Long road to rebuilding just starting for Chicago Bulls

Hope of future talent, top Draft prospect no guarantee for Chicago right now

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

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Gregg Popovich pulled off one of the NBA’s earliest, and undeniably fastest, examples of losing to win — suffering through such a lousy season that extra Draft lottery chances were the only reward.

Early in the 1996-97 season, the San Antonio Spurs’ future Hall of Fame center, David Robinson, went down with injuries. He played just six games in a span of two weeks in December, by which time coach Bob Hill was fired.

The man who replaced Hill? Popovich, San Antonio’s general manager. He took over on the day a presumably healthy Robinson returned, only to lose the big man before Christmas.

With that, the Spurs’ direction was set. Hill unwittingly had shown the path with that 3-15 start and Popovich, more knowingly, stomped on the gas. San Antonio went 17-47 the rest of the way, finishing with a better record than only Vancouver (14-68) and Boston (15-67).

Then the Spurs caught the break and snagged the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft.

Several good prospects, from Keith Van Horn to Chauncey Billups to Antonio Daniels to Tim Thomas to prep phenom Tracy McGrady, went anywhere from No. 2 to No. 9 overall.

But there was only one Tim Duncan. Popovich grabbed him, teamed him up front with a healthy Robinson and never looked back. San Antonio went from 20 victories to 56 — a bigger improvement by one game than when Robinson arrived in 1989 — and has made the playoffs, with five NBA championships, every year for two decades since.

Scrapping that 1996-97 season was like a boxer spitting out a tooth in the first round, then dominating the rest of the fight. It remains the gold standard for tank jobs and quick bounce-backs, which Popovich talked about over the weekend.

“Good fortune always helps, and we certainly had that,” Popovich said before Saturday’s game against Chicago at the United Center. “And you hope you’ve done your homework. That you’ve done enough research into what kind of character guys have and how they’re going to adjust to team play, and if they have the mental ability to grow and to learn and to become better players. Because lots of times, it’s not a question of physicality, it’s between the ears. And that’s a function of character.”

While Popovich was talking, Cameron Payne — a point guard who is part of the Chicago Bulls’ deep dive into lotteryland this season — came rolling down the hall. His right leg, bent at the knee, rested on the scooter while he pushed off with his left. The 23-year-old has played in 88 games in three-plus seasons and in 11 of a possible 25 since being acquired in February. He glided toward the home dressing room as essentially a poster guy for the risks and unpredictability of losing with a purpose.

When a team’s world gets intentionally turned upside down the way Chicago’s has, every take must flip-flop as well. Payne’s unavailability while he recovers from offseason foot surgery normally would be a drag; now it’s a good thing, since it thins the herd of potentially available players. (Never mind that Payne struggled so obviously when he did appear for the Bulls late last season that losing might be easier with him on the floor.)

Zach LaVine (left ACL rehab) and Kris Dunn (left index finger dislocation) are two more players whose injuries allegedly have hobbled Chicago — unless their inexperience and mistakes could accelerate the losing.

That Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident last week was an organizational embarrassment. One thing Chicago had hoped to do this season was to stay below most NBA fans’ radar, discreetly coughing up games while demonstrating only flashes of pluck and potential. Portis’ practice-court haymaker to Mirotic wrenched an unwanted spotlight in the Bulls’ direction.

Then again, it sure was an effective way to handicap coach Fred Hoiberg and his coaching staff as far as available bigs. Rookie Lauri Markkanen has demonstrated skills and nerve, but he got thrown into the tank, so to speak, against the Toronto Raptors’ Serge Ibaka and San Antonio Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge in his first two NBA games.

Chicago’s first two games also served as examples of what the remaining 80 might look like. Against the Raptors, things were fine in the first, third and fourth quarters. But oh, that second quarter, a 33-14 blowout. Then the Bulls hung in with the Spurs for much of their home opener, except for San Antonio’s 17-4 run through the middle of the third.

That figures to be the best the Bulls can hope for — and presumably even desire — on most nights: Six to 12 minutes where they get swatted down like the pests they hope to be. Many nights will be worse, of course, in wire-to-wire dismantlings. But securing defeats in mere portions of games would allow them to claim *cough* moral victories, good energy and learning moments in an otherwise cynical and unfulfilling season.

It’s head-spinning to realize how recently the Bulls had ambition. Chicago native Derrick Rose became the league’s youngest-ever Kia MVP in 2011 and, in and around his injuries, was part of a five-year window with coach Tom Thibodeau where winning mattered. Even last spring, Chicago grabbed the No. 8 spot in the East and built a 2-0 lead on No. 1 Boston until truculent point guard Rajon Rondo got hurt.

Rondo’s gone now, as are Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. Wade nearly had to suffer through this rebuild until he worked out a buyout of $23.8 million salary, leaving cash behind to exit early and sign with Cleveland.

“That’s why I’m not there,” Wade said in Milwaukee the other night. “I’m turning 36 years old this year. I didn’t want to be a part of figuring it out. I wanted to be a part of something like this, where it’s about winning and winning only. That’s why I gave up a million dollars.”

Rose, Wade’s new teammate in Cleveland, said of the Bulls: “That don’t have anything to do with me. I’m paying no attention to ‘em, to be honest. I’ve been focused on what I’ve got going on here. Trying to stay away from that, that’s my hometown. There’s nothing to say about it — I don’t even have a feeling about it. That’s business.”

OK, so if the Bulls came calling next summer when Rose is a free agent, might he …?

“No,” Rose said. “They’re rebuilding. I’m trying to win a championship.”

When players are willing to give up serious dough to get or stay out of a situation that a team has to sell to fans accustomed to so much better, it isn’t — and won’t be — pretty.

In this “new direction” staked out by VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman with bosses Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf’s blessing, Chicago looks to be stocked mostly with players who talents will top as role players. Markkanen has a Kristaps Porzingis Lite feel to him, and LaVine seems to have the personality and leaping ability to sell some tickets. Dunn was a disappointment as a rookie. Justin Holiday currently might be prospering because of the limitations of players around him.

Robin Lopez might be traded by the February deadline. The Chicago futures of Mirotic and Portis are unknown since their skirmish. And Paul Zipser, Denzel Valentine, Cristiano Felicio, Jerian Grant and the others are fortunate to have their names on the backs of their own jerseys, never mind any that get sold in the team shop.

The Bulls are on the clock, too, with lottery rules that will change after the 2018 Draft to discourage these deep dives. They will have salary cap space next summer, in the vicinity of $38 million, but with a track record of being used for leverage rather than landing the brightest stars.

No one, either, is promising that college basketball’s current top prospects will have a Duncan-like impact.

In short, this might take a while, and it already feels long.

Popovich was asked about his friend and former assistant coach Brett Brown (now coach of the Philadelphia 76ers). Brown endured four miserable seasons of “The Process” before being permitted to get serious about winning this season.

“I’d have cried and moaned and gotten fired a long time ago if I was in his position,” Popovich said.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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