Chicago Bulls: Resisting the new norm to tear down historic deficiencies
Isiah Thomas’s reign as the general manager of the New York Knicks has gone down in infamy as an era characterised by a lack of forethought, wild overspending, and an endless accumulation of perceived talent that never cohered at all. And of all the contracts he signed or traded for in his time there, few are more infamous than that of Jerome James.
After one “good” regular season (a term used very loosely – James started 80 games and played 1,330 minutes, yet had a 10.0 PER and a VORP of a measly 0.1) and one good anomalous playoff series (genuinely good this time – a PER of 19.3 and an offensive rating of 116 in 293 minutes), Thomas signed James to a five-year, $29 million contract. James then wildly underperformed - even when compared to his own low standards - playing only 694 minutes in those five years (including only 15 over the last three), fouling 179 times, and never even approaching ‘good’. James and his contract were embarrassments – the player because he could not take the court (and who fatigued after about 90 seconds when he did), and the contract because it served as an ugly, burdensome reminder of an unpleasant and ill-thought-out strategy by a front office that got firmly stuck in a quagmire of their own making.
Three months after signing James, Isiah’s Knicks also acquired fellow centre Eddy Curry from the Chicago Bulls via sign-and- trade. Curry had massive, massive holes in his game, but he was both spritely and enormous and never seemed to miss shots from within three feet of the basket, especially with his right hand. Curry was a player of legitimate promise, and although he played the same position as James, and Jerome got there first, Curry had the centre spot all to his own. (For the few seasons until he ruined it, that is).
Two offseasons after that, Isiah – still at the helm – added another big body who could make layups. He traded for Zach Randolph at a time when Randolph’s contract was high and his value very low, and then paired him with Curry, with James the theoretical backup (although James played only 15 minutes as a Knick after Randolph arrived). Combined with the acquisition of Malik Rose, the Knicks had a front court with talent and size, but little mobility, shot-blocking instincts, length, foot speed, floor spacing, and all the other things that have come to be valued ever more highly in big men in recent years. In short, they did what everyone else was not doing.
This was deliberate. Bill Simmons, then of ESPN, spoke with Thomas a couple of weeks after the Randolph deal, and reports that Thomas offered the following paraphrased justification:
“Everyone's trying to get smaller and faster. I want to go the other way. I want to get bigger. I want to pound people down low.”
This seems like a strand of logic that may have some reasoning behind it – going against the grain may expose market inefficiencies, after all, and could help get tremendous value on underappreciated players – until it is examined to any kind of degree and found that there isn’t any. The league trended that way for a reason, and the beginnings of that trend ten years ago are now embedded into the template idea for NBA team building.
It is not just to be found in big men, either. The NBA is now a pace-and-space league. Shooting is of primary importance, and the aim is to have it at every position. Mike D’Antoni’s before-its-time argument that the best shots come early on in the shot clock has taken root, tempo is up, scoring is up, excitement is up, and efficiency is way up. Vastly improved jump shooting league-wide has changed the game – in the 2002/03 season, the entire Philadelphia 76ers team hit only 245 three pointers, while in 2015/16, the Splash Brothers hit nearly three times that just between themselves. Shooting is the way forward, the key to everything, the key to the spread offence, the key to the pick-and-roll, the key to opening up and dissecting the opposing defence in any way a team may so choose.
With this in mind, it is a valid question as to why the Chicago Bulls have just put together a backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
The fact that the two have both been noted foes of the Bulls over the past decade is not worth over-analysing. It need not have been anything personal – it was strictly business, and that particular strand of business is done with now. The fact also that Wade made some rather unsavoury implications about loyalty when he spurned Chicago in 2010 can also be looked past now. Everyone involved has learnt a few things and moved on. Instead, this is purely about the basketball. Yet even when dealing with that aspect alone, there are plenty of questions to be found.
Outside shooting, while of the highest value it has ever been thought to hold, is not mandatory. No one player has to be good at it. But if both halves of a starting, high-minute backcourt cannot do it, spacing problems become incredibly likely. Neither Rondo or Wade are shooters – in fact, they are amongst the worst in their relative positions. (It is not insignificant here that Rondo obliterated his career numbers in three-point shooting last year, hitting 62 of 170 attempts for a 36.5% three-point shooting percentage, all comfortably career highs. This is an exception until proven otherwise, however.)
A team can hide a bad shooter at a guard position. But if they are to carry two, they must have some pretty impeccable spacing elsewhere on the court. And even a cursory look at the Bulls’ supporting cast shatters that dream. Nikola Mirotic is a decent shooter for a power forward, yet he cannot do the team’s outside shooting alone. Nor should he try – he has skills beyond just being a Frye clone, and he also is not that good at it. Mirotic is a decent shooter, but not a shooting specialist, and his release does not give much hope to the idea of him ever being an efficient high volume three-point shooter. Alongside him at centre, Robin Lopez cannot shoot from three at all, and having never developed much of a mid-range jump shot even after eight years in the league, it probably will never happen. Indeed, the Bulls’ best shooter, Mike Dunleavy Jr, is being dumped to accommodate Wade. The Bulls’ already average team shooting is being downgraded by both addition and subtraction.
Combined with this, both have declined as players. Wade was once about as good as it got, and although his ball-dominant, overly exuberant, free-spirited style of play was irksome in some ways, there were a couple of seasons in which Rondo was almost unrivalled as a floor general. But injuries and sheer aging have caught up to Wade – he is 34, has 13 years of heavy NBA workload, and will probably never play 2,000 minutes in a season again - while the enigmatic Rondo lost his way. At a time that they too lost their way internally, the Bulls did little to build for the future with these signings. Instead, it seems they plugged short term talent gaps, yet with ill-fitting pieces.
Just as with Randolph, Curry and James before them, the Rondo and Wade pairing goes against the trend of the league as whole, and the evidence does not support the logic for such a departure. Unless they say so to Simmons or someone like him, which is about as likely as Donald Trump winning the Nobel Peace Prize, it ought not to be assumed that John Paxson and Gar Forman had a plan so clearly, concisely contrarian as Isiah admitted to. But regardless of how much they planned to go against the grain, they have now done so.
So if they barely fit into the league’s new narrative, what value does the new duo bring?
A look at the recent history of the Brooklyn Nets may find some answers.
In June of 2013, long after almost everyone else had firmly bought into the youth, athleticism, length, and Pace-And-Space movements, the Brooklyn Nets did an Isiah. They traded the incumbent bad contract of Gerald Wallace, the big contract of Kris Humphries, created and shipped a bad contract for Keith Bogans, attached MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, three first round picks and the right to swap 2017 first round picks to the Boston Celtics, in exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White.
In fact, the Nets did it worse than Isiah. When trading for Zach Randolph, Thomas traded only Steve Francis and Channing Frye, the latter of whom was kind of an asset but the former of whom very much was not. Thomas did not give up any first round picks in that deal, and nor did he for James, a free agency signing. [A counter argument that Thomas would have done if he could have done, and that the only reason he couldn’t do so was because he had already spent that currency up in the Curry deal, is entirely fair. Let’s run with the facts in isolation anyway.]
For brevity’s sake, all the pieces in the Celtics and Nets deal except for the picks, Garnett and Pierce can be ignored. The trade was essentially between those things only; the rest was periphery. And in trading for Garnett and Pierce, players who were long past their primes by the time of the deal and even further past them two years later when the experimented was ended, the Nets gave up the three first round picks that represented their future, whether they knew or not. They gave up their future for a past-its-prime present. The fact that the experimented failed so badly only makes it worse – Pierce and Garnett are no longer with the Nets, yet Brooklyn just had to witness a number #3 pick go to Boston and become Jaylen Brown, and the debt still won’t be fully paid for two more years until the 2018 pick also goes. It has been an awful deal, and one still somehow getting awfuller.
Worryingly for Bulls fans, there may be something analogous to be found between what Chicago has done with Rondo and Wade, and the Nets’ acquisitions of Pierce and Garnett. The Nets were floundering at the time, and striving for relevancy. They had few good players (except an injured Brook Lopez and a quickly-eroding Deron Williams), and wanted to get good quickly. They were desperate, outbid themselves, lost, and lost badly. The parallel with Chicago is rooted in how the Bulls, too, have found themselves mired in mediocrity. The small but genuine championship window they looked at as recently as three years ago is irretrievably closed.
Derrick Rose never got his game back, never adjusted his game to match, struggled to fit both on and off the court, and is now gone. The once truly, truly brilliant Joakim Noah can no longer make a layup or run fast, and has gone to the Knicks to replace Lopez. Butler has risen to stardom, but is said to have lost his head along the way. And every other player of note either got older (Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson) or simply never got good (Doug McDermott, Tony Snell). After two years of ugly floundering, it is not an unjustified desire to want to be decent again, if only for a while. There is bad juju in Chicago. A couple of treading water seasons would help with that.
However, this summer, the Nets changed course. They caught up to the mindset of their peers. Gone was Billy King, the man who overpaid for veterans, the man who went against the grain, the man whose vision was definitely not that of a visionary. In has come Sean Marks, long-time NBA player and product of the San Antonio Spurs’ front office executive production line.
Marks inherited a team with next to no assets. King spent those up. There are few incumbent players of note – Lopez remains, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offers some hope if he can stay healthy (as do Chris McCullough and Caris LeVert, other young and athletic pieces on a team that has had remarkably few). There is a lot of work to do – the Nets were painfully stagnant in years past, with no athleticism, dynamism, ball movement, excitement, tenacity or room for internal improvement, and with the severe lack of assets, none of this was an easy fix. But the massive salary cap spike and owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s willingness to spend his way out of trouble has seen them move on from Williams and Jarrett Jack types in the backcourt, and Marks has committed to spending a rumoured combined $125 million on offer sheets this week for Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe.
Herein lays a massive contrast. The Nets have gone for Johnson and Crabbe, whereby the Bulls have gone for Rondo and Wade. The Bulls have gone for former stars; the Nets have gone for future ones. The Nets have gone for long-term contracts; the Bulls for short-term salvation. Who is right?
It ought to first be noted that the Nets are taking a massive risk. Johnson is pretty good but has only been so for about 40 games, returning a 13.8 PER last season in an injury-hit campaign and then playing only 12.2 minutes in the Heat’s first-round playoff series defeat. $12 million is fast becoming the average annual salary for an NBA starter, but Johnson has never been one of these, and while the Nets will certainly give him the opportunity to be so should they land him, his upside beyond the fair if loaded compliment of “he is pretty solid at everything” remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Crabbe has turned a career-best PER of 12.2 into an absolutely massive $75 million offer sheet, the kind of offer sheet given to a potential star. And while Crabbe was a highly creditable sixth man for a highly creditable Portland Trail Blazers team last season, and a genuine scoring talent who may thrive when fully unleashed in a backcourt with Johnson, the Nets are making a huge gamble on the effectiveness of two somewhat untested 24-year-olds.
Nevertheless, regardless of the specifics of the players and deals involved, this is the route the Nets have chosen to go. They have gone young, they have gone for potential, and they have thrown money at the problem. They are trying to acquire assets for the future this time, not spend them. Chicago, meanwhile, has made an already old team even older, in the pursuit of some kind of decency.
The Bulls did not have to do this. Before the Draft and before the Rose trade, there were very strong rumours of Jimmy Butler, Chicago’s best player, being asked after in trade by multiple teams, including Boston and Minnesota. It is very unlike Chicago to ever sell high (arguably a longstanding problem of theirs), but they could have done so with Butler, even if it meant dealing with Tom Thibodeau. They would have received a lot of assets had they done so. They could have gone young too. However, they have gone this route instead, despite the basketball questions it provokes.
Based on his time at Iowa State, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg’s desired offence seems to be akin to the league-wide Pace-and- Space ideal. The team he inherited in Chicago was completely ill-fitted to that – Noah could no longer run, Mirotic and Gibson never really could, Pau Gasol had less lateral quickness than a bag of spanners, Rose never learned to shoot, and the wing rotation was amongst the least athletic in the NBA. It was a square peg paired with a round hole, and while Hoiberg struggled to adjust and keep control, the salvation would come when summer came around and new rounder pegs were found.
However, as seen in the above, it seems the hole and the pegs are still two different shapes. Rondo and Wade are not designed to play pace-and-space. Pace, maybe - each could certainly play a full-court game back in their primes, and both still can a bit. Rondo’s decline should also not be overstated; his successful bounce-back season with Sacramento in 2015-16 at the prime age of 29 shows that there is still a spark in the fire, if he can throw a log on it. But the space aspect, no. These are not the right pieces for Hoiberg’s offence. And considering the specific personnel involved – Wade’s influence, gravitas and experience; Rondo’s prickly, testing nature – it is a potentially combustible mix walking into a hitherto hostile locker room that Hoiberg will have to work hard to accommodate.
That seems odd for a front office to want. So the logic for the signings must lay elsewhere. Perhaps, then, if the summer was not one of free agency investments on the court, it has something to do with what is going on off of it.
Let us not forget the past twenty years of the Chicago Bulls when taken as a whole. For the longest time, especially immediately after the end of the Michael Jordan era, this was a team that absolutely could not convert its strong recent legacy, big market and big city status into any successful free agency runs. They lost out on the Tracy McGrady types back at the start of the century, overpaying career eighth men like Ron Mercer and Eddie Robinson instead because they were the only ones willing, and further lost out in 2010, landing only faux-star Carlos Boozer and a hotchpotch of role players (the only one of note being Kyle Korver, whom they later wildly undervalued and gifted away). Even though he did not fit a roster that was replete with decent forwards yet undermanned at every other position. Donyell Marshall stood out as a significant signing in the summer of 2002 because he was a good player signed at a good price. That was the exception to a worrying rule. With all due respect to someone who was a fine player, Donyell Marshall should never be the barometer for your team’s pulling power.
Here, then, we may find the motivation for at least the Wade signing. Wade is not the player once he was, but the player he once was spectacular. This is a player with three NBA titles, who averaged over 30 points per game at one point, and who always gives it his all. This is a player who, no matter anyone’s views on the aesthetics of his game or the way in which he went about it, it can never be said of that he did not fulfil his talents. This is the all time guard leader in blocks, former scoring champion, and multiple time NBA champion. This is a player who is revered by his peers. This is a player who matters.
And perhaps that is what brought Chicago to him. Chicago needs that reverence, that lustre, that magnetism. This is a franchise with a reputation amongst agents for being difficult to deal with, for unnecessarily frugality relative to their revenues, for a lack of the warmth and culture that, however nauseating it can be, can be seen amongst other teams. This is not a place players prioritise, and the Bulls surely know it. This is not a team that could get a meeting with Kevin Durant, nor was it a team that tried to. The reputation was already in place, and the cacophony and discontent of the last two seasons cemented it.
Wade could change that. When Wade speaks, players listen. And so in choosing to join the Bulls, Wade makes a statement that the Bulls badly needed making. If you can get Wade, you can get players. You are an attraction. You are worth listening to. It, of course, factors hugely for Wade that Chicago is his hometown. But that doesn’t matter now. The Bulls got Wade, a player past his prime but close enough to it to still be relevant, with enough left as a player to improve their team for two years, and sufficiently close to his prime to carry some weight.
Striving for mere decency Chicago may be, but that decency is an acceptable short term goal.
Most importantly, apart from continuing their eternal undervaluation of second round draft picks, the Bulls have done so without giving up assets. They have kept Butler, they still have Mirotic, they have kept the promising Bobby Portis, they have not gifted away Taj Gibson (who retains some value), they still have Denzel Valentine and Jerian Grant as youngsters worthy of a look, they still have Doug McDermott (and considering they gave up essentially five draft picks to get him, they had better make something of him), and they have kept the surprising upstart that was the rookie free agent signing Cristiano Felicio.
They retain all their future first round draft picks, and possibly have one still to come from the Sacramento Kings, as long as the Kings’ pick this upcoming year does not finish in the top ten. For this, they will gain a few wins, a few fun nights and a slightly improved chance at a low playoff seed on the court, for the loss only of a few places in the draft and some cap space they did not have many other options for anyway.
The Celtics took advantage of the Nets’s poor thinking, just as Chicago once took advantage of New York’s poor thinking. The Nets and the Knicks both went against the grain and lost badly. Chicago has now done the same, which on the surface seems worrying. But the price paid, and the ancillary benefits, may save them. It has been a weird summer for Chicago and one that has gone completely against what it was thought that they should try and do. But in signing Wade, they are trying to change the narrative. Fans and commentators may have wanted the Bulls to blow “it” up (assuming, generously, there was still an “it”), go young, build for the future, and target the youth and athleticism that is always so tantalising. Yet as evidenced by the Nets et al, everyone else is doing that. Chicago needs something for those youths to come to in the future. And the presence of Wade might be it.
As for Rondo? Well, I guess they just felt they needed a point guard.