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NEW YORK – Rock bottom came on a Wednesday night in Indianapolis, a nondescript night on the NBA calendar but a significant one, it turns out, for the Chicago Bulls.
Having lost nine in a row and plummeted beyond the scope of relevance before Christmas, the Bulls limped into Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Dec. 6 desperate for something good to happen. And for a while, it did, as Chicago led the Pacers throughout, by as many as 17 points.
“It was a game we should’ve won,” executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson told Bleacher Report. “We were up the whole game and played very well for about 43 minutes.”
Alas, the Bulls were outscored 29-13 in the fourth quarter and lost their 10th straight, 98-96. Their record stood at 3-20. Given their stated rebuilding plan, the season seemed destined for what some would view as the ultimate success: losing at the highest level and getting the best lottery pick possible.
If becoming a train wreck was the Bulls’ goal this season, they got off to a whizbang of a start, with Bobby Portis flooring teammate Nikola Mirotic with a devastating punch during a confrontation in an October practice, fracturing Mirotic’s face and putting him in the hospital—and out for those miserable first 23 games. Paxson had been present twice when teammate Michael Jordan punched teammates right in the noggin, but he had never witnessed a blow this devastating, or one that seemed so destined to unravel the team.
“Never seen anything like that before,” Paxson told B/R.
But a funny thing happened on the road to cataclysmic failure. After the Indiana game, the team flew to Charlotte, where Paxson met with the coaching staff the next day. The vibe surprised him.
“The coaching staff was positive,” Paxson told B/R. “So even though we were losing, the culture of work and commitment was still there.”
Mirotic returned Dec. 8 against the Hornets, a game the Bulls won 119-111 in overtime. They got 24 points, 12 rebounds and a clutch three-pointer in OT from rookie Lauri Markkanen, the seventh pick in the 2017 draft and one of the pieces that came over in the Jimmy Butler trade that had sent the Bulls into full-on rebuilding mode. It was the first of seven straight victories and 10 of 12, a stretch that would cause the cynical lottery enthusiasts among us to roll their eyes.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
“Everybody understands the situation that we’re in,” Kris Dunn, another key piece in the Butler trade, told B/R. “Everybody understands that we’re young and we still have to develop. We accept that.”
Though they beat the Knicks 122-119 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, the Bulls (15-27) have come back to earth a bit. The Portis-Mirotic dynamic still hasn’t been completely resolved—and may not be, unless Mirotic gets his wish and is dealt at the February trade deadline. But despite that bizarre beginning, it can be argued that the Bulls have settled into a place much more agreeable than abject tanking would’ve been.
“I give our guys a lot of credit for being a resilient group,” coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Once the success of the Tom Thibodeau era faded, the Bulls faced the existential question: to rebuild or not to rebuild? At first, they opted to defer. In an effort to appease Butler—and, in effect, delay the inevitable teardown—the front office tandem of Paxson and general manager Gar Forman signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in 2016. All it got them was a .500 season and a first-round playoff exit.
They were in just about the worst place you can be in the NBA—not good enough to compete for a championship and barely good enough to make the playoffs. Making matters even worse, the mix of Butler, Rondo and Wade proved to be toxic, with infighting and ill will spilling over to social media.
The opportunity to finally hit the reset button arrived when Thibodeau, now the coach and president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, came calling for a reunion with Butler. The Wolves sent Dunn (the fifth pick in 2016), high-flying Zach LaVine (the 13th pick in 2014) and the seventh pick in 2017 (Markkanen) to Chicago for Butler last June. Paxson, who became the organizational face of the rebuild with Forman fading to the background, saw it as an opportunity to jump-start the process with proven young talent, as opposed to tanking for years and praying for ping-pong balls.
“We understand it’s going to take some time,” Paxson told B/R. “But we feel really good about the fact that these three pieces we got in the trade are really good pieces to build around and we’re young and we have time on our side.”
With about $15 million in cap room and all their first-round picks going forward, the Bulls have options—at the trade deadline and this coming summer—to further accelerate the climb back to respectability. Taking on short or expiring contracts to accumulate more picks is one possibility that Paxson is mapping out on his whiteboard.
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The first order of business, however, is the Mirotic situation. Though Portis and Mirotic play minutes together and interact on the floor, a person with knowledge of the situation told B/R that the two still have not spoken off the court. Portis has given Hoiberg quality minutes and energy off the bench, and the emergence of Markkanen could make the idea of unloading Mirotic at the deadline more palatable. Mirotic’s camp has continued to communicate to the Bulls that they want him moved, a league source told B/R. But like the Butler deal, trading Mirotic would have to make sense and fit into the Bulls’ rebuilding plans.
As for the eternal question—”Are the Bulls screwing up their rebuild by winning too much?”—there are a few factors worth considering.
First, isn’t it better to take your lumps with proven young players who are actually performing better than you thought they would, as opposed to bottoming out with a non-competitive team and only the uncertain promise of “future assets”? With any rebuild, there’s no guarantee of a top-three pick at the end of the rainbow; ask Phoenix, which had the second-worst record in the league last season and ended up with the fourth pick.
On top of that, there’s no guarantee that a top-three pick will become your foundational star. Among the top rookies in the league this season are Utah’s Donovan Mitchell (No. 13) and the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma (No. 27). The world is still waiting for No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz to arrive.
Speaking of which, Paxson watched the Sixers’ endless rebuilding “process” unfold over the past few years and resolved not to go such a painful route. Immersing young players in a hopeless environment in which they learn nothing but losing habits would only extend the timeline, he surmised.
So instead of banking on all that uncertainty, the Bulls are developing a serviceable point guard (Dunn, who arrived in Chicago determined to reclaim the promising reputation that made him the fifth overall pick in 2016), a sweet-shooting 7-footer (Markkanen, who is 20 years old) and LaVine, who is set to make his Bulls debut on Saturday at home against the Pistons after missing the first half of the season while recovering from ACL surgery.
“When I got traded, it was a restart button for me,” Dunn told B/R. “The only expectation I had was to improve, just to get my respect back. I felt like a lot of people were knocking on me because of what happened in Minnesota. In my mind, I already knew: That’s not my game. That’s not who I was as a person. I just tried to get my respect back from the people in the league. I wouldn’t say fans, but the people in the NBA—the players and all that.”
In a way, the Bulls are trying to do the same.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.