When the Bulls ceased ties with the Developmental League's Iowa Energy in 2014, hardly anyone took notice.
The Bulls hadn't assigned or recalled a player from the team since 2011, when second-year forward James Johnson was reassigned to the team. The closest general manager Gar Forman and the Bulls came in 2013, when first-round bust Marquis Teague was scheduled to be sent to Iowa before an injury to Mike James necessitated the Bulls keeping an additional point guard on the roster.
Cutting ties with Iowa marked a seven-year stretch in which the Bulls assigned just five players to Iowa a total of seven times, including draft picks in Johnson and JamesOn Curry, the latter twice during the 2007-08 season. Much of the Bulls' inactivity in using the D-League option was due in large part to the organization not having full control over the Energy.
They shared the team, owned and operated by Iowa Basketball, LLC, with the Miami Heat in 2007 and the Phoenix Suns in 2008 to 2011. From 2011 to 2014, they shared the team at various times with the then-New Orleans Hornets, Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Bulls then shared the Fort Wayne Mad Ants with 12 other teams in 2014-15.
It's why the Bulls worked so diligently the past 14 months with the NBA to earn the right to own and operate its own D-League team, which they announced Wednesday afternoon at the United Center. The organization will begin play in 2016-17 and will play 24 home games in Hoffman Estates, Ill., at the Sears Centre Arena, where the basketball and business operations will be housed.
"We haven’t used the D-League a lot in the past, the biggest reason being that we wanted our players in our culture and within our system," said general manager Gar Forman. "But now that we have control of a D-League team, and especially a proximity so close to where we’re at, we see it where we’re going to have the best of both worlds. We’ll have players in our building learning our culture, learning the game from our veterans, from our coaches. And yet we’ll have the opportunity to send those players to the D-League to get valuable minutes on the floor."
Forman and VP of basketball operations John Paxson said Wednesday that owning and operating a D-League team was a logical step for a franchise that values the NBA Draft and development of young players so highly. Of the 15 players on the roster, nine were drafted by the team and have never played for another team: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, Bobby Portis and Cameron Bairstow. A 10th, rookie Cristian Felicio, signed in July as an undrafted free agent and made the final roster.
Forman gave an example where a rookie such as Portis or Felicio could practice with the team in Chicago in the morning, take the 35-mile trip to Hoffman Estates and play 35 minutes of "great quality basketball" before returning to the NBA team the following day.
"We think it is a key ingredient to sustaining success over a long period of time," Forman said of the Bulls' draft philosophy. "This will be another important tool for us to help our young players develop and grow."
The timing is also significant as the Bulls begin a new era and philosophy under first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg. Whereas the core of the Bulls' veteran roster had played under Tom Thibodeau for six seasons, adjusting and acclimating to Hoiberg's up-tempo offense has been a work in progress for the 5-3 Bulls. The addition of a D-League team, said Paxson, will allow younger players to expedite their growth process by seeing the floor in Hoffman Estates rather than sitting on the bench behind one of the deepest rosters in the NBA.
The Bulls will be in charge of staffing the D-League team, and Paxson said the culture will mirror that of the NBA team, allowing for young players to learn the same system Hoiberg is teaching in Chicago while also getting valuable experience with live game action.
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"We have to keep it seamless. So everybody’s talking the same language, players know when they go from our practice to a D-League game, the terminology’s going to be the same," Paxson said. "It has to be that way. And the other thing is expectations. Our expectations of players aren’t going to change from being here or when we do send them to the D-League."
The Bulls are the 13th NBA team to fully own and operate a D-League team. The Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets also will begin operations with their respective teams in the 2016-17 season, giving the D-League a record 22 franchises. Per the Bulls' press release, an all-time high 30 percent of current NBA players have at one point played in the D-League.