Raptors from beating the Bulls for four years. Last season's Butler beauty was January 7, when with his third game of at least 40 points in a run of six games he scored 42 points to beat Toronto in overtime with 32 after halftime and a winner with 17 seconds left. Butler earlier that week had scored 52 in a win over Charlotte.
7. Kris Dunn finally gets the Point.
Zach LaVine was, in effect, the centerpiece of the Butler trade as a two-time dunk champion and near 20-point scorer. If he had not suffered a torn ACL, and his coach wasn't the coach who watched Derrick Rose's decline after his torn ACL, LaVine never would have been included in the trade. But for the Bulls, especially after the loss of Rose, as big a part of the trade was Dunn. They had considered the idea of trying to make a trade in the 2016 draft to get Dunn, then going No. 5 to Minnesota. In this NBA, the point guard position is perhaps the most valuable, having replaced the center in importance. Then Dunn comes to summer league, gets outplayed one game and has to leave for family reasons. Then in training camp and preseason he is outplayed by Jerian Grant and opens the preseason coming off the bench. And then gets hurt. Yes, this could take awhile. As it turned out, it didn't. Dunn moved in as the regular starter just before Thanksgiving and in less than a month has become the Bulls closer, making winning free throws to beat the Knicks, pressure late shots in wins over the Magic and 76ers, and should have been over the Nuggets. Had 14 assists against the Cavs, though in a loss, and 20 points and 12 assists in a second straight win in Milwaukee. It looked like the Bulls had found that rarest of guards.
8. But they could beat the Best.
The Bulls completed a 4-0 season sweep of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 99-93 win on March 30. The Cavs had all their big guns with James and Kyrie Irving combining for 46 points and Kevin Love, well, playing. Not well trying to score off Nikola Mirotic, who led the Bulls with 28 points. It was Mirotic's third game of exactly 28 points in a four-game stretch in that closing run of seven wins in nine games, most with Wade out injured. Mirotic led the Bulls in scoring in each of those three games, all wins, and in the five games all season he was the leading scorer the Bulls were 5-0. Perhaps we all were missing something there amidst all the turmoil. Wade led the Bulls in scoring in 17 games; they were 7-10 in those games. It was those kinds of games and a 2-1 record over the Raptors—Toronto won the last game with some questionable foul calls going their way in Toronto—that kept hope alive all season. And then the Bulls closed the regular season with victories by 47 points and 39 points to make the playoffs. It began to look like a veteran team that could surprise when the games mattered. And it almost manifested itself with the two wins in Boston. What if Rondo didn't get hurt?
9. The Incomparable Streak
The Bulls followed in November a 10-game losing streak that included a 30-point and 49-point loss, which wasn't all that unexpected for what was believed of them, with a seven-game winning streak in December, which was much unexpected. It became the first time in NBA history a team had paired those two extremes as the Bulls in their losing streak were ranked in the bottom five in virtually every offensive category and since then in the top five in most offensive categories. When the Bulls beat Boston by 23 in that winning streak, it was the largest margin of victory ever for a team with that low a winning percentage against a team that had won more than 80 percent of its games coming in. This with a Bulls roster that in average age is lowest in the league. Several Bulls players, including Dunn, Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Mirotic are having career best seasons.
10. They were the Champions.
There weren't enough wins in 2016-17, but this one March 2 was one of the best, not only over the soon-to-be-champion Golden State Warriors, but ending their league record of 146 straight games without a back to back loss. Kevin Durant was out, but Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green played. But Butler was best with 22 points, six assists and four steals. Portis starting for the traded Taj Gibson had 17 points and 13 rebounds. The Bulls ended the game on a 10-2 run after trailing, playing many of their best games against the Warriors and Cavaliers and with wins over the Spurs and Thunder and splitting the regular season with the Celtics. They coulda been a contender.