The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”
Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”
Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.
Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.
The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.
It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.
Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.
They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.
There was the fight (or the punch).
The miserable 3-20 start.
The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.
The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.
And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.
So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.
It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.
LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously. Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.
And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.
The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.
What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.
And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.
Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.
With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.
And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.
But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.
This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.
All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.
The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.
Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.
However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.
And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.