Sam: Bulls sinking to middle class of NBA


Sam: Bulls sinking to middle class of NBA

Not to beat a dead horse here, but the four-team blockbuster trade centering around Dwight Howard only further illustrates the gap between the NBA's haves and have-nots.
Unfortunately, the Bulls appear to be sinking into the latter category.
That may sound preposterous to some, as the Bulls are in one of the NBA's biggest markets, have one of the league's highest payrolls, won the most regular-season games for two consecutive seasons and are doling out four eight-figure salaries -- including a true superstar in Derrick Rose -- but in this summer of the rich getting richer, the franchise is falling behind in basketball's arms race. And while Rose is still only 23, going on 24 and this fall will begin the first season of his five-year contract extension, despite the fact that he's currently on the shelf, it doesn't appear that at this point, the obsessive winner will have a legitimate shot at hoisting a championship trophy during at least the early prime of his career.
This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to the organization not acquiring Howard, an idea that's been dead for some time now. The game's top center simply didn't want to be in Chicago on a long-term basis and, unlike the Lakers, the Bulls weren't willing to roll the dice on the notoriously indecisive big man not signing a contract extension, even before Rose suffered his devastating ACL injury.
Perhaps more significantly, the Magic clearly were looking for a trade package different from any permutation of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and future assets, just as they somehow didn't want the Rockets' proposed deal of draft choices and young talent or even the Nets' offer of Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and four first-round picks -- while ridding themselves of Hedo Turkoglu's infamously bad contract -- scenarios that in retrospect, seem preferable to what Orlando reportedly will receive.
Regardless, now that Howard is headed to Hollywood to join a star-studded cast featuring fellow All-Stars Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and free-agent acquisition Steve Nash, the Lakers have seemingly one-upped the defending-champion Heat, at least on paper, by putting together a "Big Four" in the wake of Miami's "Big Three" delivering on its promise and winning a title in June. Games still have to be played and it's no guarantee that with Howard, the Lakers will leapfrog the West's reigning top dog in Oklahoma City, but even though it's the other conference, one can't help but notice how the Bulls are increasingly less relevant in the conversation about the league's upper crust.
Even in the East, the efforts of the Heat to maintain its standing, the Celtics' attempts to upgrade their aging roster for another run to the Finals and splashy summer moves of the Knicks, Nets and now Sixers -- not to mention the Central Division rival Pacers' resolve to continue building on their recent success, if not jump into the fray of contenders -- has only exacerbated the impact of the Bulls' cost-cutting offseason maneuvers.
Whether or not you believe the decimation of the "Bench Mob" has been overblown, or will hurt even worse most would have you believe, even if Rose's eventual late-season return provides a boost, the Bulls no longer possess the same advantages in depth, size, chemistry and defense (based on losing the likes of backup center Omer Asik and reserve swingman Ronnie Brewer, though Tom Thibodeau's infamous preparation will have something to say about that) that made them such a special group over the past two seasons.
That isn't the point, one might say, as Chicago is a city used to championships, and with Rose still recuperating, a celebratory parade down Michigan Avenue wasn't in the making next summer anyway, so why not exercise some fiscal responsibility in hopes of winning big in the future?
Except it's being proven that to the aggressors go the spoils, both in free agency and in the trade market, so sitting back until 2014 to catch a big fish or two is no guarantee, especially with cap-space competitors like the Magic assuredly going to throw their hats in the ring. And even that is a very uncertain proposition, as superstars in their prime like LeBron James won't necessarily opt out of their contracts, leaving only aging stars like Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki to pursue, a scenario that already foreshadows the disappointments of 2000 and more recently, 2010.
Sure, some intriguing trade possibilities will be on the horizon and the Bulls definitely have assets and flexibility: Trading Rip Hamilton's expiring deal this season, Luol Deng's contract coming to an end after the 2013-14 season and amnestying Carlos Boozer to more-remote considerations, like the rights for 2011 draft choice Nikola Mirotic, the trade exception acquired from Atlanta in the Kyle Korver trade and the increasingly-valuable future pick from Charlotte.
But in the meantime, the reality of the situation is that big-market Chicago has firmly slipped into the NBA's middle class. In a way, that isn't the worst thing in the world, as the Bulls clearly studied the league's punitive new CBA and resisted joining their free-spending peers while still fielding a team that should be competitive enough to make the playoffs.
But after being a true contender for two seasons, is that enough, both for fans and the team's "nucleus," as the franchise's brass so often refers to it, of Rose, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, to remain content? (Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, while integral to the team's success now, have had their names bandied about in speculation so much that, as the old adage goes, "Where there's smoke, there's fire") Only time will tell if the front office's cautiousness will pay off, but in the meantime, the realization that the Bulls don't have the firepower or the desire, in the present, to keep up with the Joneses, has become even clearer.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

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 aftermath.

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.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.