Last season, the Bulls fielded an interesting team. #1 overall pick Derrick Rose had a fantastic rookie season, earning himself the Rookie Of The Year Award despite his defensive struggles. Ben Gordon was an offensive beast, a guy who gave his all despite the fact he had dealt with 2 years of botched contract negotiations and knew that in all likelihood he would not be returning to Chicago. Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah were key contributors, at least when coach Vinny Del Negro wasn’t being erratic with his rotations. John Salmons and Brad Miller, acquired from the Kings at the trade deadline, provided an infusion of talent when the Bulls needed one, shoring up their depth for the post-season.
In the post-season, we were treated to an outstanding series between the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls. There were seven overtimes in the first six games. There were several absolutely amazing plays that will be seen again on ESPN Classic. The Bulls lost in the somewhat anticlimactic 7th game, but we all knew that wasn’t so important, as this is a young team with nowhere to go but up… right?
Well, let’s fast forward to the summer. As you surely know, the Bulls have let Ben Gordon leave without getting anything back in return. The former #3 pick – the best player ever to take the qualifying offer – is now the best player a team has let walk after his rookie contract expired. His new 5-year contract with Detroit starts at $10 million a year. It’s enough for some to say that Detroit overpaid. They might be right, but this exit is symptomatic of a larger problem in Chicago: ownership’s refusal to spend the cash to field a legitimate title contender. It’s not just that Chicago let Detroit sign their hardest working, highest-scoring player – it’s that they didn’t even extend him an offer this summer. This, after two summers of contentious negotiations, after years of messing around with his playing time and making him come off the bench behind Chris Duhon. None of this would have even been an issue, if the Bulls hadn’t taken their offer off the table last summer.
If you want, you can believe Jerry Reinsdorf when he says that they didn’t have room for Gordon in their backcourt next season. You can believe that they’ll sign a top tier free agent in the summer of 2010. To me, the first point is laughable and the second is highly questionable, given this organization’s fear of the luxury tax. After all, a year ago one expert predicted everything that’s transpired to this point.
All that the Bulls have done this off-season is re-sign Lindsey Hunter, draft James Johnson and Taj Gibson, and sign ex-Bull Jannero Pargo. Hunter, who will be 39 in December, can still play quality defense but cannot contribute anything on the offensive end. Johnson and Gibson are 22 and 24 years old, respectively, and neither of them will likely be stars. Pargo has been sold to Bulls fans as a mini-Ben Gordon, but any fan with a memory knows that Pargo is anything but. Gordon is an extremely efficient offensive player, while Pargo is a streaky one whose percentages leave much to be desired. They’re both undersized guards who like to shoot, but the comparison ends there.
This brings me to the Bulls’ outlook for 2009-2010. I have to say, despite my criticisms of their off-season moves, the Bulls could improve next season. If Luol Deng comes back and starts contributing like he did a couple of years ago, they’ll win a few more games. If Vinny Del Negro improves his coaching (or gets replaced), they’ll win a few more games. (These two are related – the Bulls must use Deng as more than just a spot-up shooter and take advantage of the matchup problems Deng presents.) If Rose takes it to another level and improves his defense, they’ll win a few more games. If everything goes right, this team could even be the 4th best team in the East. They have that kind of talent, even without Gordon.
There is a significant gulf, though, between the top three teams in the East and the rest of the pack. As presently constructed, there are only three legitimate title contenders in the East. One must wonder if Chicago will become one in the next few years. They have the young talent to do it, and, with all the money the organization makes, they have the money to do it. It’d be great for the NBA if they did, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Not with this organization’s post-Jordan track record.