The start of the last season of that old Bulls gang we came to both love and despair over so much probably went something like this message, perhaps more understated, unsaid, if also apparent.
It was that you guys have been in this run for five or six years. You haven’t gotten there. We added a center with a championship pedigree to try for one more time. You asked for it. We’ll try something new again with a coach, but just one more time. You guys want to be trusted that way? OK, it’s on you.
So when the Bulls missed the playoffs last season, the path, if not pleasant, was probably clear.
It was time.
“We had this window of opportunity,” Bulls General Manager Gar Forman said at a press conference late Wednesday afternoon in announcing the trade of Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks. “Obviously, injuries played a part where we couldn’t reach our ultimate goal to be a championship team. But we thought we had a window to compete at a high level. But through injuries and age…,we felt that window was coming to a close.
“A year ago you could start to see signs it was coming to a close,” Forman added. “But we didn’t have a lot of (financial) flexibility and we wanted to give the group as it was another year to see where we could go. We also talked about putting together a plan moving forward.
We feel we need to get younger, get more athletic; obviously, we need to find players who will fit the style of play Fred (Hoiberg, coach) wants to play and fit the players we have on our team. In making this trade, we feel it’s the first step in that direction.”
And so, shockingly, if not surprising, the Bulls parted with one of the elite players in franchise history.
It was a trade stunning in its reality as Rose was arguably the most successful player in franchise history after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. But at the same time given the uncertainty with his history of ghastly injuries, his pending free agency after next season and the team’s failure to even crack the top eight in an average Eastern Conference, it made sense that it was time to try something different.
While it was a shock given the success of Rose as a league MVP and three-time All-Star, it also was a relief in that the Bulls were able to obtain three players, including a highly regarded collegian from last season, Jerian Grant, to begin a process to massage the team back to a high level of competitiveness.
And though it’s not something easily discussed, this also is a time when LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are dominating the Eastern Conference. Perhaps take a season or so to begin to put in place a younger, faster and more athletic team to potentially be elite as the Cavs’ run phases out.
The Bulls in the deal received Grant, a 6-4 combo guard who is the nephew of former Bull Horace Grant. He was highly valued by the Bulls last season, drafted just ahead of them at No. 19. Lopez serves as good insurance in case the Bulls lose both free agent centers Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Lopez has been a reliable big man, playing all 82 games last season and in many respects similar to Noah in running the court and primarily setting screens and rebounding. Veteran Calderon fits with one year left on his contract to occupy the point guard position as the Bulls develop their young backcourt to play with All-Star Jimmy Butler.
“Robin Lopez, we feel, is a very solid center who is a rebounder, defender, can run the floor; he fits the type of guys we want here,” said Forman. “He’ s a guy under contract long term and is a fit. Jerian Grant, a year ago, he was very high on our draft board, was somebody we were hoping would slide to our position and we feel he is a fit in transition with pace and pick and roll. In our minds, it’s like getting another first round pick.
“Jose Calderon,” Forman said, “has been a solid player and someone who will bring professionalism, shoot the basketball and can run a team. We think this is the first step in this process; everything is not going to happen in a day. We’re excited about the 14th pick (in Thursday’s draft); we think we are going to get another good player there and we maintained the (free agent) flexibility we have. We’ve got the possibility of two first round picks next year; there’s going to be another spike in the salary cap and feel it’s a good first step for us today.”
That was another point that with the salary cap rising tens of millions of dollars this summer and next, the Bulls would be in strong position with fewer long term, large deals to enter free agency to fit the team they are hoping to move forward with. There’s an increased emphasis in the NBA now on speed and shooting, and coach Fred Hoiberg wants a chance to form a team in that image, which didn’t occur last season as players remained more attuned to the prior, slower method of play.
Plus, it eases the pressure from the organization of having to consider Rose’s pending free agency after next season with the distractions and discussion and still get players in return. The conventional wisdom was with Rose’s injury history and contract in excess of $21 million, the Bulls would have to play it out in Rose’s final season.
This move expedites their process.
In the short term, it’s a positive for the Knicks as team president Phil Jackson was anxious to make a bold move, even if risky. Plus, with an aging Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks were more motivated to add a potential star player—even without the guarantee of keeping him more than one season—to pair with Anthony before he began to decline.
The Bulls had to take the longer view as an organization.
Forman agreed it was not easy to trade a player like Rose even with the recent ambivalence regarding his play and intentions.
“It’s always difficult when you are going to trade someone like Derrick Rose,” said Forman. “Derrick obviously has meant quite a bit to this team, to this organization and to this city and we’re very thankful for everything Derrick brought to the table.
“We talked about where we are at, where we want to head and our process moving forward,” said Forman. “Even though it was very difficult to move someone like Derrick, we thought it was the right decision for the direction we are headed. Derrick was a big part of a lot of success we’ve had over the years. He helped us win a lot of basketball games. From where we were to where we want to head, we felt it was the right decision to make at this time.
“Over the last 10 or 12 years we’ve had a pretty high level of success,” Forman noted. “We’ve had the best record in the Eastern Conference over the last decade; Derrick was a big part of that. Over the last 12 years, I think we’ve been to more playoffs than any team in the Eastern Conference and in the top two or three in the league. We’ve had more above .500 records than any in the Eastern Conference and the top two three in the league.
“Derrick obviously has been through a lot with the injuries and you have to admire how he continues to work and fight through everything he’s had to in order to get back to the point he’s at right now,” said Forman. “Derrick is going to have a very good year; we are all confident of that. We wish Derrick nothing but the best. I hope he has a terrific year, but we had to make a decision we felt was best for us moving forward.
“Derrick gave you some clarity,” Forman explained. “In putting together a team one of the first questions we would ask as a front office was, ‘Does it fit Derrick Rose?’ Derrick was the MVP and arguably one of top three or four players in the league. So you are putting pieces together to chase that championship. And when he goes down, that obviously has an effect in a lot of different ways. In moving forward, we felt the players we are getting made sense in what we are trying to accomplish.
“This wasn’t a financial deal,” Forman emphasized. “This was a basketball deal; we like the players coming back to us. It was more from a team building standpoint to get this process started and try to put us in a different direction where we can have success down the road. I wouldn’t call it a rebuild; I’d call it a retool.
“We like a lot of the players we have on this roster and a lot of the young players starting with Jimmy, who is 26,” noted Forman. “Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, Doug McDermott, Niko (Mirotic), the first round pick, the possibility of two first round picks next year; so you can see where we are trying to go. Obviously, at the same time we are trying to put together the best team we can.
We felt this plan fit at this time with the process.”
But as Luol Deng was traded and Kirk Hinrich last season and perhaps no room for Joakim Noah to return, it is the end of an era with the trade of Rose. Like a death, we know it’s coming even if it’s always difficult to accept. It became the inevitable death of that Bulls team circa 2010, and the hope for a beautiful birth. It’s the cycle of life in the NBA as well.