Running with the Bulls has become a struggle

Enzo Flojo
Chicago Bulls seventh overall draft pick Lauri Markkanen, left, Kris Dunn, center, and Zach LaVine, pose for a photo at the NBA basketball team's training facility, Tuesday, June 27, 2017, in Chicago. (AP Photo/G-Jun Yam)

Only two seasons removed from being one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls have since taken a tumble few other NBA teams would be able to match.

When the Bulls finished with the conference's third-best record in 2015 and reached the second round of the Playoffs, they boasted a "best five" of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson, and Pau Gasol. That's not a championship quintet by any stretch of the imagination, but they were good enough to finish just three games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East.

It wasn’t a bad team. Bulls diehards appreciated the squad fighting for something, and kicking until the end despite the odds being against them.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2017 and this same Chicago team has been blown up, without getting much in return for their troubles.

Coming off another playoff run where they went up 2-0 against the top-seeded Boston Celtics and looked good heading into games three and four at home, the Bulls were dealt an untimely injury to point guard Rajon Rondo, and proceeded to lose their next four games. Hometown hero Dwyane Wade wanted to do things his body was no longer capable of doing, and nobody else could really pick up the slack. Still, they were playing in late April and had some fans dreaming of Cinderella finishes.

But when the 2017 NBA Draft commenced, Chicago did nothing more than shoot themselves in the foot. They pulled the trigger on a Jimmy Butler trade that they could have made 12 months earlier, one that returned far from a top-notch haul.

Instead, the Bulls sent their best player to one of the West’s rising franchises, the Minnesota Timberwolves, along with a first-round pick that turned out to be Justin Patton, for Kris Dunn, who couldn’t dislodge Ricky Rubio from the starting point guard spot last season, Zach LaVine, a two-time Slam Dunk champ coming off a torn ACL, and another first round pick, which turned out to be Lauri Markkanen, who could turn out to be nearly as good as Dirk Nowitzki, or worse than Nikoloz Tskitishvili.

For many analysts and fans, the Windy City sold low on Butler, a three-time All-Star who had made the All-NBA Third Team this past season.

Yes, one can argue that the Bulls are choosing to go younger and more athletic, but as far as Chicago is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for whatever process they’re preaching.

This was in the same vein as firing Tom Thibodeau, now coaching those same Timberwolves, letting go of former MVP Derrick Rose (though granted, he was never the same post-injury), and shipping away Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Oklahoma City Thunder during the last trade deadline for a similarly small return.

This Chicago team is barely recognizable from the squad that fought the good fight in D-Rose’s post-MVP years. At least back then, they were buoyed by loyalty, potential, and maybe a little nostalgia. Now, the Bulls are all-in on a whole lot of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Another proof of this is their drafting of Markkanen, while having a player in the similar mold, Nikola Mirotic, still available.

Mirotic was supposed to be a throwback to Toni Kukoc, but inconsistency has plagued him ever since landing in the Association. In 2016-17, he registered 10.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.1 assists, while shooting 34.2 percent from beyond the arc. The numbers don’t even tell the whole story - he stumbled out of the gates early and even fell out of the rotation completely for a while. Though he picked things up in the second half of the campaign, his shooting dropped to 28.6 percent on three’s in the playoffs, not exactly something that gets NBA GMs excited.

Right now, Mirotic is a restricted free agent, which means the Bulls can match any contract offer he gets. Mirotic wants to stay in Chicago. Chicago wants to keep Mirotic. However, the team wants another squad to set the price for the 6’10” forward. And with available cap space dwindling rapidly, it looks more and more like the two sides will have to reach an agreement instead; failing that, they’ll have to hand the keys over completely to Markkanen, who was just 29 percent from the field in Summer League.

That sort of decision paralysis can also be seen at the point guard spot, where the team opted to buy out the contract of Rajon Rondo, who would later sign with the New Orleans Pelicans. While Rondo was the team’s x-factor pre-injury versus the Celtics (11.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 3.5 steals), it didn’t make sense to retain him after all their wheeling and dealing landed them young, but flawed, point guard prospects. As it currently stands, the team has the aforementioned Dunn (acquired in the Butler trade), Cameron Payne (acquired in the Gibson/McDermott trade), and Jerian Grant (acquired in the Derrick Rose trade). None of the trio really impressed last season, and so entering 2017-18 campaign, the team’s depth chart at that spot is a complete mystery.

Once upon a time, when D-Rose was MVP, the Chicago Bulls looked like a break or two away from ending the title aspirations of the Miami Heat. But now, Rose is gone, Wade is actually on the Bulls, and LeBron James is still lording it over the East, just on a different team. Those Bulls were in-your-face, hustle-and-bustle, grit-and-grind, the type of blue collar squad that made it easy for fans to fall in love with them. Those days are long gone though, and with a rebuilding effort that’s dotted with uncertainty, running with the Bulls, as they currently stand, is far from a good idea.

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