Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Bulls Future

In the aftermath of the Bulls loss to the Cavs, most of the talk has centered around Tom Thibodeau's future. With Derrick Rose in (and mostly) out of the line-up and no one else on the roster able to carry the load as the primary option on offense, Thibs has been awkwardly thrust into the role of the face of the franchise. No matter how many guys the Bulls had out, he would be able to piece together a defensively-minded group that executed at a high level, treated every regular season game like it was Game 7 of the Finals and fought their way into the playoffs.

If this is it for the Thibs era, it's fitting that the final loss came at the hands of LeBron James, the one guy his teams never had an answer for. Chicago lost to LeBron in 2011, 2013 and 2015. It didn't matter what team he was playing for who the Bulls had. The only constants between 2011 and 2015 were Rose, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich. They went from Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Keith Bogans to Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol and Mike Dunleavy. The 2nd unit wasn't as deep but they still had Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic coming off their bench. They got better and changed over time but LeBron was always standing in their way.

Thibs has gotten a lot of grief for running guys into the ground but he is still acknowledged as one of the best coaches in the NBA and it won't take him long to find a job somewhere else. For whatever reason, whether it's personality conflicts or style differences or maybe just the thought that the guys in the locker room need to hear a different voice, the front office seems pretty determined to run him out of town. There's more to it than Jerry Krause vs. Phil Jackson but you can see the outlines of the same struggle all these years later. Whose to credit for the success of the team? The coach who fits players into his scheme or the front office who supplies the players? Chicago is betting that it won't matter all that much who they have running the show if the flow of talent into the organization continues.

What's unique about the young core they have put together is where in the draft they found these guys. The Bulls rebuilt on the fly without ever missing the playoffs - they took Taj Gibson at No. 26 in 2009, Nikola Mirotic at No. 21 in 2011 and Jimmy Butler at No. 30. That's one of the best 3rd big men in the NBA, one of the best players in this year's rookie class and one of the best wing players in the NBA period. Pretty much every team in the league had a chance at those guys and they all ended up falling into Chicago's lap.

Even the guys who didn't work out - James Johnson (No. 16 in 2009) - have turned into quality NBA players in other stops. They only guy they have missed on recently is Marquis Teague (No. 29 in 2012). Either the Bulls have been really lucky or really good because it certainly seems like someone in the organization has an eye for talent. You can't expect to get every pick right but what stands about the Teague selection is how it breaks the pattern in Chicago's draft picks. Gibson and Butler were seniors who didn't play at powerhouse schools and who fell in the draft because of concerns about their age and how much upside they presented in the league. Mirotic fell because of questions about his buy-out and when (if ever) he'd be able to play in the NBA but the end result was the same - he was a 23-year old rookie who was able to play right away and contribute on a good team. The Bulls didn't have to wait too long for any of these guys because they came into the league as older players with relatively well-rounded games.

Going forward, with Rose, Butler and their big men poised to eat up much of their cap, the Bulls don't have a ton flexibility. The key for them is to continue what they have already been doing - finding good players in the latter stages of the draft and plugging them into the rotation. The next guy they are waiting on is Tony Snell, the No. 22 pick in 2013. He may never be Jimmy Butler but he's long, athletic and he seems to have enough ball skills to hold his own in an NBA offense. It's still too early to really tell with Snell when it comes to his NBA future, especially since he had almost no chance of earning playing time behind Kirk Hinrich, a guy whom Thibs has basically been treating as if he were his Rosebud over the last few years.

If they can turn into Snell into a 3-and-D shooter on the wings, they should have a pretty solid core going forward:

PG - Rose (26)
SG - Snell (25)
SF - Butler (25)
PF - Mirotic (23)
C - Gibson (29)

The biggest basketball question the Bulls will need to answer is what happens at the C position, where they have two formerly elite players who are starting to show more and more signs of wearing down as they move deeper into their 30's. Can you win a championship with a C whose as bad on D as Pau? Even Thibs could only do so much. Can you win one with Noah throwing up 3-foot shots against the Cavs that can charitably be described as prayers? It's just hard to feel too confident in how well an undersized big man with very little touch who relies on his athleticism is going to age.

That's where the trade for Doug McDermott really hurts, as they had to give up a potential 3-and-D wing (Gary Harris) AND a C of the future (Jusuf Nurkic) to move up and take McDermott. Harris may or may not turn into a player but Nurkic has already shown a ton of promise in Denver and he could have been the perfect bruising defensive C + gifted low-post scorer to complement Mirotic's shooting + lack of defense at the 4 position. If the Bulls had just stayed in place in last year's draft, they would be feeling really good about their future right now.

At the same time, it's not like McDermott can't help this team significantly going forward. He may never be able to play good NBA defense but he's a 6'8 guy with unlimited range who can dribble into 3's and there's value in having a player with that skill-set coming off your bench. With Rose, Butler and Mirotic in place, you don't need a ton from the rest of the wing positions on your roster and there's no reason the duo of Snell and McDermott can't turn into quality supporting NBA players.

It's hard to say who will be available at No. 22 this far away from the draft, but there will be a number of good players for Chicago to pick through. Finding the next Chandler Parsons or Jimmy Butler or Draymond Green is easier said than done but no one has done a better job of that lately than the Bulls. Who knows how much of that is the result of the organization and how much of that is the player but I tend to lean towards giving the players credit for their own development. If Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson were drafted a few spots later or a few spots earlier, it's hard to believe all that much changes about their career path. Even if they hadn't landed in a place where they could get as much playing time right away, a 6'7 wing and a 6'9 power forward with two-way ability are going to get a chance eventually. The most important thing an organization can do is get out of their way and let them play basketball.

In that regard the NBA isn't all that different from the NFL, where the best teams tend to be the ones who can find guys who can play in the draft. You never have a better chance of grabbing good young talent for cheap as you do come draft night and then you have control over their rights for the majority of their playing career. By the time Gibson, Butler and Mirotic reach their 3rd contract in the NBA, they will already be declining as players because Chicago has already gotten the most out of them in the prime years of their career. Just look at Luol Deng. The difference is the Bulls have been finding guys of Luol Deng's caliber in the back half of the first round as opposed to the top of the lottery.

We don't know what will happen with Tony Snell and Doug McDermott but I have some confidence they can be turned into quality NBA players because you can see how their skill-sets can fit into the core that is already in place and the Bulls have a long history of finding talent in the draft. They are such a tight-lipped organization that it's almost impossible to predict whom they will take although a look at their history would indicate they will look at older players with well-rounded games and good size for their position. Who they take at No. 22 won't get a ton of press but that's really the most important decision they will make this off-season.

Even getting a prized free agent like Pau Gasol is no guarantee of anything. Pau is a declining player who hit the market for the first time in his mid 30's - this was probably the best year they were ever going to get from him. They drafted Jimmy Butler in 2011 and they should be reaping the benefits of that decision until the 2020's. And if you have enough guys like Butler on your team, it's not going to matter all that much who is coaching them. The Grizzlies plugged in Dave Joerger for Lionel Hollins and kept rolling - the Warriors switched out Mark Jackson for Steve Kerr and got better. As long as the Bulls keep drafting good players, everything else should take care of itself.

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