Chicago Bulls: The Rise and Fall of the Baby Bulls
Continued from part 1…
In the ’05-06 season, without Curry’s inside presence, they struggled early-on until a late-season surge put them back in the playoffs. The Bulls were soon defeated by the Miami Heat.
The following off-season, Pax made two significant moves. Chandler's inability to play offense led Paxson to trade him to the Hornets. Paxson also signed Ben Wallace to a huge free-agent deal.
However, six years after they gave Brand away, the Bulls were still searching for a big man who could score. Paxson drafted LaMarcus Aldridge with the No. 2 pick and then surprisingly, traded Aldridge for the No. 4 pick, Tyrus Thomas, in a trade eerily reminiscent of the Brand trade.
Thomas wasn’t even the best player on the LSU team that year; it was Glen “Big Baby” Davis. But what actually happens on the playing field doesn’t matter around drafts in the sports world, whether it is a diamond, football field or a basketball court. Everyone becomes enthralled by that word again: potential, which basically revolves around physical characteristics displayed in pre-draft workouts.
But physical characteristics don’t always translate onto the professional level, because success on the highest level depends on your mental aptitude. Didn’t the Bulls already make the mistake of trading for a guy on his ability to jump out of the building and dunk on people? Yes, Bulls fan were experiencing déjà vu, it was Tyson Chandler all over again.
That time we traded Brand, this time we traded Aldridge. I’m not saying Aldridge is good as Brand, but he’s averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds per game in his second year, while Tyrus averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds per game.
But I still hear people say that in a couple of years, Aldridge’s and Thomas’s potential could be the same. Do you think Aldridge is not going to get any better because he can’t jump like Tyrus? Hmmmm...I think I’ll put my money on the guy with an offensive aptitude over the guy who can dunk.
The reason why I was shocked that Paxson made that trade because he had emphasized drafting guys who were experienced, like Hinrich, Gordon and Duhon. Aldridge was clearly the more proven commodity, whereas Thomas exploded onto the scene during March Madness.
This trade went against all of Paxson’s standards, which is why I’m convinced that Jerry Krause secretly called David Stern pretending to be the Bulls front office and executed the trade.
Even without an inside presence, the Bulls raced to the third best record in the Eastern conference and then stunned the defending champion Miami Heat by sweeping them in the first round.
In the second round, they faced off against the hated Pistons, and the vaunted Pistons-Bulls rivalry of old was reborn, or so we thought. But it wasn’t much of a contest as the Bulls dropped the first three games.
Then the Pistons, who let up on their opponents unlike any other team in NBA history, lost two in a row, before waking up and putting the Bulls away in game Six.
Even after losing, Bulls fans were optimistic as the playoffs exposed the emergence of a potential superstar in Luol Deng, and with a young core on an upward swing, this was a team that everyone expected to be perennial playoff contenders. Also, they had another lottery pick in the draft, thanks to Isiah!
In a cruel twist of fate, the Bulls ended up with the ninth pick, thanks to Eddy Curry’s late game heroics. If the Knicks lost their last game, the Bulls would have had Portland's odds in the lottery, and we all know how that turned out.
The Bulls had no chance of getting a solid big man, so the pick should have been traded away, but Paxson stayed put. Paxson’s actions are made more painful this year considering this was a year of star trades, including a Chicago favorite, KG, and the guy Paxson couldn’t get, Pau Gasol.
Instead he drafted Joakim Noah, because after being burned by Thomas, he went back to his method of drafting experienced winners.
As it turns out, Noah is a poor man’s Tyrus. He is another big man who has no offensive skills, and doesn’t even have the athletic ability of Tyrus. But he hustles!
That’s great. I love guys who hustle, especially if you are debating about whether the guy should make the roster, but not a lottery pick. But Noah was intended to be a role player to a solid nucleus, so many picked the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference this year.
The team struggled mightily out of the gate, an annual tradition that coincides with the circus trip. Surely, there wasn’t a reason to panic.
Unfortunately, the Bulls never recovered, Scott Skiles was fired, Jim Boylan was hired as a lame-duck coach, and the team “leader” was traded. Some say the Kobe trade talks had distracted the team, but Paxson put that to rest before the season started.
The rest of the league had simply caught up to their weakness, the lack of an inside scoring presence, and the Bulls defense wasn’t good enough to make up for their lack of offense. A post option could have created easy looks for the Bulls' plethora of shooters. They sorely need a player they can revolve their offense around, because on many occasions the team looks lost on offense.
Now the Bulls face an uncertain future. They couldn’t hire the coach they wanted, Mike D’Antoni, and there is no clear second option. Two key parts of their nucleus, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, are restricted free-agents this year, after both turned down contract extensions from the team last year. Kirk Hinrich has regressed from the form that netted him a $47.5 million deal.
They have two veterans, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden, whose future with the team is questionable. Hughes has a huge contract, which the Bulls might not want to pay, for someone so inconsistent. Gooden is used to being a starter at PF, but the team is probably inclined to let Tyrus Thomas start and see what they truly have.
The off-season will determine the direction of the franchise, and it is Paxson’s most important, and possibly last as GM. But it never should have come to this point.
Would the Bulls be here if they still had Brand? Of course not, who knows where they would have been? Krause might be still GM. But that was a mistake, and every huge team has that one huge blunder they would love to take back. The key is learning from your mistakes, so you do not repeat them. Thus, the mistake that will haunt Bulls fans is the Aldridge-Thomas trade, because the Bulls would be a completely different team with Aldridge on the floor.
The draft can single-handedly alter the direction of a franchise, look at Jordan, Duncan, and LeBron. That is why fans last year where hoping their teams would tank to get a shot at drafting Durant or Oden.
While No. 23 was in town, Bulls fans’ didn’t have to worry about draft management, and we could cheer for the rookies like college fans root for walk-ons who never get off the bench. I never thought I’d say this, but how I long for the days of Jason Caffey and Dickey Simpkins.
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