The Chicago Bulls should have a different offseason priority than in recent years, and one can only hope that the front office's Gar Forman and John Paxson know it.
Their goal this year should not be to “get better” or “put in that last piece of the championship puzzle.” It should be to accrue a team that actually gets along and complements coach Fred Hoiberg’s system, not one that tries to keep the band together.
With that in mind, this is what the ideal offseason would look like for the Chicago Bulls if “GarPax” were to surprise us all with uncharacteristic proactivity.
The front office is already failing at that test, though.
The Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley reported that Joakim Noah, who will be a free agent this summer, wants out: "Noah has been telling teammates in recent weeks that he was done with the organization once free agency begins and “has no trust in the front office getting this in the right direction,’’ according to a Bulls player."
However, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Noah’s agent denies that: "'Joakim and I speak on a daily basis about his future,'" Bill Duffy, Noah's agent, told the Tribune. 'There has been zero indication from him that he doesn't wish to return to the Bulls.'"
In fact, Forman and Paxson are hoping to re-sign Noah:
"We are going to sit down with Jo and his agent," Paxson said in April. "In situations like this, it's got to be right for both sides. Anyone who has spoken to either (general manager) Gar (Forman) or me about Joakim, they know how we feel about him. He represents a lot that we believe in. To me, he's one of the most genuine people I've ever been around in this business."
Whether Cowley’s report is right and this is just his agent protecting him or if Noah is indeed open to staying should be a moot point. Noah is an important part of Bulls history. He is not part of their future because he simply does not fit the mold of “Hoiball.”
For all the talk about how his “tornado” shot is “ugly, but he makes it,” he really doesn’t. According to Basketball-Reference.com, last year he shot 14.8 percent on his jumper and has never been over 35 percent (for his career, he’s at 32.3 percent). That in no way qualifies him as the kind big Hoiberg prefers—one who can shoot the ball and space the court.
We can argue that if it comes to a choice between Noah and Hoiberg, the Bulls should choose Noah. But that’s not the real choice, since Forman and Paxson are the ones doing the choosing.
The real choice is between the past and the future, friction and harmony. Noah falls on the wrong end of those answers.
Pau Gasol is 35 and also well past his prime. He posts great numbers, but he’s not the center to rebuild around. Chicago should let him walk, too.
While they’re at it, the Bulls should look to see what kind of trade interest there is in Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and even Derrick Rose. If they can make a deal for any or all of them, the Bulls should, especially if they can add assets.
An Image Makeover
Scrubbing the team of players who don’t fit or would rather be elsewhere is only half the battle. Getting new bodies to join is another story.
More than in most seasons, free agents will have their pick of teams. With the TV deal raising the salary cap over $20 million to $93 million, almost everyone will have money to spend. Ergo, just offering players more cash isn’t going to be enough.
There will be two types of players inking with new teams: those looking for a chance to contend and those looking for a chance to improve their situations.
The Bulls will not attract the former. Forman, Paxson and Bulls fans alike all need to accept that. Next year, they will not be a contender. Full stop.
But the second type of free agent is a real possibility. Along with rebuilding comes opportunity—Forman and Paxson must persuade the players who are looking to prove their worth that they'll have that chance in the Windy City.
That is going to require the Bulls to persuade free-agent prospects that they (Forman and Paxson) are men of their word. And that is going to require some direct sales. And that may mean letting former players Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc, presently serving as special advisers to the president and CEO, be more of the front men.
Having former players represent the franchise is a good way of proving that you treat your players well. The front office should show a little humility, sit down with those ex-players being paid to give advice and learn.
Then Forman and Paxson should publicly admit where they went wrong with Tom Thibodeau and Noah and own their whole part in the travesty this organization has become in the last few years. Rather than just claiming they take responsibility in a general way, they should specifically say what they are responsible for.
Offering a gesture by acknowledging their faults would go a long way toward letting free agents know that Forman and Paxson aren’t the obstinate, strong-arming control freaks their reputation suggests—especially if they admit their problem is being obstinate, strong-arming control freaks.
Rebuild in Hoiberg’s Image
The last step of the puzzle is getting players who fit Hoiberg’s system. And again, this means going into the offseason with realistic expectations.
And it requires being prudent.
There are a couple of truly high-caliber free agents who are available, though the degrees to which they are “available” are in question. Kevin Durant looks less and less likely to move anywhere, what with his Oklahoma City Thunder leading the Golden State Warriors 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals. LeBron James is highly unlikely to leave Cleveland again.
Then there is the next tier of free agents—players like DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford and Mike Conley. If they leave their current teams, it’s going to be for a better chance to compete than they presently have. Since all their teams are in the playoffs this year, they’re not coming to Chicago.
Then there’s Nicolas Batum, who is coming off a career year. According to an AP report in USA Today, Charlotte Hornets GM Rich Cho has made keeping the wingman his top priority:
Cho, speaking at his season-ending press conference Wednesday, called re-signing Batum the team's top priority after the Hornets finished tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte, the East's sixth seed due to tiebreakers, lost to third-seeded Miami in seven games in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
"He knows that. I told him that in our exit interviews," Cho said of Batum. "We love having him here and he did a great job this year. He had a few injuries, but overall he did a great job on both ends of the floor. (He was) also great in the locker room and I think Nic wants to be here as well." ...
"My first goal will be to be here with the Charlotte Hornets," Batum said.
Harrison Barnes is available, but he just screams "overpay." His player efficiency rating is 12.3. Is he really the guy you’re going to slot next to Jimmy Butler to win a title?
Chandler Parsons is there, but the Bulls hardly need another guy with a history of injuries. And then there’s Bradley Beal, who wants a too-big contract and has a litany of injuries.
Forget all that. The best thing the Bulls can do is find diamonds in the rough, guys who are looking to prove they can be starters. They should follow the pattern of last year’s Portland Trail Blazers, who turned Al-Farouq Aminu into a quality starter and now have him on a bargain deal at $7.5 million per year.
Second-chance players like Gerald Green who can score but have a history of bad defense would be worth throwing two-year deals at, particularly if the Bulls can get a team option on the second year if they offer a bit above market value on the first.
Keeping E’twaun Moore would be ideal, but only if the price is right. He showed a lot last year—so much, in fact, he might have pushed his price tag up too high. He defends three positions and sported a hefty 45.2 three-point percentage.
If they can get him for three years and $27 million or thereabouts, it would be worth doing. That's a far cry from the minimum they signed him with two years ago.
This is not the free-agent class to build a contender out of, and it’s certainly not the year for the Bulls to try anyway. The last thing the Bulls need to do is go and ink a bunch of players to long-term deals who don’t fit just because they have the money to spend.
In the draft, they should just take the best player left who can shoot. They have needs in enough places that it won't much matter who they pick.
The smart move is to write off this season; they’re not going anywhere anyway (redundancy intended).
Next year—when Rose’s contract comes off the books, the free-agency class is deeper and there will be less competition to bid against—GarPax should make its big play.
That gives the front office time to cultivate its new image. It would provide Hoiberg a chance to actually run his system without internal fighting and without pressure to succeed.
It gives Jimmy Butler the opportunity to lead in reality, not just by staking the claim as the team’s leader. And it gives players like Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis plenty of time to be on the court, fail and learn from their mistakes.
Next season should be transitional for the Bulls, and the dream offseason is the one that speeds that process along. Hopefully, Forman and Paxson will come to realize that.
Stats obtained from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise stated.