In its over 50 years of existence, the Chicago Bulls franchise has received a tremendous amount of support and love from the greatest fans in the NBA. Although the vast majority of Bulls fans are intelligent and passionate, some coaches and players have occasionally been underappreciated. I’ve highlighted the five most egregious cases here. Despite several worthy candidates from the 1970s, most notably Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle, I chose to limit the pool of possible candidates from the Jordan Era to the present day.
Most of the players on this list (with the notable exception of No. 1) had their strengths on the offensive end, with defensive deficiencies. In Chicago, if you want to be loved and appreciated, it’s always better to be defensive-minded. Players like Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah had limitations on the offensive end, but their defensive effort and prowess rendered them a revered status with the majority of fans. Dennis Rodman didn’t always bring effort (or himself) to practice, and he lacked an ability to score consistently, but all was forgotten due to his exceptional defense. The 1985 Bears and the Bulls of the '90s imprinted a “Defense wins Championships” mantra into our collective DNA.
Ironically, Chicago is also a city that loves a great work ethic, and in the sport of basketball it takes more work and practice hours to be a great offensive player. No one leaves the womb as a great shooter. With some “want-to” and the gift of athleticism, players can achieve “great defender” status. It’s more difficult without practice to perform on the offense end, especially at the end of games when the opposition is putting forth more effort, and a shot of adrenaline can have disastrous consequences on the jump shot. The players on my list had a unique ability to perform when it mattered most on the offensive end.
With that in mind, I bring you my list of the Most Underrated Bulls over the past 35 years.
5. Dwyane Wade
The Bulls were faced with some difficult decisions at the end of the 2015-16 season. With the trade of Derrick Rose and the departure of Joakim Noah, the team was ready to build around Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately for the Bulls and the rest of the league, almost every team had a ton of cap space to spend on an unworthy group of free agents. Therefore, the summer of 2016 ushered in a period where some worst free agent signings in the history of basketball were completed. The Bulls basically had 3 options that summer:
Option 1: The first option was to dive head-first into the overrated free agent class of 2016. The Bulls wisely decided to avoid bidding on some of these players (Tyler Johnson, Jon Leuer, Chandler Parsons, Ian Mahinmi, etc...), despite anger over inactivity from large sectors of the fan base.
Option 2: Maintain Cap Flexibility and sign only minor, one or two year deals. These options included Seth Curry (2 years, $5.9 Million), Dion Waiters (1 year, 2.9 million), or larger deals for Rajon Rondo or Dwyane Wade.
Option 3: Do nothing in the first year of the “Build Around Butler” era, look for trades, and endure the fan outrage.
The Bulls chose Option 2, with short term contract offers to Rondo and Wade. The logic behind the signings were sound considering Butler’s general abhorrence for young players. Jimmy was excited by the prospect of bringing in Wade and actively recruited him. The primary reason for signing Wade was that he was still playing at a relatively high level. In the 2016 playoffs, a few months before he signed with the Bulls, Wade put up incredible numbers over 14 games for the Heat. He averaged 21.4 points and 4.3 assists, with a 46.9 FG%, 52.2% from 3 (12-23), 78% from the FT line with 64 attempts. Wade made the All-Star team in 2016 and he put up an All-Star performance when it mattered most in the 2016 playoffs. Arguing that Wade still had some solid basketball years left in the tank was an easily justifiable position based on his 2016 playoff performance alone.
All the frustration over his average regular season blurred the often effective play that Wade brought for much of 2016-17. Although he didn’t reach his own high standards for greatness, Wade posted solid numbers that season, averaging 18.3 ppg in only 30 minutes per game. We tend to discount the value of scorers in Chicago. Wade’s 18.3 ppg and 18.5 PER is a number never reached by many Bull legends, including the beloved Kirk Hinrich. Only four Bulls over the past decade have averaged 18.3 ppg or more in 30 or more games: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, and Zach LaVine (so far this season). We’ll probably go another decade before we find another five players.
The primary issues with the Three Alphas team had nothing to do with the Three Alphas. The team was excellent defensively, ranked 6th in the league in defensive efficiency, but offensively the team was dependent on the shooting abilities of Niko Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Mirotic particularly needed to replicate his solid 2015-16 season, especially his 39% shooting from behind the arc to create lanes for Wade and Butler to rim rock. Unfortunately, Mirotic's 3-point percentage hovered around 29% for most of his first 200 attempts. His contemptible play in the playoffs (34% FG, 28.6% from behind the arc) and helped seal the Bulls' doom, with little blame from his considerable and misguided fan base.
But the plan actually worked. For once, the Bulls were peaking in the playoffs and were an extremely dangerous team, so much so that national NBA pundits like Ryen Russillo argued that the Bulls were simply the “better team” after taking a 2-0 lead in the first round over the top-seeded Boston Celtics.
Unfortunately, Rondo’s broken finger effectively ended all hope for a miraculous playoff run. There was a Grand Canyon between Rondo and his backup PG Jerian Grant and we’ll never know what that team could have accomplished if Rondo had stayed healthy.
4. Doug Collins
The Bulls finished the 1985-86 season with a 30-52 record under first-year coach Stan Albeck. The disappointing regular season record was primarily due to Michael Jordan’s absence with a broken foot. Even with the poor record, the Bulls made the playoffs but were swept by Boston despite Jordan’s heroic efforts against the eventual NBA Champion Celtics. With Jordan's talent on the rise there was reason for optimism, but the team still fired Albeck after one season. As with most Bulls coaching decisions, this one was not without controversy, as Albeck torched Krause and the organization on the way out.
Despite the chaotic circumstances surrounding Albeck’s departure, Reinsdorf made a wise decision in hiring the young and inexperienced 34-year old Doug Collins, an analyst for CBS-TV. Hiring a television analyst was not unheard of at the time, since Pat Riley made a similar and successful transition. Things immediately got better for the Bulls under Collins. The Bulls went 40-42 (0-3 in the playoffs) in 1986-87, 50-32 in 87-88 (4-6 in the playoffs), and 47-35 in his final season (9-8 in the playoffs). They moved closer to a title in each of his three seasons at the helm culminating in a Conference Finals appearance for the first time since 1975 in Collins' third year.
Doug was an outstanding leader who had the respect of Jordan and the Bulls became one of the best defensive teams in the NBA during his tenure. The season before he arrived, the Bulls were 13th in defensive rankings (Opponent Points Per Game was the common defensive metric of that time). They were second, first, and fifth in Collins' three years as head coach, and they fell to 12th after his departure.
Collins was unexpectedly fired in June of 1989, shortly after the draft that acquired Stacey King, B.J. Armstrong, and Jeff Sanders. Doug had a 137-109 regular season record over three seasons (13-17 in the playoffs). The primary reasons given at the time for his dismissal never sat right with me. It was publicized that some players didn’t like Collins, he was criticized for being too hard on younger players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. But few great coaches are beloved by all their players. It’s likely a conflict with Krause ultimately led to his dismissal (probably over his refusal to embrace the triangle) for even Michael, Scottie, and Phil Jackson ultimately lost all of their battles with the ornery general manager. Collins clearly garnered the respect of key figures of the dynasty and Jordan hand-picked him to be his coach for his final two seasons with the Wizards. He doesn’t get enough credit for steering the ship in the correct direction, and for that, he’s made the list.
His footprint on the Bulls dynasty of the '90s is evident in the roster, like the decision to draft Grant.
“The drafting of Grant almost didn't happen because Krause, at the last minute, wanted to draft Joe Wolf but was overruled by Jerry Reinsdorf, who sided with the coaches, team sources said,” the late great Lacy J. Banks, the Chicago Sun-Times beat writer, wrote in 1991.
"People don't know that…Krause wanted to draft Joe Wolf," Grant told the Chicago Tribune's Melissa Isaacson in June of 1994.
Without the efforts of Doug Collins and Johnny Bach, it is likely Grant may have never been drafted. Collins deserves credit for helping to avert this potential draft disaster, because a "Big 3" of Jordan-Pippen-Wolf would not have been as effective against the Pistons and Lakers.
3. Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol was considered to be one of the best free agent options in the 2014 class. The Bulls beat several solid teams (most notably the Spurs and Thunder) in acquiring his services and Gasol agreed to sign for less money in Chicago. He played for $7.1 million in 2014-15 and $7.4 million in 2015-16, well below his market value, and the return on investment was substantial. Gasol made the All Star team in both of his seasons as a Bull (and was a starter in 2015) and he made All-NBA Second Team in his first season. He averaged a double-double (19.4 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 2.8 APG in 14-15 and 18.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.5 APG in 15-16). I can’t think of a Bulls player with similar numbers and accomplishments who is remembered with such indifference, and in some cases disdain, by large parts of the fan base.
Gasol was a highly skilled offensive player who was especially effective in his first year in Chicago. In that season, the Bulls won 50 games for only the third time since the end of the Jordan era, despite the significant decline of Joakim Noah and the recurring Rose injuries. The increased win total was almost entirely due to Gasol and the improvement of Jimmy Butler.
In the first round playoff series vs. the Bucks in 2015, Gasol was double-teamed every time he touched the ball in the post. The Bucks were still shell-shocked from the 46 points and 18 rebounds Gasol put up in a February victory over Milwaukee and they were determined to stop him. The Bulls were mostly unable to take advantage of the Bucks predictable defensive strategy until Game 6, when the Bulls finally moved the ball and punished the Bucks with a 120-66 win. Gasol and Rose pick and rolled their way to a victory in Game 1 of the following series against the Cavs, but a hamstring injury to Gasol in Game 3 ended their last legitimate chance at finally beating LeBron James.
Gasol certainly had his limitations defensively, but he was far from a disaster on that end. There are two types of coaches: coaches who demand that the players adapt to their system and coaches who adapt their system to the players. Tom Thibodeau adhered to the former method and consistently asked Gasol to play too far from the basket and guard players he wasn’t capable of stopping.
Advanced analytics contradicted the narrative on Gasol’s defensive abilities, especially in terms of rim defense. Gasol used his height and length to block and affect shots. He also rebounded well, but many fans preferred the more athletic but far less skilled Cristiano Felicio. Few fans will admit it today in hindsight. His play warranted more love, and for that, he makes this list.
San Antonio, Gasol's next destination, was better able to utilize an aging Gasol. In the year after he left the Bulls, Gasol led the NBA in three-point percentage with a stellar 53.8 percent, with more total attempts than his two seasons with the Bulls combined. Meanwhile, Felicio devolved into a G-League quality player.
2. Toni Kukoc
Toni Kukoc arrived in Chicago at the age of 24, just in time for Michael Jordan’s first retirement. Kukoc had no faults on the offensive end, he was a solid post player, rebounder and three-point shooter who was not afraid to attack the rim. He was also a great passer. He was limited defensively, though his length covered up many of his those deficiencies. Kukoc had that “clutch” quality, stepping up with big performances many times during the Bulls' second trio of title runs. His 1998 Game 7 performance vs the Pacers (21 points 7-11 shooting, 3-4 from 3) was essential for that 88-83 victory, and the Bulls might not have won that game and, their sixth title, without his contribution. His Game 5 effort in an 83-81 loss at home vs the Jazz in the 1998 Finals is seldom discussed today because of Jordan’s heroics in Game 6, but it was as good as it gets in terms of big performances on a big stage (30 points, 11-13 shooting, 4-6 from 3).
Kukoc also hit one of the most important shots in Bulls history on May 13th 1994. The Bulls were down 2-0 to the Knicks in the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and returned to Chicago for Game 3. The Bulls were up 89-70 at the end of three quarters but were hit by a Knicks offensive tidal wave of 32 points in the fourth quarter, and New York tied the game at 102 with 1.8 seconds left. It was a monumental collapse and Pippen’s subsequent decision to sit out the final play would have caused irreparable harm to Scottie’s reputation with a loss. Fortunately for Pippen, Kukoc hit the shot to win the game, and Scottie was able to rehab his reputation by the end of the series with an iconic dunk over Ewing in Game 6. The Kukoc game-winner is one of the most impactful shots in Bulls history.
Kukoc, like Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat teams, had to sacrifice and defer to superior teammates. He was a natural three, but due to the presence of Pippen, he was asked to gain weight and play more often at the power forward position. He won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996 and he was clearly a player who could have started on the vast majority of teams without “72-10” talent. His importance to the legendary 1996-1998 Bulls title teams has always been understated. He was a great player and accepted a lesser role in order to win. Because of his personal sacrifice for the greater good of the team, Kukoc makes the list.
1. Ben Gordon
“Ben [Gordon] is a very good player… scoring-wise he’s one of the best in the game. There are a lot of teams that would love to have him… He’s a great offensive scorer.” – Dwayne Wade on Ben Gordon, 2008.
In the years the Bulls organization has existed, there have been only seven players to average 20 PPG or more for a Bulls team that was .500 or better: Bob Love, Chet Walker, Michael Jordon, Scottie Pippen, Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Gordon.
Gordon was a fantastic offensive force for the Bulls. He was an elite shooter; hitting over 40 percent from behind the arc every year he played in Chicago. In that regard, Gordon was a bit ahead of his time. To put this in perspective, Gordon’s best season was 2006-07. In that year, Golden State was the top team in 3-point attempts, averaging 24.8 attempts per game while the Bulls were 23rd at 15.2 per game. Contrast that season with 2018-19, where Houston’s 42.6 attempts per game is leading the league. The 30th-ranked team is San Antonio, averaging 24.4 per game (Bulls are 25th at 26.9). Gordon would have flourished in today’s game, but his prime years were spent in a league still focused on post-up play and mid-range jumpers.
Gordon scored when it mattered most, with incredible fourth quarter production and a Sixth Man award during his rookie season. He was remarkably durable (an underrated trait, especially in this town), missing only 12 games over five seasons, and he played in all 82 games three out of his five seasons in Chicago. He relentlessly attacked the rim, and led the Bulls in free throw attempts for four straight seasons.
Gordon usually drew the opponent’s best perimeter defender and he was the only Bull to consistently draw a double team until Derrick Rose arrived. You could count on one hand the number of guards in the league who could draw a double team 40-feet from the basket and it was disappointing the other Bulls of that era, some more beloved with larger contracts, didn’t take advantage of this fact on the offensive end.
In Game 5 of the incredible series vs the Celtics in 2009 (Bulls were tied 2-2 at the time), the Bulls were down 104-101 at the end of the first OT in Boston. Gordon was fouled while shooting a three with 27.3 seconds left. Gordon calmly walked up and hit all three free throws. Perhaps no player on that Bulls roster, or anyone since, could have hit those three free throws in that raucous environment on the road in Boston.
He was a cold assassin with no fear of the big moment.
Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich get far more credit for leading the Bulls out of the post-Jordan darkness, but Gordon was the primary force behind the change in the Bulls' fortunes. His departure to Detroit as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2009 ended much of the goodwill he had built up in Chicago from the majority of fans, but his greatness when it mattered most should always be cherished. For that oversight, Ben Gordon claims the top spot on this unarguable list.