The Chicago Bulls Are In Purgatory, But Do They Want To Leave?

For half a decade the Bulls seemed to be separated from a shot at the championship by nothing more than some injury luck. That's no longer the case. So now what?

by John Wilmes
Mar 9 2016, 3:35pm

Photo by Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

For years, being a Chicago Bulls fan has been about waiting, and staring at a ceiling that's hard to see clearly. Star-crossed bodies like that of Derrick Rose, the franchise savior turned hometown pariah, have given fans plenty of time to speculate about what a fully healthy Bulls roster could accomplish as the antidote to nemesis LeBron James' dominion over the Eastern Conference. Those one thousand hurts and innumerable stacked delays have given the Bulls' front office those very same margins to "what-if" within for half a decade.

Those days are over. The hypothetical of A Totally Healthy Bulls Team Making A Run—already on its last, most febrile legs—died when center Joakim Noah went down for the season with a shoulder injury, a fall that was followed quickly by more Rose maladies and knee issues for new franchise centerpiece Jimmy Butler, who played just two games in February and was forced to miss his second All-Star game. Meanwhile, second-year forward Nikola Mirotic missed 16 straight contests recently after a string of complications involving an appendectomy that also led him to lose 20 pounds. Chicago's record since the new year is 13-18, and they have been pushed to the very edge of the East's playoff picture.

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It wasn't supposed to go this way in 2015-16. The scapegoat for the Bulls' ceaseless doctor appointments, hard-driving coach Tom Thibodeau, was out the door after a second-round playoff exit against James and the Cavaliers last spring. Executives Gar Forman and John Paxson now had full control, which also suited owner Jerry Reinsdorf. His gratuitous goodbye letter to Thibodeau, while written in dense corporatese, made no effort to veil his contempt for the outgoing coach; this is how you say "fuck you" while using words like "interdepartmental" and "foment," an art Reinsdorf has mastered.

Thibodeau's replacement, Fred Hoiberg, is about as different from Thibodeau as any coach could be—gentle and positive, with his most distinguishable stratagem keyed by freedom and instinct. He brought with him an offensive philosophy that Bullsologists took to calling "Hoiball," which is still something of a mystery. Hoiberg struggled from the start to win the confidence of his roster, which has made implementing the system somewhere between tricky and impossible. Butler called Hoiberg out publicly in December—using language that barely stopped short of citing the implicitly superior Thibodeau—and the team has never manifested their coach's floor-spreading vision for more than a game or two at a time.

When you prefer to do things the...right-ish way. — Photo by Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The result is about what you'd expect—Hoiberg's first season is not a trainwreck, exactly, but it has been a reality check for a front office that clearly resented Thibodeau, and saw him as the only thing stopping their roster from championship aspirations. The health issues that plagued the team during the Thibs Administration haven't dissipated, and the team is still wringing the same minutes per night from their workhorses. The only blame-target the front office has left, aside from themselves, is the team's medical staff, which is never a good look.

This means that those old idle speculations now have a concrete and unsatisfying answer—everyone knows that this roster is nowhere near talented, cohesive, or driven enough to compete for a championship, which leaves Forman and Paxson without plausible deniability. What-if has been the dominant excuse for their tirelessly conservative approach in recent years. With that question seemingly answered and a gaping rabbit hole of fan pain about a healthy-and-peaking Rose, Butler, and Noah together, there are a new and uncomfortable set of questions.

Which is not to say that Forman and Paxson are going to answer them. Standing pat has been their organizational philosophy for some time, and that dies hard. Since 2010, the Bulls have acquired zero rotation players via trade, with all their swaps including either tangential assets that no reasonable fan remembers, or the best player in the deal leaving Chicago in a cost-cutting move closer to a waive than a trade.

GarPax apologists point to the duo's hands, which are bound by Reinsdorf's notoriously tight purse-strings. And while the limits of Jerry's thirst for more NBA glory after the 1990's is ultimately the most troubling element of Bulls fandom—Reinsdorf has, in the past, made it clear how much more he cares about his Chicago White Sox than his NBA franchise—Forman's shy trigger finger and peculiar basketball decision-making are worrisome as well.

Gar has hitched the Bulls fortunes, for reasons that are hard to know, to the talents of 35-year-old Pau Gasol over the past two seasons, treating the aging big man like a franchise player despite his increasingly limited game and refusal to have his role augmented for the better of the team. When Gasol came from the Los Angeles Lakers, he took with him his all but binding insistence on being both a starter and a closer. The Bulls acquiesced readily, which left Noah to find a role off the bench with strange lineups, in misfit schemes. His season-ending injury was, given his struggles to do so, nearly a mercy.

When you're getting GarPax'ed to the max. — Photo by Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Alienating Noah has cost Hoiberg a lot of good will in the locker room, and it's arguably been his biggest flub. Of course, he's only following front office prerogatives. Just as firing Thibodeau was, at the end of the day, an act done to soothe the executive's ego, propping up Gasol has made Forman's only major free agent acquisition seem more meaningful than it is. Pau has picked up two legacy All-Star spots over the past two seasons, but his actual play consists more and more of empty-calorie scoring and rebounding, and he has fouled up the offensive tempo on one end and played the role of turnstile near the rim as a defender.

Noah is all but guaranteed to walk this summer, and the Bulls will likely throw a ton of good money after bad to renegotiate with Gasol, who will be 36 this July. To predict Forman's other summer targets, the best bet is to look a few hundred miles west. Forman, a friend of forgotten former Bulls coach Tim Floyd—the first in a treadmill of who the fuck? coaches since the Michael Jordan era, Thibodeau excepted—seems oddly obsessed with recruiting from his home state of Iowa. Not only did he hire Hoiberg after well over a year of publicly salivating over the former Iowa State head coach—and, before that, a star guard for the Cyclones—but Forman also flipped two first round draft picks for one in 2014, to draft Creighton product Doug McDermott, who of course played high school ball in Ames, Iowa.

McDermott is an intriguing prospect, and one who has recently dunked more emphatically than anyone ever expected him to. But Forman eschewed smart asset exchange to get him, paying something like $1.60 on the dollar, and rather hammily romanticized the drafting of the shooting specialist with tales of driving through Midwestern snowstorms to scout him. The overall impression was of a man sentimental about all the wrong, non-basketball things. Forman's view of the NBA market has emerged as progressively more fraternal and pastoral, and his filter for talent seems more chummy than critical; there's also ample overlap between the Hoiball way and what McDermott's father, Greg, taught his son at Creighton, and also at his previous head coaching stop: Iowa State.

With Forman still very much in charge, Bulls fans are in a dark place. He and Paxson have shown nowhere near the level of flexibility or creativity needed to forge a new, potent identity from their current malaise. They're probably committed to Hoiberg for at least another season, and the general bad vibes surrounding the team—from the oversalted dismissal of Thibodeau to the declining success since his departure—won't make the team more attractive to quality free agents, who almost never come to Chicago anyway.

For a long time, fans had reason to hope that the Bulls could be something special. Now that the team has been revealed as something less than that, the question has become when, or if, the people in charge will realize that the window has closed, and that it's time to get to work on opening another. This reckoning has been a long time coming, but whatever comes next—if anything changes at all—probably can't be worse than this purgatory.