Courtesy of Eric Wong/
Sports / Basketball

How to Destroy a Basketball Team Completely (And Still Keep Your Job)

In an NBA offseason that was surrounded by more shocking headlines than possibly any other in history, the most bizarre news of them all came an hour before the new season tipped off. NBA insider Shams Charania reported that two Chicago Bulls players, Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotić, were involved in an altercation in practice that left the latter with a serious concussion and a broken jaw. Portis is suspended for eight games, widely considered to be too little around the league, and Mirotić is out for the foreseeable future. For those that are not NBA fans, those names won’t ring much of a bell. It won’t ring much of a bell for most fans either — this is completely normal. The Chicago Bulls, regular contenders throughout most of this decade with multiple sure-fire superstars, enter the 2017-2018 season with what is one of the worst rosters on paper the league has seen in a long while.

This is not a situation similar to the infamous “process” of the Philadelphia 76ers either, as the Bulls haven’t accumulated draft picks to set the team up for the future — they don’t own much other than their own picks. The Chicago Bulls, in a league that is more professionally managed and analytics-driven than ever, stand as a relic of times when completely inept administrators, personal feuds and reports of teammates sucker punching each other were more commonplace. Led by the efforts of a comically overmatched duo of head administrators, Gar Forman and John Paxson, the Chicago Bulls have become the most incompetent organization in American sports.

On April 12, 2011, until two minutes before the end of their first playoff game, the Bulls looked the part of the dynasty of the coming decade. Their roster featured the reigning Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose, an unstoppable combination of speed, athleticism, skills and basketball IQ. Nothing was more entertaining than watching prime Rose drive to the basket: benchwarmer bigs usually stood aside and watched with fear in their eyes as a literal speed train approached towards them. In addition, the roster was a defensive juggernaut, coached by one of the best in the league, Tom Thibodeau, and featuring aces like Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. Their bench, called the “Bench Mob” featured players like Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, Omer Asik and then-rookie Jimmy Butler, all of which would earn massive contracts in the coming years. They were beaten by the Miami super-team the previous year, but they came back with a better looking and better coached roster into the playoffs hungry for blood. They were comfortably ahead by twelve in their first playoff game with two minutes to go. This looked to be the run where they finally put it together; they looked unstoppable.

“Uh oh, Rose came down badly on his left foot. He’s holding on to his knee…and down.”

-Mike Breen, TNT’s announcer for the game

And with that, Derrick Rose was out for the playoffs and the coming season. Torn ACL. Without its primary scorer, Chicago was eliminated in the first round. This marked a turning point for Rose’s career as he was never his former, explosive self; but more importantly the injury revealed a deeper truth about the organization. The team’s chief executives, Gar Forman and John Paxson (commonly referred to as GarPax) came to the forefront as bizarre decisions followed Rose’s injury. Their decisions, seemingly based entirely on going against team personnels’ advice out of spite and lying to the fans to keep them content, saw the team devolve into the single worst situation in the NBA today.

The Rose-led Bulls team was coached by Tom Thibodeau, a defensive specialist who was widely acknowledged as one of the best in the league. Thibodeau, however, usually stood up against GarPax when they tried to convince him to make changes to the team. It got to a point where they were afraid of the fan backlash if they were to actually fire Thibodeau. They instead tried to undermine his system to get him to voluntarily leave.

The Bulls administration did not renew the contract of Thibodeau’s right hand man and assistant coach Ron Adams in 2013 for no apparent reason. Adams currently is an assistant coach for the reigning champions Golden State Warriors, and is one of the most respected staff members around the league. The same year, they refused to select the player Thibodeau specifically suggested to the management as his desired pick in the draft, instead opting for their pick Marquis Teague. Teague today plays in the NBA’s development league after stints in Israel and Russia. Thibodeau’s preferred player was Draymond Green — two time NBA champion, reigning Defensive Player of the year, top ten player in the entire league according to ESPN’s preseason rankings. Thibodeau was eventually fired after the 2015 playoffs. He was replaced by Fred Hoiberg, whose arrival was quickly followed by the worst possible signings for his pace and space offense — players who can’t shoot or run like Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo were signed to lucrative contracts.

Before Thibodeau or Hoiberg, the Bulls were coached by Vinny Del Negro when GarPax were hired. The theme of executives feuding with coaches remained back then. John Paxson choked Vinny Del Negro during a disagreement about the team’s play in practice. Paxson issued a half-hearted statement that wasn’t even an apology, Del Negro was soon fired.

Unfortunately, the feuding and the coach-choking ways of GarPax weren’t even the most detrimental effect of the executive tandem to the team. They also showed an exceptional ineptitude in evaluating player value, and trading players to other teams. Here is a quick rundown of a few remarkable ones:

  • On the night of the 2014 NBA Draft, the Bulls packaged their own sixteenth and nineteenth overall picks, and an extra second round pick to move up five spots to the eleventh, to draft Doug McDermott. For readers who aren’t familiar with the values of draft picks, this is a comical overpay as is. It got even worse as the sixteenth and nineteenth pick turned out to be Jusuf Nurkic, possibly a top five center in the NBA, and Gary Harris, a central piece of one of the most exciting offenses of 2016 who is now getting paid over twenty-one million dollars per year.
  • The aforementioned Doug McDermott was packaged along with a crucial member of Rose-era contending teams, Taj Gibson, and an additional second round pick to get Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow from the Oklahoma City Thunder. A baffling decision at the time, the trade was apparently made because the Bulls management saw Cameron Payne as their point guard of the future and a potential centerpiece to a future contender. Instead they got this, as Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times reported the comments of an inside source from the organization about Payne“We knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level,’’ the source said. “The only reason it took two practices was because we thought maybe it was nerves in the first one.
  • Derrick Rose, hometown hero and 2011 MVP was traded to the New York Knicks along with Justin Holiday and a second round pick in return for Jerian Grant, Robin Lopez and Jose Calderon. The team’s staff insists that the deal was primarily made for Jerian Grant. While he starts today for the Bulls, it’s unlikely that he would start for any other team in the league. The trade was further justified to disgruntled fans by Gar Forman, as he claimed the deal was made to get younger and faster. Rose’s replacement, of course, was Rajon Rondo, who is two years older than Rose and a noticeably slower player.

The last trade and most recent failure involved Jimmy Butler, a player who had turned into a superstar under Thibodeau and had led the Bulls to impressive playoff runs (including one in which they almost toppled the number one seed Celtics this year, before Rajon Rondo’s injury allowed a comeback). There was no reason for a player of his caliber, who has two more years on his contract at a relatively cheap price to be on the trade market at all — but rumors surfaced before the trade deadline that he was.

The Bulls entered last offseason in limbo, with a promising playoff run cut short by injury, but a mediocre roster at the end of the day. In expected fashion, everybody in the league wanted Jimmy Butler. As many as ten teams were rumored to be in talks with Chicago — rumored offers included packages from Boston, Cleveland, Denver and Phoenix that involved superstars and/or early draft picks. The Bulls, in completely mind-boggling fashion, opted for a different offer. Tom Thibodeau, now the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, wanted his superstar back. With much better prospects available, the Bulls received the following: Zach Lavine, a young, ultra athletic point guard who is a notoriously bad defender and currently nursing a gruesome ACL tear that might rob him of his only valuable skill, which was the centerpiece. Along with him was Kris Dunn (a 23-year-old rookie point guard coming off of an incredibly disappointing season with not much improvement in sight) and a draft pick swap that let them move a mere seven spots up in the draft. The truly bizarre nature of this deal is hard to understate, but to give an idea every other headline about the deal included some version of the word “fleeced”. The Bulls traded one of the most wanted commodities in the league for twenty-five cents on the dollar.

The Bulls entered this season looking like one of the worst rosters in recent memory, and they haven’t proved anyone wrong. They have only won two games out of eight, including a thirty point drubbing against Oklahoma City. They trot out an incredibly uninspiring roster every night — their sharp-shooting Finnish rookie Lauri Markkanen being the only bright spot. Jerian Grant, the “centerpiece” of the Derrick Rose trade is shooting an impossible six percent from the three point line on more than three attempts per game. Nikola Mirotic, whose story is told at the start of this story, gave the team an ultimatum asking to leave unless Portis is traded away. The Bulls recently exercised Portis’ player option, keeping him with the team for at least another year. Mirotic reportedly hasn’t talked to a single Bulls teammate since the punch. The Bulls now claim to be in full rebuild mode, but unless their high draft pick this year pans out the five year decline into an unintentional rebuild might last for five years more.

In light of all of this, Gar Forman and John Paxson seem to be going nowhere, as owner Jerry Reinsdorf is an 81-year-old billionaire who seems to only care about his baseball team — the White Sox. In Reinsdorf’s own words: “Basketball is a sport. Baseball is a religion.” As long as the team makes money, they are doing a great job. The official explanation for why they keep their job seems to be because they “are loyal and long have favored front-office continuity.” Reinsdorf seems to manage the Bulls like his personal piggy bank — one that would be valued at at least three billion dollars and can fill up seats in a basketball town like Chicago at any given night. To give a recent example, in addition to all of the aforementioned trades, the Bulls (supposedly now in a full rebuild) also traded their high second round pick in this draft, Jordan Bell, to the Warriors for 3.5 million dollars in cash. One day earlier, the Chicago White Sox also signed their first round pick from the MLB Draft, Jake Burger, to a contract worth 3.7 million dollars.

Even if things turn out well — if Markkanen keeps up his incredible shooting, if Lavine comes back from his ACL injury like nothing happened, if they landed a great draft pick to round off their core , more mismanagement is likely to tear apart any foundation they build. The word to describe the demise of the Chicago Bulls from what they were only five years ago is not “chaotic”. It resembles more the controlled demolition of a building, parts slowly and carefully coming apart in pursuit of an inexplicable end goal. What comes apart, unfortunately, is the legacy of one of the greatest teams in the history of basketball.