Ten Years of Rebuilding: Are the Bulls in Any Better Shape?

Jacob NitzbergAnalyst IDecember 17, 2008

Over the past decade, the Chicago Bulls have been in what some might call “a rebuilding phase.” Shed contracts, bring in and develop young talent, and a few years down the line, you’re a contender again.

For the Bulls, this process began after Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Co. left following the 1998 season. The Bulls went young, drafting players in the first round such as Elton Brand, Ron Artest, Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry, and Jay Williams over a four-year span.  When the Bulls traded Brand for Chandler in 2001, the “Baby Bulls” were born.

This idea, however, went nowhere in the beginning. The Bulls never finished higher than sixth in the Central division between 1999 and 2004, missing the playoffs and having 30 or less wins in each of those years. Then, in the 2004-05 season, Bulls’ fans got hope.

A lineup of Kirk Hinrich, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, and first-round picks Ben Gordon and Luol Deng led the Bulls to the playoffs, where they won their first two games before being bounced by Washington in the first round.

As disappointing as it was to watch your team lose after being up 2-0, it was progress.  This team was supposed to be the start of something special. This was supposed to be why we suffered through ’99-’04.

But if you’re a Bulls fan, you know it wasn’t to be. Since the 2005 playoffs exit, the Bulls did make the playoffs twice, but they ended up losing in the first round in 2006 and in the second round in 2007.

They signed Ben Wallace to a four-year, $60 million deal (of which he lasted two years) and missed opportunities to trade for Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant (both playing for the Western Conference Champion Lakers) as well as Kevin Garnett (playing on the NBA Champion Celtics).

They had two of their star players, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, turn down $50 million contract extensions, and long story short, last year they missed the playoffs with a 33-49 record, when many pundits and experts picked them to reach the NBA finals.

In the 2008 offseason, John Paxson saved his job by lucking into the No. 1 draft pick with only a 1.7 percent chance to do so. Derrick Rose is an absolute star, but he is easily the best player on an 11-13 team struggling to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference.

It has been 10 long years since the Bulls last title (and when your team wins six in the first 14 years of your life, 10 years seems like an eternity), and the Bulls have essentially made no progress towards their next one.

Sure, this team will win more than 30 games, something the Bulls teams from ’99-’04 couldn’t do, but in 10 years, I don’t count that as an improvement. So where do we go from here? Betting on D-Rose to win every game by himself is not a legitimate option, so how can the Bulls improve this team and become a winner?

Hindsight is 20/20, and now I realize that the Bulls missed a huge opportunity by not trading for Gasol or Garnett. The Bulls are clearly missing a consistent scorer, especially one from down in the low post.

Even though we gave Luol Deng $70 million, he isn’t the answer, and it’s becoming more and more evident that recent draft picks Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah aren’t viable solutions either (although LaMarcus Aldridge might have been).

Of the potential free agents in 2009, the one that makes the most sense for the Bulls, even though it pains me to add another Dukie, is Carlos Boozer. Boozer has a player option for ’09, but will most likely opt to sign a long-term deal while he is still in the prime of his career. If he is a free agent, many teams will be making an effort to sign him, but I think he would definitely be the missing piece.

If not Boozer, the Bulls could go after veterans Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom, or Rasheed Wallace. Other alternatives include waiting for the fabled summer of 2010 and try to land Chris Bosh, or pray for the No. 1 pick again in 2009 and select Oklahoma F Blake Griffin.

Overall, while there are some options out there to fix the Bulls’ hole in the frontcourt, not many are feasible and those that are aren’t very enticing. However, any and all of them are better than what the Bulls have come up with; namely Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray, and Drew Gooden (don’t forget 47-year old Michael Ruffin).

While the Bulls have holes in the frontcourt, they have a logjam in the backcourt.  Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Larry Hughes, and Thabo Sefolosha all believe they deserve playing time when healthy. And no, I didn’t forget Lindsay Hunter. So who stays and who goes?

We all know Derrick Rose isn’t going anywhere, hopefully ever. Hinrich would have to leave via trade, as he still has another four years left on his five-year deal. I’d love to see Hughes go, but at $12.8 million this year and $13.6 million next year, I don’t really see any takers.

We could get rid of Sefolosha, but I value his defense, which is improving. Gordon is the most likely candidate to leave, as he is on a one-year contract, but I’d personally like to see the Bulls keep him around as a sixth man where he thrived in 2006 and 2007.

So after all of this, the Bulls are only marginally in better shape than they were a decade ago. The playoffs look like a stretch this year, and even if the Bulls make it they’d have Cleveland or Boston waiting for them.

Looking ahead to next year isn’t pretty, as holes up front won’t be filled and logjams in the backcourt won’t be cleared. If this is what the front office calls progress, as a Bulls fan, I’m pretty scared about what the next 10 years will hold, even with Derrick Rose at the helm.