Our offseason plan for the Chicago Bulls
The playoffs are here and we should all be soaking up every minute of that. However, there are a few teams that have already entered their offseason — 14 lottery teams (that we’ve already covered) and 8 more teams that got sent packing in R1.
Today, we’re going with one of the most storied franchises and logos in NBA history, now stuck in a rut of mediocrity:
GM Gar Foreman could be the worst matchmaker of all time.
He tried to set up his buddy Fred Hoiberg with a dream girl/dream gig as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. But instead of introducing him to a roster that catered to his particular fetish (a 3-point fixation) he gifted him with a lineup of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Robin Lopez. On their own? All fine players. As a group? They may have been the worst 3-point-shooting unit ever assembled in the modern NBA. Given that, it’s no surprise that the team looked like the definition of mediocrity: finishing at 41-41 on the dot.
(1) Don’t get divorced yet
Even before the season, every NBA fan expected a major divorce at some point in this imperfect union. Either Jimmy Butler would be traded, or Fred Hoiberg would be fired, or maybe both.
But then a funny thing happened down the stretch: the team didn’t look so terrible. After a rocky stretch (a 2-8 period in March that left them at 32-37) there were some signs of progress and some coalescing around their coach. The team went 8-2 to close out the regular season, and actually won 2 games vs. the #1 seed Celtics.
Given that, the Bulls should NOT “blow it up” right now. Sure, the roster’s still a little wonky, and maybe Hoiberg was miscast as the coach of this particular team. Not only does he differ stylistically, but his low-key and affable demeanor may not command the respect of super-egos. But right now, this isn’t a “bad” team. It’s decent.
Jimmy Butler, on his own, can help carry you to the playoff contention. His improvement has been remarkable: in a sense, he’s playing like a poor man’s LeBron. Like LeBron, he’s never going to be a lights-out shooter, but he does everything else: 23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists. His ability to get to the line (8.9 times a game) and convert at a 87% clip makes him a legitimate top 10 player in the league. There’s no need to trade a player like that when you don’t have to.
And the Bulls don’t have to. Some teams need to tank and develop through the draft, but this is a franchise that can re-load through free agency. Front office turmoil aside, Chicago’s a desirable city and the franchise is still esteemed. But more than anything, money talks. In two years, the Bulls will only have $34 million on the books; they’ll only have $19.8 in payroll the year after. The Bulls can ride out the Jimmy Butler – Robin Lopez core (hopefully surrounded by more shooting), and then reload through free agency once their contracts expire.
(2) Sit Wade down for a “talk”
All in all, Dwyane Wade’s homecoming to Chicago wasn’t as great as homers may have hoped for, nor as bad as critics expected. Wade played reasonably well for the team, pumping in 18.3 points a game in under 30 minutes a night. Of course, Wade’s flaws continued to show, with mediocre defense and poor spacing (31.0% from three.)
Right now, Wade has a player option for $23 million for next season. I imagine the Bulls front office would like Wade back, but not on that bloated salary. They’re probably hoping he declines it. Of course, it’s not their choice; it’s his.
But the Bulls can help nudge him in a certain direction with a little “talk.” I’d recommend the Bulls communicate with Wade and try to sell him on becoming a 6th man.
To be honest, Wade would actually thrive in that role. He’s an awkward fit next to Jimmy Butler, but bringing him off the bench as a spark of electricity would be great. Wade could handle the offense as a lead option whenever Butler’s not on the court. He wouldn’t be a benchie, but a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate/favorite, still able to score 15/20 points a game a la a young Manu Ginobili or OKC James Harden. If Wade opts into that role, he’d be a fine asset to the team.
And if Wade bristles at the notion? Oh well — he’ll opt out, and the Bulls will save themselves $23 million. Even better. With that cap space, they can reach out to younger shooting guards who would be a better long-term fit for the team. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would be ideal, Tim Hardaway Jr. would be okay, and Tony Snell (remember him?) would be worth the money as well if he can get over the fact that the team traded him for Michael Carter-Williams.
(3) Give the Mayor his men
As mentioned, Fred Hoiberg hasn’t been given the right type of talent for his system so far, but there’s still some time to change all that. If you lock Jimmy Butler at SF, Robin Lopez at C, and surround them with shooters, then you have a chance to be good on both ends of the floor.
The biggest free agent decision will be PF Nikola Mirotic. Hyped for years as the next big thing, he hasn’t exactly lived up to the billing. His shooting is still inconsistent (34.0% from three this year) and he’s not a lockdown defender. But I actually believe Mirotic isn’t as awful on defense as you may think. ESPN wrote as much last season in their deep dive on each player: “Mirotic’s defense frequently draws the ire of commentators, but there is little statistical evidence of these purported defensive struggles. He certainly can look awful in the wrong one-on-one matchup and is frequently overmatched trying to switch on the perimeter, but Mirotic is a solid team defender with an excellent steal rate for a big.” Their numbers play that out for this season as well, where Mirotic graded out as a +1.52 defender on their real +/- metric.
I’m still not sold on Mirotic as a good defender, but he’s at least passable. That, coupled with his shooting potential, makes him a player that I’d want to re-sign to help space the floor. I’d pencil Mirotic into the starting lineup, and relegate Bobby Portis to a backup/energy role.
The other position that the team needs to lock up is their point guard situation, which has been a hodgepodge of poor play. Rajon Rondo looked great in the playoffs, but let’s remember that was only two games. He’s still an odd fit on this team and one that I wouldn’t commit to long-term. But I’d err on the side of keeping Rondo for next season, if only because he looks good in comparison to the other guards on the roster. Whether it’s as a starter or backup, Rondo can eat up minutes at a position of need.
Of their young backups, Jerian Grant showed the most promise, particularly on the defensive end. But I’d also encourage the team to take a good hard look at someone with experience in Hoiberg’s system: Iowa State PG Monte Morris, a current draft prospect. Morris is a senior without much hype who could be available when the team picks #38 in the second round. At that spot, Morris would be great value. He’s a 6’3″ point guard with solid shooting ability (37.8% from three last year) and a command over the offensive system. He averaged 6.2 assists and an astoundingly low 1.2 turnovers per game.
The team can also look to add more shooters at every spot on the roster. Free agents Kelly Olynyk or Mike Muscala would be nice complements to Robin Lopez at the center position with their spacing ability.
With their first pick at #16, the Bulls probably won’t be able to find a shooter that’s ready to contribute right away. (Hopefully, last year’s pick Denzel Valentine can step it up in that regard.) For this year, I’d consider a long-term project at center, where talented freshman like Zach Collins (Gonzaga), Justin Patton (Creighton), and Jarrett Allen (Texas) may be available. They’re all young and developing, but your hope is that they’ll be ready to slide into the starting lineup by the time Robin Lopez’s contract expires.