When the champion is crowned this summer at the NBA finals, it will signal the 10-year anniversary of the Bulls winning their last championship. Has it been a decade already?
Even though it seems like it was only yesterday that Jordan & Co. were
lighting up the NBA circuit during the dynasty days, those memories linger due to the lack of new ones to take their place.
True Bulls fans can attest that it has been a long and painful decade, filled with
bumbling GM's, bad coaches, a slew of terrible players, and of course the word
that I have come to loathe, rebuilding.
Even then, the most scarring memory of the last decade was seeing his Airness in that hideous Wizards jersey. Is there a way to remove surgically remove images from my brain? I really want to pretend that never happened.
The off-season after the final championship, Bulls fans knew they were due for a
rebuilding plan after the dismantling of the dynasty. A decade later, Bulls fans know they are due for another rebuilding plan after a season with Hindenburg-sized expectations has crashed and burned just like the actual aircraft.
How did the Bulls get here? There are several reasons, but the Bulls failures can be attributed to one theme that has haunted them since the Jordan years: poor draft management. Back in the dynasty days, the players who served as the butt of Bulls’ fan jokes were always the first round draft picks. Given, they were late first-round picks, but these guys were atrocious. Mark Randall, Byron Houston, the great Corie Blount, my favorite Dickey Simpkins, second-favorite Jason Caffey, Travis Knight, Keith Booth, and Corey Benjamin. Yes, those are the consecutive first-round picks after the Bulls began their championship run.
It was fun to laugh at these picks when you have his Airness on your team, but
they had a much higher impact after Jordan retired. Bulls’ fans thankfully only had to suffer through a strike-shortened season in 1999, but after watching a dynasty for the greater part of a decade, watching Toni Kukoc, Randy Brown, Ron Harper, Brent Barry, and Bill Wennington (that’s the opening day starting line-up from that year) was equivalent to getting a root canal without the anesthesia.
It was worth it, because they got the No. 1 pick, and a franchise player in Elton
Brand. The ideal player to build around, a 6-foot-10 power forward, a smaller Tim Duncan, whose impact would be aggrandized in the East, because there were no other quality big men in the East at that time. (For those scoffing at the Duncan remark, look at their stats, they are pretty similar). Also, with the 16th pick that year we drafted Ron Artest, although Bulls fans are probably glad now that we never kept him.
Even with Brand, the Bulls languished in the NBA cellar, which wasn’t that bad,
because as a result they possessed three first round-picks in the following draft. Two came from trades made during the dynasty dismantling. The Bulls had two lottery picks, No. 4 and No. 8, to go along the 24th pick. A smart GM would have probably traded at least one of those picks, but we had the bumbling, stumbling Jerry Krause.
Drum roll please…and with the fourth pick of the NBA draft, the Bulls select PF Marcus Fizer. This pick had everything to do with the fact that then-coach Tim Floyd coached Fizer at Iowa State, but why would you spend a lottery pick on a player who plays the same position as your franchise player? Again, it’s Jerry Krause and it gets worse. Krause picked up Gary Payton’s protégé Jamal Crawford, and the 24th pick was spent on Vlade Divac’s long lost cousin Dalibor Bagaric. Also, later on that season, two future all-stars from that team, Brad Miller and Artest, was traded for Jalen Rose and a box of Twinkies for Jerry.
Fizer was a bust, but Crawford could at least score. However, his most perplexing quality was that for a guy who spent his summers working out with the Glove, he is allergic to defense. Also, Crawford is too small to play SG, thus he plays out of position at PG, which he can’t play because he has a shoot-first mentality. Of course, Isiah Thomas signed him to a $65 million contract. (I wonder if Isiah spent his summers training on how to be a GM at Krause’s house.)
Oh yeah, and Dalibor disappeared off the face of the earth. However, I choose to believe that one day a young European boy will be lost in the jungle and happen upon Bagaric’s wilderness home, where Dalibor will take the young man under his wings, like Mr. Miyagi did with a young Daniel LaRusso, and teach him to play basketball. Just wait until the 2025 draft, I tell you!
Then came the draft that altered the history of the Bulls, as Krause made the worst trade in the history of the franchise, when he traded Elton Brand, the "franchise", for Tyson Chandler. That single move started the domino effect that ultimately led to the current Bulls situation. I could write a whole another column about that trade, but I’ll limit it to this. Brand averaged 20 and 10 in his first two years! How much more potential could he have possibly thought Tyson Chandler had, to trade a guy who averaged 20 and 10, in his first TWO years.
Bulls’ fans all knew Jerry was going to draft Eddy Curry that year with the fourth
pick, but the Brand trade was a complete stunner to Bulls fans. If Krause wanted to follow San Antonio’s twin towers philosophy, why not do it with a proven
commodity such as Brand, and a rookie like Curry, as the Spurs did with an
established David Robinson, and the rookie Tim Duncan? Of course, the Bulls
regressed and Bulls fans were left dealing with a rebuilding plan within a rebuilding plan.
Unlike in ’99, in ’02, the Bulls ineptness was rewarded with the No. 2 pick, and
instead of having the chance to draft the franchise player, Yao Ming, the Bulls were stuck with the artist formerly known as Jaison Williams. Of course, Jay, proceeded to destroy his NBA career in a motorcycle accident. Yao at No. 1 and Williams at No. 2 makes me wish somebody kept a stat of largest difference in value between consecutive draft picks. Of course Jordan and Bowie would be No.1, but Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf would be up there, and how would KG and “Big Country” Reeves stack up. Come on STATS Inc.!
This thankfully concluded the Jerry Krause era in Bulls history, and it was left to
Mr. Clutch, John Paxson, to pick up the pieces. Of course, the best thing that
Paxson initially did was create a new draft strategy. He placed an emphasis on
drafting high-character guys who were experienced and were winners in college.
In 2003, Paxson drafted Kirk Hinrich to replace Williams, a solid point guard who had led Kansas to multiple Final Four runs. Crawford was moved in a sign and trade to the Knicks, which was also the beginning of Paxson’s goal to shed the team of all the bad influences from the Krause era.
In the following draft, he drafted SG Ben Gordon, who played on the national
champion Huskies. He also traded the 2005 first rounder for SF Luol Deng, who
played on Duke, a team that is always winning. He also signed free-agent Andres Nocioni, part of Argentina’s gold-medal team. Paxson had assembled a nucleus of Gordon, Deng, Hinrich, Nocioni, Chandler and Curry (who at that point were still protected by their potential). After suffering through Tim Floyd, and Bill
Cartwright, they finally found a good coach in Scott Skiles, who made sure that
these guys played hard, and the Bulls finally reached the playoffs, after six long and torturous years. They would lose to the Wizards in the first round, but the sky was the limit, because they had a young and developing core.
Then the pieces started falling apart. Curry had been diagnosed with an irregular
heartbeat, causing him to miss the playoffs. In the offseason, Curry refused to
take a DNA test which would have indicated if Curry had hypertrophic
cardiomyopathy, the same disease that afflicted Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers,
and ultimately led to their deaths.
The Bulls made the right move in trying to find out if Curry could die playing basketball. They even offered him a contract for the rest of his life if he was diagnosed with the disease. Paxson’s hand was forced, but he still managed to swindle the great Isiah in a trade for Curry.
Paxson received two first round draft picks from Thomas, at a point when the Knicks were dive-bombing towards the lottery, and nobody in the NBA thought the situation would get any better with the dysfunctional Thomas leading the team.
The Bulls had TWO POTENTIAL LOTTERY PICKS, and one of them in the vaunted Greg Oden/Kevin Durant draft class. Those were exactly the pieces that the Bulls needed to acquire a superstar, aka the Big Ticket, Kevin Garnett. But unfortunately, Paxson would begin to walk in the footsteps of Krause.
Continued in Part 2.....