By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The Bulls front office will tell you that making the playoffs is progress. This presumes anyone listening has recently been lobotomized and doesn’t realize that being an eight seed in the NBA is like persevering the whole year to make it to kindergarten graduation.
But executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman are big on mentioning playoff appearances as merit badges. And if the Bulls trot a similar squad out next season to the one from another stellar 2016-’17 under GarPax’s belt, they might make the playoffs and keep the obese hamster churning that wheel ever so slowly.
As the NBA Finals concluded Monday night with the Golden State Warriors defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in one of the best seven-game series to only go five you’ll ever see, it was hard for this Chicagoan to not feel a pang of Bulls-iness amid the brilliant basketball. The Bulls are nowhere near the level of the Warriors or Cavaliers, and watching those magnificent teams magnifies how far away Chicago is from anything resembling a contender, let alone the sustained success of those two teams or a structure of consistent contention going forward that teams like the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs have constructed.
The Bulls don’t have a LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and it’s clear that a top-10 NBA star is needed to have a prayer in this league. Now, it’s not fair to bemoan Paxson and Forman for not currently having a definite future Hall of Famer in his prime under contract, but how does one go about getting one?
There’s the draft, which the Bulls have consistently shown a knack for overvaluing mediocrity. (But, when you have a culture of pride in making the postseason as an eight seed…) Doug McDermott was traded up for, quickly became an obvious reach and has been traded. The tenure of Tony Snell — also traded away — sends shivers down the spine in Chicago. Marquis Teague was out of the league after two seasons and was a fireable first-round pick. Bobby Portis is … something. Paul Zipser, the only second-round Bulls pick currently rostered, shouldn’t have had to play such a large role this year and is still nothing special.
But the Bulls picking in the latter half of the first round every year significantly decreases the likelihood of finding a future Hall of Famer, and even Jimmy Butler, selected 30th overall in 2011, seems more a product of luck than Bulls scouting prowess. With the 16th pick in the June 22 draft that contains probable stars in the top-10 selections, little provides for confidence in who the Bulls will select, especially if the mock drafts that have them taking the very Bulls-y Luke Kennard from Duke ring true.
What about trading up in the draft? Can Butler finally be moved after years of speculation? Might the Philadelphia 76ers prefer him to their third overall pick?
Moot point, probably.
“Jimmy came away feeling appreciated and, more importantly, knows he’s not being shopped (on the trade market),’’ a source told the Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley last week about a meeting between Butler and the front office.
Warms the heart, doesn’t it? Recall that Paxson said on May 3 that “everything’s on the table” regarding Butler’s future and then the next day said the team isn’t looking to trade him. So there’s a chance they’re lying to Butler — and this is an organization that does its players dirty, and you can ask Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose how they feel about management — but he’s doubtful to be moved. Nothing has ever suggested the front office wants to approach a rebuild anyway.
“The landscape is such that to make significant change right now will be difficult,” Paxson said last month regarding possibly blowing everything up and rebuilding. “From that perspective, to think that we could just up and massively move pieces and parts is not realistic.”
The Bulls as an organization are fine being in the same room as teams with Kawhis and Westbrooks even if it means being the butt of the jokes at that party. It’s an honor just to be invited and to be able to say, “Hey, look, we’re not those dysfunctional freaks in New York or Sacramento.”
With Butler sticking around, so too will Dwyane Wade, who has a player option 2017-’18 that seems all but picked up. It makes sense on his part, with kids in school here and a job on a hometown team set to pay him just shy of $24 million in a season in which he’ll turn 36 and never be the sole focus.
“I don’t need to ring chase, but I can,” Wade said in late April. “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.”
That’s a player who sounds pretty comfortable in the twilight of his career and is fine playing 60-ish regular season games for a whole lot of cash.
“He definitely sounds like a guy who’s coming back,” an anonymous Bull told the Sun-Times on Monday. “I just feel like when you’re talking about recruiting (potential free agents) and what you hope your (teammates) are working on (this summer), you’re in.”
Free agency is as underwhelming as anything else with this team. Depending on how everything plays out with restricted free agents Cristiano Felicio and Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls may or may not have cap room to pursue a bigger name. Wade will help on the phone, but Chris Paul isn’t coming here. And with the Bulls lying to us about getting “younger and more athletic” and then signing Wade and Rajon Rondo a year ago, it wouldn’t surprise me if they threw money at a Paul Millsap. Then maybe they’d have a roster worthy of a five seed, baby.
Speaking of Rondo, the team might pick up his option and allow him to further usurp coach Fred Hoiberg’s power. That Ohio State recently thought enough of Hoiberg’s situation that he might consider leaving the NBA to go to the Big Ten speaks to just how weird the leadership situation with the Bulls is to people in basketball circles.
And so, as the Warriors plan their parade and the Cavaliers figure out who to add to make it less of LeBron vs. Everybody (ft. Kyrie Irving) and the Celtics add a No. 1 overall pick and Gregg Popovich goes back to the lab and Russell Westbrook chews glass in anticipation of next season and the Sixers and Lakers rebuild after a blowup like they’re supposed to, it puzzles to think what the Bulls think their place is at the table.
For now, it seems holding another self-congratulatory press conference next April after a first-round playoff exit, well aware that the rest of the league has attention toward meaningful basketball.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.