After a half decade of being an elite Eastern Conference team, this wasn’t what the Chicago Bulls expected. They will officially miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. To put that in perspective, this is their first missed postseason since Derrick Rose was drafted. Scott Skiles was coaching the last time they were unable to make it into the playoffs. Chris Duhon was the team’s point guard. Ben Wallace was manning center.
This really isn’t an organization that is much accustomed to failure, but debilitating injuries to Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah took away two of Chicago’s best players for long stretches of the season. Jimmy Butler missed a huge chunk of games too, and Rose himself seems to play only every other game with a host of annoying ailments.
Rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg was supposed to be the answer for a roster that had ostensibly grown tired of Tom Thibodeau’s grating style, but players simply haven’t responded. For whatever reason, the fire has gone out of this team’s belly, and they’re going to need an interesting offseason to rekindle that spark.
Here’s how the Bulls could heat things up this summer:
Get used to Fred Hoiberg.
There are a ton of Bulls fans who feel like the quickest fix to Chicago’s woes is just to find a new head coach. However, there’s almost no way Jerry Reinsdorf is going to pay Thibodeau what he’s owed, four more years’ worth of Hoiberg and a third coach next season, so it’s time to wipe that idea from the collective subconscious. From a financial standpoint, that simply is not going to happen.
It’s also easy to forget that Hoiberg was a rookie head coach this season. Not everybody gets off to the start that Thibodeau did back in 2010 or Steve Kerr did in 2015. Hoiberg has been working with a roster tailor-made for Thibs and he’s had to deal with a ton of injuries. He deserves another chance and considering he’s a guy beloved by ownership and the front office, he 100 percent is going to get one.
Chicago’s not firing Hoiberg, so look elsewhere for big changes.
Only trade Jimmy Butler if he returns another All-Star.
Let’s just hope this isn’t one of them.
Truth be told, it probably won’t be. Chicago always has been that team that has said, “Let’s just give it one more year to see if it can work,” at least when it comes to their main core of players. The sad reality is that at this point in the process, the team really doesn’t have any other choice but to ride it out for one more year. Keeping Butler is a no-brainer if you’re not going into full-rebuild mode, and the Bulls, frankly, really aren’t in the business of going into rebuild mode. We’ll be prying this aging, degenerating roster from Gar Forman’s cold, dead hands.
The Bulls’ front office doesn’t make bold, massive moves just for giggles, and they’ve proven that by only making trades for cap relief rather than any sort of roster improvement. They draft, they develop, they sign free agents, but they don’t make splashy trades. Making one as splashy as a Butler deal would be especially shocking knowing the track record, particularly because doing so would signal the admission that a complete rebuild was necessary and, as we’ve already established, that probably isn’t going to happen.
Butler is almost 27 years old, and the rest of this roster isn’t going to age gracefully as he rides into the prime of his career. That much is true, but there’s no hope of being competitive the next few years without him, and this just doesn’t seem to be a team ready to admit defeat.
Of course, the one exception to this would be if Chicago were to find a trade partner interested in dealing another All-Star player for Butler. A swap for Blake Griffin, for example, would be incredibly interesting for both teams. Short of something like that, though, the Bulls simply cannot trade the best two-way guard in the league just because they had a bad season. He’s too good, and the Bulls need him too much.
Re-sign Joakim Noah (if the price is reasonable).
Noah’s injury history is out there, so we get it. He’s not the player he used to be because his knees aren’t the knees they used to be, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s an extremely important piece of Chicago’s culture and really is the spiritual leader of this team no matter what his statistics look like.
He never did look like himself this past season, even when he was playing, and that may have had something to do with nagging injuries. It also may have had something to do with the coaching change, as Hoiberg isn’t known for being quite as intense as Noah has been used to. Whatever the reason, he would need to be sold on coming back as the chest-thumping, screaming, defensive lunatic he was before this season to have the requisite impact on this team. But if he can do that, he’s a guy the Bulls need, especially if they believe they’ve got enough of a team left over to make another run or two at a title.
The problem is that somebody is going to offer Noah more money than he’s probably worth this season, and if that happens – if the years or the dollars are just too prohibitive – they’re going to have to let him go. That means the Bulls will lose an asset for nothing, but it’s better than overpaying a player who just will not be able to contribute long enough and consistently enough to warrant his pay check. There are better ways than that to tie up payroll, leadership be damned.
Don’t re-sign Pau Gasol.
In a lot of ways, Gasol feels ageless at 36 years old, but there aren’t a lot of NBA big men who get too deep into their late 30s and still hold it down against the younger pups in the league. The fact of the matter is that Chicago probably doesn’t have a whole lot of control over this, anyway. Gasol knows he’s going to have better opportunities to chase a championship elsewhere, and the money is going to be great from just about any team with the salary cap shooting so far northward this summer.
He’s been a weird fit for Hoiberg anyway, and considering his age and how much money he’ll command, the Bulls are probably better off just letting him walk. Actually, they’re best off trading him to Sacramento back in February for whatever they can get, but that ship has sailed. Once again, this looks like another asset the Bulls will lose for no return, but it’s something they can live with to preserve the future.
Hope like hell that the kids grow up fast.
If the Bulls think they’ve still “got it,” and so far there is every indication that they’d rather believe they do than admit it’s time to rebuild, then they’re only hope for being competitive is having the kids grow up quickly enough to legitimately complement Butler and Rose. Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and even Cristiano Felicio have shown flashes of brilliance this season, so we know they’ve got legitimate potential to be really good ball players. Chicago just needs them to get good really quickly so Butler’s best years aren’t wasted and the team can make the most of what could be their last year with Rose.
This plan isn’t perfect, obviously, but it’s probably what Chicago will do. They’ll keep Rose and Butler, make half-hearted attempts to keep Noah and Gasol but fail, then they’ll make their draft picks, sign some mid-tier free agents, and keep their fingers crossed that their young guns make massive offseason improvements.
That’s not the plan of a championship team, obviously, but it probably is the plan of an Eastern Conference playoff team. Maybe the Bulls blow it up a year from now if things don’t get markedly better in the meantime, but this summer is too soon. This team won’t rebuild. One way or another, they’re going to give it one more go in 2016-17.
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