Throughout the coming weeks the team at Bulls Confidential will be diving into every aspect of the Chicago Bulls franchise. We want to figure out--How the Bulls got to where they are today? What are some ways to get back to where they were? What were some of the mistakes that were made?
Basically we want to evaluate what makes great franchises, well, great.
We are going to title this series of pieces, "How Did We Get Here?" We hope you enjoy it.
-Bulls Conf Team
Successful NBA franchises are built on sustained success. So, how do teams build that winning culture that's so sought after in professional sports?
They draft well.
As the Chicago Bulls continue to ponder which direction to turn in regards to their future, it may be helpful if they looked back at their draft history. Gar Forman and John Paxson have had their fair share of nights in the draft war room. Some of their selections have panned out--while others have not.
It was the start of something special--or at least that's what the Chicago Bulls brass wanted us to believe. Gar Forman joined the Bulls as a scout in 1998 after having successful stints as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Iowa State and New Mexico State. His arrival coincided with the genesis of the dreadful post-Jordan Years.
With Forman being a part of such a massive rebuild, you can hardly blame him for getting a little big-headed. Turning around the state of the Chicago Bulls in the 2000's was no joke. Like most things in sports, there's always some luck involved. That's when the history of Forman becomes so much more of a curiosity. If you assume that Forman has had some involvement in all of the Bulls draft picks since his arrival in ‘98, there are some BAD misses.
Amongst the biggest strikeouts:
- Darnel Marcus Fizer at No. 4 in the 2000 NBA Draft, despite already having (the Coach K-approved) Elton Brand
- Not trading away the No.3 pick in the obviously thin ‘04 NBA Draft
- Trading LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas in ‘06
So there were failures during his rise to General Manager. Former Iowa State head coach Tim Floyd’s arrival as Bulls head coach is suspiciously too close to the Bulls drafting Marcus Fizer (who Floyd recruited) under the watchful eye of former Iowa State employee Gar Forman for my liking. I am choosing to point out only his failures because it really makes you wonder if he was promoted for just how well his picks in ‘07 and ‘08 worked out.
Either way, 2009 was Forman’s first year as official Bulls GM. This was a lifesaver for John Paxson, who was actually on the hot seat at the time. Paxson wasn’t exactly fired, but he was kind of demoted to Vice President of Basketball Operations, as Forman took over the day-to-day GM duties.
Coming off of an all-time great first round playoff series with the Boston Celtics--Chicago was feeling that they needed to add more athleticism and youth (sound familiar?) in the frontcourt. Forman had the Bulls first-round pick, as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first rounder as a result of a prior deal involving Thabo Sefolosha. Rather than packaging the two picks together in a trade, Forman chose to go with depth by taking forwards James Johnson and Taj Gibson.
In February 2009 Sports Illustrated ran a piece called “Prized Fighter”. It was about James Johnson and his skills as a world-champion kickboxer. It was a great read and it gave you some insight into why Johnson’s dynamic athleticism made Wake Forest a legit title threat.
Then reality came crashing down. The Demon Deacons were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tournament by a player the Bulls would later trade away--Norris Cole. At the time, he was a sophomore at Cleveland State. In that first round game Johnson showed the ability to be a scoring option when the main one wasn’t working, but he projected as a bit of a tweener at the professional level. With no absolute position, and no jump shot so speak of, it was easy to see Johnson was going to have to develop a lot to become a starter in the league. But his great defensive ability and work ethic indicated he would improve.
James Johnson only started 11 games, and became buried on the depth chart behind Luol Deng and the newly acquired John Salmons. The sad part is that defensive ratings suggest that Johnson may have been the best defensive player on the Bulls as a rookie, but his offense was so atrocious that there was no way to justify playing him over more conservative options.
Amazingly, Taj Gibson (as a rookie) ended up starting 70 games, second-most on the team. He finished second on the team in rebounds. He is the player that single-handedly saved the ‘09 draft for GarPax (the respectful nickname of Bulls GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson).
You can’t fault Bulls management for getting caught up in James Johnson-fever. Everyone's a sucker for a good story, but the drafting of Taj Gibson--two years older than Johnson-- almost 10 picks later suggests that Forman always had a backup plan for the home run swing. That “backup plan” turned out to be a player that could end up putting in over a decade of work as a Chicago Bull.
Maybe it’s just me, but that counts for something.
The Bulls didn’t make a pick this year. They dropped down from 15th to 17th due to a pick swap with the Bucks as part of trading away John Salmons. They then traded the 17th pick, which wound up being Kevin Seraphin, to the Wizards alongside Kirk Hinrich for the rights to Vladimir Veremeenko--who never played in the NBA.
All that looks like a pretty big loss for the Bulls, however this was all done as part of an effort to clear up as much cap space for the famous free agent class of that summer. Without these moves the Bulls wouldn’t have had the cap space to chase after multiple max level free agents that summer. It ultimately didn’t pay off as well as the Bulls hoped, with Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all choosing Miami over Chicago--though they did sign Carlos Boozer.
Even though the move didn’t work out, the logic was sound. It hurts a little bit in hindsight knowing that the Bulls struck out on the big free agency targets, and that Eric Bledsoe and Avery Bradley went with the two picks following the one the Bulls traded. Both of those players would have provided great value to the Bulls over the last few years. Overall GarPax probably made the right decision this year, the problem is just that sometimes the right decision still doesn’t work out.
After agreeing to a sign-and-trade with the Utah Jazz to acquire Carlos Boozer and a second-round pick, the Chicago Bulls decided to make another move. The James Johnson project (see above) was deemed a failure--Gar Forman and company decided to cut their losses. They shipped the troubled forward north of the border to Toronto. In return, the Bulls received the Raptors 2011 first-round pick. Chicago now had the 28th and 30th overall picks. The Bulls took Cleveland State guard Norris Cole at No. 28 but traded him and the No. 43 pick (UCLA guard Malcolm Lee) to Minnesota for the rights to a young European Star in the making--Nikola Mirotic.
Well, at the time that's what front office officials thought anyway. "Dirk-lite" was now a Chicago Bull. Even though he didn't play his first game for the franchise until the 2014-2015 regular season, expectations skyrocketed to an unfair level. After drafting the young Montenegrin and Real Madrid star, Chicago awaited anxiously while their team grew. Young star Derrick Rose was leading the team along, and it was very exciting to watch.
The 30th pick turned out to be Marquette's Jimmy Butler--a proven defensive player, with high athletic potential.
Expectations after this draft were low for Butler and very high for Mirotic. Today, Jimmy Butler is the Bulls superstar, and Nikola Mirotic is still trying to find consistency in the NBA. Of course things could change, and Mirotic could figure things out, but at this point no one could have guessed this. The emergence of the kid from Tomball Texas is inspiring, and without him Mirotic and company would be dead in the water. The situation today would be ten times worse without Jimmy. This season Butler has a 26.4 player-efficiency rating, has 7.o win shares, and Chicago has him locked down to an extremely team-friendly deal.
I'll go out of my way saying that this is the best draft GarPax has had. Being able to draft a superstar caliber player with the 30th pick is very difficult to do. Mirotic has struggled, but the jury is still out in regards to whether or not he has reached his full potential.
The 2012 draft was a time of intrigue and mystery for the Bulls. As the team was only a couple of months removed from Derrick Rose’s ACL injury, it was heavily speculated in the weeks leading up to the draft that Chicago would look to take a point guard with the 29th overall pick. This speculation turned out to be correct, and the Bulls drafted Kentucky freshman Marquis Teague.
At the time, the pick was seen as somewhat of an enigma. Despite being a heavily recruited prospect, Teague had by and large a very average freshman season at Kentucky playing alongside fellow stud first-years Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Still, the physical tools were tantalizing--with his ridiculous speed and ball handling skills, many envisioned Teague carving out a similar NBA role to that of his brother Jeff, who was blossoming as the starting point guard of the Atlanta Hawks. Sure, there were concerns about his jump shot, basketball IQ, and NBA readiness, but he was only 19 years old. He had plenty of time to develop under the tutelage of Rose, and if God forbid Rose was unable to return to form, he could possibly be groomed into the Bulls’ starting point guard of the future.
How bad could it be?
As luck would have it--really damn bad. To say Teague was an abomination of an NBA player would be an insult to abominations everywhere. He wasn’t just bad, he was miserable. The guard from Kentucky rarely saw minutes his rookie year in the absence of Rose behind Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson. When he did get minutes, his wire thin frame rendered his blazing speed virtually useless, as he found himself unable to finish at the rim with contact. This wouldn’t be the absolute worst thing in the world, except for the fact that he was also unable to finish at the rim without contact. His court vision was spotty, his three-point shot was in disrepair, and worst of all--he looked completely unsure of himself every time he took the court, which failed to improve with time.
There were flashes, yes; I vividly remember a mid-December home game against the Brooklyn Nets in which Teague hit a couple of shots and ran a couple successful fast breaks down the stretch, as Bulls color commentator Stacey King gleefully remarked we were “watching him grow up before our eyes." Alas, he only received minutes the rest of the season out of necessity, and by the year’s end he measured out poorly in almost every metric. In 48 games, he had a pathetic TS% of 41.2%, VORP of -0.5, BPM of -7.3…. just nothing good going on there. The Bulls exercised his 3rd year team option with the enthusiasm of someone cutting a wire to disarm a bomb, and hoped for improvement somewhere.
They didn’t get it. After Rose went down a second time just 10 games into the year, Teague had the opportunity to step into the backup point guard role and show what he had learned over the summer (nothing, evidently). In 45 minutes in the first three games after Rose’s injury, Teague went 0-for-11 from the field, dished out just three assists, and failed to score. He made numerous trips to and from the D-League after being displaced by the ancient NBA veteran point guard Mike James, but failed to stand out there either. His already abysmal stats dropped across the board, and his first 80 minutes of the season saw him post an impossibly bad -7.85 PER. In January of 2014, the Bulls decided they had seen enough and shipped the beleaguered young guard off to Brooklyn for Georgian forward Tornike Shengelia, who played garbage time minutes in 9 games before being waived.
Hindsight is 20/20, and the Teague pick did kinda make sense at the time if you squint hard enough. There is an angle that makes the Bulls’ drafting job look less than flattering; the Draymond angle. While much of the talent taken in the late first and early second rounds of the 2012 draft underwhelmed, then-head coach Tom Thibodeau and lead assistant Ron Adams reportedly lobbied for the Bulls to take tweener forward Draymond Green, who went to the Golden State Warriors 6 picks later.
In tried-and-true GarPax fashion, Adams was fired for dissenting and the Bulls FO bragged through the media about how much of a steal they got with the Teague pick.
Bulls couldn't believe Teague was there.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) June 29, 2012
Green went on to become the lynchpin of the Warriors’ elite defense, helping them both win the NBA championship in 2015 and win an NBA record 73 games in the 2015-16 season (after which they famously blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA finals, which is beside the point). Of course, it was just the cherry on top that Adams also had signed on with the Warriors as an assistant coach. Whoops.
The Bulls receive a D- (on a good day) from me for the 2012 draft. Surely, better times are ahead, right?
Part Two will be released 1/9/16