CHICAGO — Come fall in Chicago, things are going to be very different. That’s what happens when you miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years, as the Chicago Bulls did this season.
General manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson took the unusual step of meeting with reporters directly following the team's final contest Wednesday night—a 115-105 win over the Philadelphia 76ers—rather than wait for exit interviews in the following days.
Paxson and Forman repeatedly lamented Chicago’s lack of fight, while largely defending first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg. They preached accountability and put the roster’s failures on themselves, even as they stated that neither of their jobs are in danger. They swore that next year’s group will be different, whether those changes are made through the draft, free agency or trades.
The most eye-opening development, though, was a response to a question about Jimmy Butler’s future with the organization. Butler is presumably the team’s long-term cornerstone, but according to several reports, the Bulls entertained offers for the 26-year-old from several teams at February’s trade deadline.
On Wednesday, Bulls management not only didn’t deny those reports, they didn’t rule out the possibility that Butler could be moved at some point.
“We’ve got to take a look at everything,” Forman said. “We’ve got to explore all options, and I don’t think there’s anything that’s off the table when you have a disappointing year like this. With that said, obviously Jimmy has had a fantastic year. From where he was to where he’s gotten to, he’s become a very, very valuable player for us.”
Butler signed a five-year, $95 million deal with Chicago last offseason and earned his second consecutive All-Star selection before going down in February with a knee injury that sidelined him for a month.
Including the injury, his season had its share of drama. He infamously told reporters in December, after a loss in New York, that Hoiberg needed to coach the team harder, which led to a perception that the coach and star didn’t see eye-to-eye. It was a thought that never truly went away despite both insisting to the contrary.
Beyond the temporary rift they created, Butler’s comments also led to questions about his leadership. With Joakim Noah suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in January and Taj Gibson in and out of the lineup all year, there was a void.
Butler tried to fill it, but, by his own admission, it was an awkward (and largely unsuccessful) transition to make given his background as a 30th overall pick who only recently unlocked the kind of on-court talent that would warrant such a designation.
“When you’re talking too much about leadership, you’re probably not getting what you need from the team leaders,” Paxson said Wednesday. “I played with the greatest player in the game [Michael Jordan, Paxson’s Bulls teammate in the 1990s], and you didn’t hear him talking about leadership. You heard him going out and showing leadership and showing that he was a winning player. I don’t think any of our guys need to talk about that anymore, about leadership; I think they need to show it.”
Just about every aspect of this Bulls season fell short of expectations, but few more so than the pairing between Butler and Derrick Rose. That’s going to be the dominant storyline going into 2016-17, but so far, there isn’t a lot of evidence that they can be effective together.
When the two stars were on the court together this season, Chicago scored 101.3 points per 100 possessions and gave up 105.2 points, per NBA.com. They showed flashes throughout the year of being an effective pairing, but it never coalesced the way everyone hoped.
“They’re both very talented, but it didn’t always mesh this year,” Paxson said. “But you can say that about all lot of our players. Look, we need a tougher collective mindset. We need a better identity as a basketball team. Somewhere this year it got sideways. I’m not exactly sure where, but that’s on us to try and get right.”
The likeliest scenario is to keep Rose and Butler together for another year, then let Rose walk when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2017.
Rose is slated to make $21.3 million next season, the final year of his contract. Given his health history and inconsistent play, he has little trade value throughout the league.
With the amount of money expected to fly around this summer when the NBA’s new television deal kicks in, another team could be convinced to take on Rose’s deal if they miss out on the big-name free agents. But the Bulls wouldn’t get back much more than one year of cap relief and maybe a future draft pick even if they did reach a deal.
At that point, riding out the final year with Rose, who finished the season healthy and had a strong stretch of games after January, is a better option than whatever minimal return they could get for him in a trade.
Moving Butler is a much more intriguing possibility, one that would be out of character for one of the NBA's most conservative and risk-averse front offices. A 26-year-old two-way All-Star in his prime should have 29 teams calling to make offers.
But Chicago has invested a lot in Butler’s development over the past five years. It’s seen him grow from a little-used late first-round pick to a top-tier scorer and wing defender, and giving up on him will be a tough sell unless a team blows the franchise away with an offer.
Still, his value will never be higher than it is right now, and without any other blue-chip assets on the roster, it makes sense for the Bulls to at least gauge the market.
Paxson reiterated that they’re not ruling anything out.
“Like Gar said, everything’s on the table right now. There’s one untouchable guy I’ve ever been around, Michael Jordan. So that’s how I’ve always looked at it.”
Whether Rose or Butler get moved, or if they’re both back, there are going to be changes in store in Chicago this summer.