CHICAGO — As the Chicago Bulls’ season faded toward an embarrassing close on Friday night, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas huddled his team together late in the third quarter and delivered a message.
“That’s a wrap for these [expletives]!” Thomas exclaimed.
He was right.
The Bulls mentally checked out of Friday’s ugly 105-83 Game 6 loss early, capping what will go down not just as a mediocre season, but a wasted one. As the game ended, chants of “Fire Hoiberg” filled the United Center air from an angry crowd that expected more from a team that never really fought to keep its season going.
As frustrated as fans should be toward Hoiberg, who has never really clicked with his players since arriving two years ago, Bulls fans should direct their ire toward the team’s front office after this disappointing season.
Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson were the ones who hired Hoiberg two years ago. Forman confidently sold Hoiberg as an offensive guru and an “excellent communicator,” two character traits that have yet to be proven accurate over Hoiberg’s first two seasons. Forman and Paxson knew that last season’s underachieving team didn’t have the players it needed to fit Hoiberg’s system. So Forman came out after the season end and stated that the Bulls’ goal was to get “younger and more athletic,” a mantra that the fan base seemed to be on board with.
But instead sticking to that message, the Bulls’ front office agreed to terms with veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade within a week. Those decisions look even worse in hindsight than they did at the time, especially given that the Bulls gave Wade a player option worth almost $24 million for next season that is hanging over the franchise like an albatross. It’s an option that many within the organization privately believe he will pick up, despite what he has said about not wanting to play with a bunch of young players at the end of his career. Wade, who will be 36 next season, was 1-for-10 on Friday night and looks allergic to playing defense for long stretches at this point in his career.
Even after signing Wade and Rondo, Forman pumped up that the fact that the Bulls had 10 players on their roster who were 25 years or younger, with three years or less of experience. The problem for the Bulls both then and now is that none of those players have proved to be consistent enough to be counted on for the long haul. Players such as Nikola Mirotic, Paul Zipser, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio have all shown flashes of promise, but none have given any indication that they can turn that promise into productive NBA careers.
That’s part of the reason why Rondo’s thumb injury in Game 2, an injury which knocked him out for the rest of the series after the Bulls had taken a surprising 2-0 lead over the Celtics, might turn into a blessing in disguise for the Bulls. That’s because Rondo’s absence brought a national spotlight to the real flaws on an already underachieving Bulls’ roster. There wasn’t one point guard Hoiberg could trust after Rondo went down. Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams played like they didn’t belong in the league during the rest of the series, combining to go 10-for-29 while committing 11 turnovers.
After dealing away beloved forward Taj Gibson and former first-rounder Doug McDermott to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Forman and Paxson sung the praises of second year-point guard Cameron Payne. Payne proceeded to look overmatched in his two months with the Bulls and was sent to the D-League for a stretch of games before the regular season ended. There is little optimism that he will be a long-term piece in the Bulls’ future plans.
One of the main reasons why the Bulls decided against a full-scale rebuild last season is because the organization wanted to remain relevant in the grand scheme of the NBA. Forman has stated publicly that there are no guarantees when a team decides to blow up its foundation — and he’s right. Teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings have been languishing in NBA irrelevance for years.
But the flip side of that argument is that the worst place in pro sports to be in is the middle. And that’s exactly where the Bulls find themselves for the second straight season. They are a team without a direction. And it’s up to Forman and Paxson to choose one moving forward and stick with it.
At the center of that decision is Butler and his potential future in Chicago. He said after Game 6 that his preference is to stay in Chicago but understands that the Bulls will gauge the trade market once again to see what they could get in return for his services. The reality for the Bulls, and their fans, is that there is a good chance the team they saw walking off the floor on Friday night is going to look much similar to the one that walks back on the floor to start the 2017-18 season.
Like many teams in the league, the Bulls like several of the young point guards at the top of this summer’s draft, but unless they get the right combination of both high picks and young, controllable assets, Butler isn’t going anywhere. Same likely goes for Wade, who knows he won’t get that kind of money anywhere else in the league. That leaves the Bulls with decisions to make on Rondo (team option) and Mirotic (restricted free agent). For as well as Rondo played at the end of the year before thumb and wrist injuries derailed his season, some observers forget that Rondo didn’t play very well to start the year and was benched by Hoiberg for five games at the beginning of January.
Hoiberg sung Rondo’s praises on Friday night, and it’s notable that Rondo became the most popular player in the Bulls’ locker room after Gibson was dealt, but are the Bulls ready to bring back a 31-year-old point guard who played up and down all season? If they do, the biggest reason is because they can’t find a better option on the market. But bringing back Rondo would serve as another acknowledgement that the status quo is better than the unknown.
The difference between last season and the present is that fans seem to be angrier than ever at the lack of direction from within the organization. Stories of longtime season-ticket holders stopping their payments are popping up all the time. The money and loyalty that the Bulls have counted on for decades isn’t as Teflon strong as it used to be. There’s enough blame to go around throughout the organization after this season, but fans should make sure that Forman and Paxson take the brunt of it.