CHICAGO — The death of the Derrick Rose era with the Chicago Bulls came last Wednesday when the former MVP was dealt to the New York Knicks. The eulogy for the era was delivered on Monday by Bulls GM Gar Forman.
“We had a great run for 10 years,” Forman said at the end of the news conference to introduce first-round draft pick Denzel Valentine. “The last decade, we’ve got the best record in the Eastern Conference. We’ve put together a group that we thought was highly competitive and probably had a chance to get to a championship level. The injuries obviously derailed us quite a bit, especially the last few years. And then last year there were just so many of them. But we’ve got to put this back together now, going younger, more athletic and building it back up moving into the future.”
Forman has said several times that the Bulls are “retooling” not “rebuilding,” as they reshape a roster that was never able to win a title during the last decade. But after listening to Forman on Monday, the basketball lifer would be wise to start referring to his team’s latest plan for what it is — a rebuild.
Dealing Rose was the first step in a long rebuild and an acknowledgment from the organization that it was time to turn the page. While he didn’t come out and say that Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol were gone, Forman acknowledged the two “were going to have options” in free agency. While there was some initial optimism about bringing Noah back next year after this past season ended, Forman and his associates have known for several weeks that the pair is likely to sign elsewhere. It’s why they acquired Lopez as part of the Rose deal.
There has been speculation about Jimmy Butler‘s future in Chicago all summer, but for now talk of a deal involving Butler has cooled. Forman and the Bulls are content to see if Butler’s value gets higher from potential suitors for the two-time All-Star who is a member of the U.S. Olympic team that’s heading to Rio. The probability remains high that Butler won’t finish out his deal in Chicago, but the odds of him starting the season in Chicago for training camp are higher than they have been in a while after the Bulls chose to keep him on draft night.
So where does that leave the rest of the roster?
One name noticeably absent from Forman’s pitch about the future is Taj Gibson. The well-liked veteran only has one year and about $8 million left on his deal. Given the admission that Chicago’s window for championship contention has closed, Gibson will likely be moved this summer. He is arguably the most well-liked player in the Bulls’ locker room, but at 31, why would the Bulls keep him for a team in the middle of a rebuild? Forman would be wise to find the best possible return he can for Gibson and make a deal before the season begins.
Same goes for veteran Mike Dunleavy. Both Dunleavy and the Bulls thought they could win a title when he re-signed last summer. Now it’s time for Forman to move Dunleavy so young players such as Doug McDermott and Valentine can get more playing time.
Once the Bulls decide on the futures of Gibson and Dunleavy, Forman has to develop a plan for free agency. He shed a little light on that plan Monday.
“We’ve got to weigh everything that comes in front of us,” Forman said. “And obviously the cap will spike this summer, then it will spike again the following summer, then I think it will start to flatten out. What we’ve got to keep in mind is not only short-term but long-term and trying to put together the best plan for our team moving forward. So we’ve got to weigh those things as it begins. Obviously we’ve got an eye on this year, but we’ve also got an eye on two, three years from now and even four or five years out as far as managing our cap and putting together the best team we can.”
Forman went on to espouse the virtues of the possibility that the Bulls will have two first-round picks in next season’s draft (their own and Sacramento’s if it falls out of the top 10, from the Luol Deng deal from January 2014). Of course, the Sacramento pick may never fully vest into a first-rounder if the Kings don’t start winning more games soon.
While Forman hasn’t been one to rule his team out of talks on any potential free-agent target, it’s looking like the Bulls are hoping to sign lower-level free agents to short-term deals, allowing more flexibility for the future. Forman has tried to keep a positive tone publicly, but privately the Bulls’ front office understands that the team is several years away from being able to contend again.
The hope is that Niko Mirotic, Jerian Grant, Bobby Portis, Cris Felicio, McDermott and Valentine will be able to develop their games and produce in Hoiberg’s system, but nobody knows how that group will adjust over time. If those younger players are able to develop and the Bulls decide to part with Butler and get a bigger haul back, then perhaps more top-tier free agents will look toward Chicago as a final destination.
One of the most crucial components in the reshaping of this roster will be what adjustments Hoiberg makes in his second season. For all the chatter about what the Bulls might do to their roster, the key will be how much Hoiberg grows as a coach. He struggled to gain a strong voice within the locker room, looking and sounding overwhelmed at times as the Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.
No matter what the Bulls decide to do, at least they’ve made the decision to stop chasing after the mirage of a championship. In hindsight, the decision to rebuild the roster came a year too late, but the Bulls can’t stop now. Forman must continue making deals for the future because the Bulls’ present is currently mired in the worst place to be in professional sports: