The Bulls reached a level of rock bottom they didn’t even know existed last season. Months after general manager John Paxson declared his team would not tank for a second year in a row, Chicago found itself firing its head coach in early December on the way to one of the least successful and most humiliating campaigns in franchise history.
The Bulls lost games by 56 points, 39 points, and 37 points all before the middle of January. They set a franchise record for fewest home wins with nine. The offense finished last in the league in three-pointers and second-to-last in efficiency. The defense finished as the worst the organization has ever seen. Their bumbling season made national headlines when newly installed coach Jim Boylen, in just his third game on the bench, pulled all five starters for the final 21 minutes vs. the Celtics resulting in the second biggest blowout of the decade. Boylen said he did it so his team would be fresh for practice the next morning, despite being in the midst of a stretch of three games in four days. The players revolted. Even the New Yorker was roasting them.
Paxson could feel the heat. He described local radio interviews as “interrogations,” he confessed to knowing when fans were organizing for a “Fire GarPax” night, he even acknowledged his critics might get their wish if the team’s slide continued. While he refused to set a baseline for success at the onset of the year, it sure seemed like Paxson privately believed this club would be better. Instead, they were the laughing stock of the NBA.
The issues were both of talent and scheme. After the Bulls were beat by 20 points against the lowly Atlanta Hawks in late January, Zach LaVine voiced his frustrations about the team’s style of play.
“Atlanta, bottom-five team just like us, we shouldn’t get blown out by them at all,” he said. “They were out there moving the ball, playing well with pace and that’s what we should be looking like and we have to get to that.”
The season ended with 22 wins. The only time they had ever won fewer games was during the four-year stretch immediately following the end of their ‘90s dynasty. The common thread is that in both instances the franchise had never felt further away from its seventh championship.
A hopeless situation looked even more dire when the Bulls fell all the way to No. 7 in the draft lottery, the third straight year they’d be picking there. With locally-born stars publicly shunning them and the front office saying no quick fixes were on the way, it felt like Chicago was ready to settle down at the bottom of the league.
It didn’t happen. Just a few short months later, the Bulls begin a new season as a trendy pick to make the playoffs. The roster has been overhauled and so has the coaching staff. Some are even picking Boylen for Coach of the Year. The same front office that fans so passionately wanted to be fired is now beating the market on free agents who should provide surplus win value.
The Bulls have climbed out of rock bottom, and might even be in the early stages of ascent. It’s all so foreign for long-time detractors of the front office that it’s hard to say with any confidence where it can go from here.
The Bulls had to change the process before they could change the results. The earliest sign it might be happening came when the team traded for Otto Porter Jr. in February. It was the first time Paxson had made a trade to outwardly improve the talent on the team since acquiring John Salmons and Brad Miller in 2009 ahead of an epic first round playoff series vs. Boston.
Chicago sent out Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis in the exchange, two shoot-first players who represented all of the organization’s worst impulses. Porter may have had a bloated contract, but he also had a history of being an analytics darling, twice finishing top-25 in the league in RPM. He provided stability at the Bulls’ biggest hole on the wing and gave them a much needed infusion of defense and shooting. The Bulls won six of the first eight games he played in.
The Bulls’ new worldview really took hold in free agency. Armed with more than $20 million in cap space and no delusions they’d be able to add a top-line star, Chicago instead targeted veterans who played both ends of the floor on short contracts that maintained cap space for a monster free agency class in 2021. It was a remarkable departure from their dubious recent history of wasting their money on empty-calorie scorers meant to sell tickets rather than win games.
Thad Young was the first signing. The 31-year-old arrived with a reputation as one of the league’s best glue guys. Young was among the top forwards in steal rate and deflections. He had a history of making an impact on the offensive glass. He was also durable, missing only one game each of the last two seasons. He might not have been a go-to scorer, but he was the perfect complement for Chicago’s two young big men in Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
Tomas Satoransky was next. The 6’6 point guard rarely got a major opportunity with John Wall in front of him in Washington, but upon becoming the starter he upped the team’s pace, improved their three-point shooting, and showed a measure of restraint and efficiency that Chicago badly needed. He was signed to a three-year, $30 million deal Washington declined to match. The Bulls had fleeced the Wizards again, just as they had done in the Porter trade.
Luke Kornet was the final piece. Though he spent most of last season buried deep on the Knicks bench, he proved himself to be a competent 7’2 stretch center in limited minutes, going off for more than 20 points in three different games. Only two players took over 65 percent of their field goals from three-point range and had a block rate of better than four percent last year: Kornet and Brook Lopez. He also finished as a top-100 player in RPM. The Bulls signed him for just $4.5 million over two years.
What was so jarring about Chicago’s free agency class was how out of character it seemed. A year earlier, the Bulls bid against no one but themselves for Parker at $20 million annually with designs of starting him at small forward. It was a plan bound to fail from the very start, even before he drew headlines for saying players don’t get paid for defense (in his case, he was right). His signing was so reminiscent of the Bulls’ decision to give Dwyane Wade, another Chicago native, a massive deal only two years earlier. In both cases, the Bulls were ridiculed the moment they gave out the contracts. This wasn’t second guessing from critics, it was first guessing.
For once, it appeared the Bulls had learned something from their mistakes. When it was over, it felt like the number of winning players on the roster had been doubled.
The Bulls didn’t just need better talent — they needed a better approach, too. It started to come to fruition when Chicago overhauled Boylen’s coaching staff, adding Nets assistant Chris Fleming and Rockets assistant Roy Rogers to the bench.
There has been a clear emphasis on improving where shots are coming from on the floor. A year ago, the Bulls finished with the fifth highest mid-range jumper frequency, per Cleaning the Glass, No. 20 in pace and No. 27 in three-point attempts per game. This year’s preseason represented a drastic change: the Bulls averaged 39.4 three-point attempts per game. They took more than 39 threes in a game once last season. The pace also noticeably shot up, as did the percentage of assisted field goals.
Instead of praying for internal improvement out of their young foundational pieces, the Bulls actually took the steps to put them in a position to succeed both schematically and personnel-wise this season.
LaVine had the best season of his career last year, but still found himself at the crossroads of a debate on production vs. impact. His defensive shortcomings should be minimized this season with better defenders like Porter and Young around him all year. His offense is going to take a big step up too if he continues his preseason focus of upping his three-point rate. As the Bulls finally get out in transition more this year, LaVine’s combination of speed and shooting becomes even more deadly. He should be an all-star.
Markkanen and Carter remain a work in progress in the front court. The first step is staying healthy after both missed significant time last year. If they stay on the court, Chicago has a 7-foot sniper in Markkanen who should open driving lanes for others while developing his primary scoring potential. Markkanen is not the type of player who creates offense out of thin air — 68 percent of his field goals were assisted last season — but he should be benefited by the Bulls’ putting an added emphasis on swinging the ball. Carter is a tremendous defensive prospect who was horribly misused on offense last year. Expect fewer post-ups and more chances to showcase his ability as a passer and shooter this season.
Rookie guard Coby White is even looking ahead of schedule. He finished as the preseason’s eighth leading scorer after catching fire from three-point range in Chicago’s finale. His speed is going to be an immediate difference-maker, but he’ll need to continue shooting well from deep to make an impact early in his career.
The Bulls changed their approach in one other notable way this season: they actually put expectations on themselves. Paxson said the goal for the team is to make the playoffs at media day. It would likely require at least an 18-win improvement. Last year, the Magic had the biggest single-season turnaround with a 17-win improvement, followed by the Bucks at 16.
Getting the No. 8 seed in the B-league conference is perhaps the least noble goal in the NBA, but it would note remarkable improvement for the Bulls. No one gets a Grant Park parade for being the last playoff seed in the East, but a run at it would temporarily pacify the fans as frustration with the front office was reaching a boiling point.
The Bulls still have so much room to grow. Gunning for the No. 8 seed will only feel good for so long. Going from terrible to maybe competent is one thing. Going from maybe competent to actually good is another. It’s on Paxson and long-time colleague Gar Forman to finally land a star in free agency two years from now. If nothing else, they learned a value lesson this offseason in what happens to perception when smart moves are made that add winning talent to the roster.
The Bulls appear to have done the impossible this season by drastically overhauling their process while keeping the same decision makers on staff. Will Chicago keep making sharp moves going forward, or again find themselves giving into the tendencies that led to widespread criticism?
The Bulls are going to be fun this season. They might even be crash the playoff picture. Whether this is the first step in a climb up the NBA hierarchy or ultimately another stalled reboot is contingent on the Bulls proving they’ve changed for the better, forever.