Opportunity Lost

by March 19, 2010

by Pardeep Toor

It’s understandable for an organization to struggle after theJames Johnson & Derrick Rose greatest player ever retires and takes with him an attitude and mentality that makes others quiver. A hangover was in order, long over due actually, after three years of intoxicating championship ball and celebratory debauchery.

A little rebuilding was expected but when the reconstruction process lasts over 12 years and essentially negates an entire decade on the court, it’s time to reflect on how the Bulls have gotten here, which happens to be exactly where they were in 2000.

Through landing in the lottery themselves and winning the Isiah Thomas draft picks sweepstakes, the Bulls have made eight appearances in the draft lottery, good for 12 different selections. Here’s a rundown of the Bulls’ lottery picks:

2000: Marcus Fizer, Jamal Crawford
2001: Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry
2002: Jay Williams
2003: Kirk Hinrich
2004: Ben Gordon, Luol Deng
2006: Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Sefolosha
2007: Joakim Noah
2008: Derrick Rose

That’s a pretty impressive list of capable NBA players, comparable if not better than most other general managers during the same period. Rose was gift-wrapped to them in a chance event where the cosmos aligned to give the Bulls another chance at post-Jordan redemption that frankly, they didn’t deserve considering their poor handling of draft picks leading up to that point.

It’s not that the Bulls have drafted poorly, they have actually done really well but for unexplainable reasons, they have been unable to put it all together to form a consistently competitive team. They have made the Playoffs, won a Playoff round here and there, pushed a hobbling Boston team to the brink last year but have still not had nearly the success that validates the quantity and quality of their draft selections.

Jamal Crawford (many stops later) has become an essential cog on a contending team. Tyson Chandler has had success elsewhere and is a serviceable center on the Bobcats. The Bulls have nothing to show for Ben Gordon whose career trajectory mirrors that of Crawford. Tyrus Thomas is a potential spark who could help Charlotte win basketball games in the postseason, and Thabo Sefolosha is the starting shooting guard, small forward, power forward or whatever Oklahoma City wants him to be on one of the most unique and dangerous Playoff rosters in the League. None of these players had their best season with their draft team – the Bulls.

After all the trades (remember Ron Artest and Brad Miller for Jalen Rose?) the Bulls are left with a core of Rose, Hinrich, Noah, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng’s $14 million expiring deal in ’13-14.

Not a bad core – an emerging star and two complementary frontcourt pieces on rookie contracts (Paxon is destined to over pay Noah, though) but the plan is the same as it was in 2000: Find someone to take their plethora of cap space that came at the cost this year’s Playoffs as the team is currently 2.5 back of the eighth seed, deflated after auctioning off rotation players at the trade deadline.

With minor Playoff success that was always balanced with a disappointing follow-up year, this is exactly where the team was earlier this decade albeit with less cap space but more established talent. Almost 10 years ago, Tracy McGrady shunned their money, strategically leveraging the Bulls against the Magic. Eddie Robinson wasn’t a bad backup plan, I guess. That same scenario can play itself out this offseason as free-agency is not a reliable way to build a team.

The last prominent free agent to sign with the Bulls was an aging and statistically declining Ben Wallace – hardly the championship piece, at that point in his career, the Bulls were looking for. For whatever reason, apart from extending their own and acquiring veterans via trades in the past few years, the Bulls have been unable to attract free agents to their alluring city. It’s possible the Bulls, as an organization, have shown little interest in free agents as they have been more concerned with extending their own top draft picks but even then they have miscalculated the value of their assets.

They overpaid Deng and his limited offensive range too early to have realized that he had peaked yet let Gordon (a perfect complement to Rose in the backcourt) walk in free agency without any compensation. Wallace and his $60 million contract was given freedom to gripe and feud with rookies but Thomas was too much of a head case to be kept around for the stretch run of a Playoff race this year. The Bulls have selectively paid and committed to players and it seems like make the wrong decision every time.

The Bulls should not be in this position, should be not be relying on the lottery of free agency to solidify their roster considering the quality and quantity of talent that has passed through the organization in the last decade. Even now, after getting lucky with the No. 1 overall pick that landed them Rose, the team is looking to add a major piece this offseason rather than build around the star asset they already have. History has shown there is no guarantee anybody will take the Bulls’ money and if they do, there is no guarantee it will work with Rose.

For the sake of the next generation of fans who have grown up without the luxury of Michael Jordan memories that keep them warm on those bitter Chicago winter nights, let’s hope they get it right through the draft or free agency quickly so another decade isn’t nullified in one of basketball’s greatest cities.

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