Examining the Chicago Bulls

The heading on SBN's excellent Blog-a-Bull reads, "Step 1: Cut Payroll, Step 2: Profit, Step 3: There's Supposed to be Another Step?" And while it's obviously toungue-in-cheek, it probes at a deeper frustration within the Chicago fanbase that I wasn't aware of until this summer, when the Bulls let Ben Gordon walk. At the time, the team's failure to re-sign its best player--regardless of Derrick Rose's promise, Gordon was still the assassain on that team--spoke to a strategy that, as the Blog-a-Bull headline suggests, cares far more about profits than wins. As Blog-a-Bull wrote then:

Gordon's contract is for his prime seasons. There is a fairly high floor as to how he'll perform during that time. Say he's really a $9m player in terms of production. He's then overpaid a bit. He'd be on a Bulls team with other guys who are likely overpaid a bit under that standard. But on the court it's a lot of talent. And that's how you win a title, by having the best team. Not by having the least overpaid players. 

All indications were that the basketball people in the Organization wanted to keep Gordon. It was the guy signing the checks who wasn't so sure. So what Jerry Reinsdorf's team (I should say his investment. The White Sox are his team) gets for 'not overpaying' Ben Gordon is...being worse. Not having a player to trade in a future move for a frontcourt star. Not having a player remaining after they package multiple players for that star. Let him go with nothing to show for themselves. No matter how they compensate with the current group it won't be as good as if they kept everybody.

And I can't see them doing anything the rest of this offseason if it means going over the tax, as then why not just keep Ben Gordon? What this non-move means is that the Bulls do not care about winning. Not this year. Likely not for several years. They are far away from contention, and it's simply amazing that they think they're in any position to let talent walk, let alone their best player of the past 5 years. They're signalling that they're content to take one shot in Derrick Rose's prime, which means we can't really give a care about anyone else on the roster. Maybe Luol Deng? Joakim Noah? They're already starting to do with Tyrus Thomas what happened with Gordon years ago. Everyone else is going to be gone by the time this team is going for a title. Not winning one, or competing for one, but merely having a plan to try and go for one.

Indeed, for what seems like the past decade, the Bulls have been a rudderless franchise, operating in some weird continuum between potential and reality, trotting a roster full of underpaid young players and overpaid "gritty" veterans like Andres Nocioni, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Wallace. It'd never occurred to me that this was by design.

Perhaps it was my NBA naivete, but I always figured the Bulls, one of the NBA's truly glamorous franchises, were one step away from entering the annual championship discussion. Just one more player, one more trade, or one more year of development, and they'd be there.

In reality, though, when you really take a second to look at the moves they've made over the course of the decade, it becomes apparent that Jerry Reinsdorf and the Bulls management are in this for money, not rings. Jordan satiated the appetite for the latter, and Reinsdorf's a baseball guy anyway. And had the Bulls not lucked out in the NBA lottery and stumbled onto the Derrick Rose Experience, we'd be talking about a team revolving around Kirk Hinrich, Tyrus Thomas, and Luol Deng.

Because make no mistake, they wouldn't have re-signed Gordon with or without Rose--the presence of a basketball prodigy just lets the Bulls cover their tracks, as they're ostensibly "building for the future." But in reality, Ben Gordon as a player had far greater value to the Bulls than the Pistons, and he was lost not because of basketball rationale, but because the ownership has no interest in exceeding the luxury tax. That's okay, but it illuminates a depressing truth: the Chicago Bulls are an investment to Jerry Reinsdorf, and they've been a lucrative one the past few years, as his fans have been duped into waiting for the future.

It's a shame, though; because the Bulls have some pieces that would form an excellent foundation for a championship team. Had they not been outbid last year for the services of Mike D'Antoni, the pairing of D'Antoni's system and Derrick Rose would have been basketball ecstasy. Instead, they got the goofy neophyte Vinny Del Negro, and the basketball world was robbed of what should have been a revelation. And instead of Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose teaming for years to come, the Bulls are now left with Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich manning the backcourt, a definite anti-climax.

The Bulls may manage to win some games this year, and it's still realistic to call them an up-and-coming team in the NBA. But to clarify, that's based solely on the strength of a player they lucked into in spite of themselves (Rose), and likewise, it seems that any future success will come despite the ineptitude and apathy of their front office. It shouldn't be this way, though; the fans of Chicago deserve better, Derrick Rose deserves better, and basketball deserves better.

(End of melodramatic rant.)

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