Chicago BullsShould the Chicago Bulls Run It Back or Blow It Up?Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2017Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press
It never mattered how the Chicago Bulls would wrap their first-round playoff series with the Boston Celtics. Win or lose, competitive or not, the end result was always a precursor to ground-floor self-reflection.
Did this team, this core, warrant another chance or was it too far gone to keep intact?
Inevitably, the Bulls fell, lasting six games before bowing out in Friday's 105-83 non-effort. And the way they lost won't do them any favors.
Chicago was two different teams in this series—first inspiriting and effective, then hapless and hopeless.
Buoyed by Rajon Rondo, the Bulls jumped out to a 2-0 lead. They looked ready to complete the upset, in a way that said as much about them, a threat renewed, as it did about the Celtics' unconvincing first-place finish.
But a fractured thumb on Rondo's shooting hand sidelined him for the rest of the series and, in hindsight, ended the Bulls' season. They didn't have an answer at point guard without him. They tried Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan and even Paul Zipser. Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade took turns piloting the offense. No one ever came close to replicating Rondo's impact—which, through two outings, was felt on both sides of floor:
|Rajon Rondo: A Savior Sidelined(?)|
|Bulls vs. Celtics:||MP||eFG%||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
Sixty-seven minutes, spread across two games, isn't enough to rewrite the regular season. Rondo was not an all-weather boon, and Chicago's Big Three never gained lasting traction. One of Butler, Rondo and Wade needed to be staggered, to varying degrees, from the other two for the dynamic to work.
Most of the resulting combinations were telltale of nothing—not good enough to generate excitement, not bad enough to completely squash:
|Chicago's Big Three: A Big (Regular-Season) Problem|
|Bulls With:||MP||Net Rating||Rank|
Chicago was at its best when Butler played without the other two. Yet another wrench. But for two games, the postseason granted respite from the confusion.
The Bulls outscored the Celtics by 20 points in the 47 minutes their trio spent on the court. Everything seemed to click. The three veterans met before the playoffs started and were, finally, on the same page.
A fully engaged Rondo added an air of unpredictability to the offense. Boston didn't know where the ball was going, which worked to Chicago's advantage. Butler and Wade found ways to play off him. It was unexpected. It was weird.
It was working.
Had the Bulls ousted the Celtics, we'd be talking about their second-round matchup with the Washington Wizards, Rondo's imminent return and the suddenly acceptable prospect of keeping the band together. Had they lost without Games 1 and 2 ever happening, we'd be wondering how long it'd take for them to waive Rondo's non-guaranteed contract, trade Butler, coax Wade into opting out of his contract and start over.
Instead, the Bulls are somewhere in between, balancing a natural pivot point with the temptation to plumb more from a roster that, given more shooting, might actually be good.
Was Rondo's postseason resurgence enough for the Bulls try running it back with this core?Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Five of Chicago's players are set to enter free agency—Michael Carter-Williams (restricted), Cristiano Felicio (restricted), Joffrey Lauvergne (restricted), Nikola Mirotic (restricted) and Anthony Morrow. Two more can be waived before June 30 with minimal compensation—Canaan ($200,000 guaranteed) and Rondo ($3 million guaranteed). And then there's Wade, who owns a player option worth $23.8 million.
Anything the Bulls does starts with him. If he opts out, they can waive Canaan and Rondo, renounce everyone else and carve out more than $50 million in space. They can use that room to continue building around Butler or move him and become a dumping ground for buyers attaching first-round picks to unwanted contracts.
Wade has yet to give the Bulls any answers, because he's still looking for some of his own.
"They want a defined vision and view of where they're going too," he said, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. "And as players, with player options, you want that too. I want it smack dead in my face of how it's gonna be, what their thought of my role or position could be here—all of it."
Wade can find a team better suited to win, but $23.8 million is a lot of money. No suitor is going to match that—not this summer, with the salary-cap bubble close to bursting. He would be lucky to recoup that value in a two-year deal.
At the same time, Wade is 35. He doesn't have the stamina or shelf life for a rebuild. Even while taking pay cuts in Miami, he's earned nearly $180 million in contracts alone. But he's also won three rings. So what he has now is the security to do whatever he wants, independent of money or legacy—something, per Johnson, he's made absolutely clear:
I don't need to ring chase, but I can. It's a great luxury to have. Or I can be a part of passing down my knowledge to younger players. It's either way. Whatever I decide, I'm going to embrace whatever role I have on a team. That's sometimes being the second option. Sometimes I'm going to be the first. And sometimes this season, I had to be the third or fourth. It all changes, and you want to be the best at whatever role is presented to you. I've always been that way. It won't change. That will always be me.
The Bulls can still flirt with $30 million in cap space if Wade opts in and they renounce or waive the others. Carry Mirotic's pre-contract hold ($11 million), and they'll still be within a heartbeat of $20 million.
That's more than enough to continue retooling on the fly, but it doesn't solve the point guard problem. Neither Grant nor Cameron Payne is the solution, and bringing back Canaan won't inspire confidence. Do they gamble on cap space netting an upgrade? Do they just retain Rondo, knowing he, like Wade, comes off the books after next season?
Are we really asking these questions?
Voluntarily standing pat is a mistake. The status quo is an eighth-seeded playoff berth. It's "Fire Fred Hoiberg" chants peppered throughout the United Center. It's a roster that will have some, but with Rondo and Wade not enough, spending power to address an alarming dearth of shooters.
It's a front office, with general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, that refuses to pick a direction, any direction, and roll with it.
Paxson (left) and Forman (right) have failed the Bulls.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"The NBA has changed and the Bulls haven't caught up," Stephen Noah wrote for The Athletic. "Teams are worth billions of dollars, and they're spending more than ever to find cutting-edge advantages while the Bulls are holding on to strategies from 20 years ago. The fact that Forman and Paxson thought Dwyane Wade was worth $48 million over two years shows that they are still living in a different era."
Forman and Paxson ditched the more-than-enough-to-win grit defined by Tom Thibodeau and hired the pace-and-space Hoiberg. And then, for two seasons straight, they assembled rosters fundamentally incapable of playing the way Hoiberg was (supposedly) hired to coach.
They may operate without a rope or the possibility of discipline, but not even they can eternize this indistinct brand of basketball and aim. And with so many players due for new deals, this summer is their best chance to regain control and establish direction.
Not even Wade's decision is beyond the Bulls' influence. He hardly sounds like someone willing to stick around for a reset. And he called Butler "my guy," per Johnson. Tell him the team is gearing up for a teardown and that Butler's future is up in the air, and it would be a genuine shock to see him stay put.
Certainty is not a staple of full-scale reboots, and the Bulls aren't overrun with potential cornerstones after Butler. But there is more sense in trying than not, and more flexibility in the unknown.
The Bulls need to take a stick of dynamite to their core.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Butler, at 27, is young enough to be the face of a rebuild. He cannot become a free agent for two more seasons, and the Bulls would have the purse to expedite things in a responsible manner via free agency without Rondo and Wade.
Or they can move Butler in exchange for other potential building blocks—plural. His free agency isn't close enough to scare off suitors, a la Paul George, and the Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers are all in a position to offer monster packages constructed around picks and prospects.
But Butler's future, along with Mirotic's price tag, must be the limit to Chicago's waffling. Next year's team cannot otherwise look the same. Rondo isn't suddenly the point guard of the future. Wade opting in would not absolve the front office from making changes elsewhere.
Remember: This team almost missed the playoffs. The (not-a) Big Three model hasn't done nearly enough to be considered sustainable. The Bulls are nearing an organic overhaul point and need to exploit it.
Two victories in a postseason series they didn't come close to winning are not enough to run back a foundation that never should have been laid in the first place.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com. Team salary and player contract information via Basketball Insiders.