2017–18 Season Preview: The Running of the Bulls

When I began this piece originally, I wanted to say the one thing the 2017–18 Chicago Bulls inspired in me was hope. Even after trading away the franchise cornerstone in Jimmy Butler and buying out future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade, I didn’t hate our prospects. The Bulls had rebuilt before in the years between Michael Jordan’s second retirement in 1999 and the arrival of Ben Gordon in 2004.

While I wouldn’t expect this bunch to return to the playoffs for a few seasons, surely the Bulls would get their act together and field a competitive team sooner rather than later. I even thought the Bulls would experience growing pains in the first half of this season but be a really fun team to watch after the All-Star break. The key word here is that I had hope.

With the news emerging Tuesday that a fight between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis at practice left Mirotic with a fractured jaw and out 4–6 weeks, I stopped fooling myself. The Chicago Bulls have hit rock bottom. Portis was handed an eight game suspension for his actions. Mirotic and Portis join a lengthy list of players that are missing time for Chicago, including key cogs of the Jimmy Butler trade Zach LaVine (still recovering from last season’s ACL injury while playing for Minnesota) and Kris Dunn (dislocated finger).

The Bulls starting lineup going into tonight’s matchup with Toronto should feature Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday in the backcourt, with Paul Zipser, rookie Lauri Markkenen, and mascot hater Robin Lopez. Coach Fred Hoiberg’s 10-man rotation is now down to Denzel Valentine, David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio, Quincy Pondexter, and Kay Felder. Felicio, Markkenen, Pondexter, and Lopez will have to play more minutes to make up for the losses of Mirotic and Portis. It would be difficult for Gregg Popovich to lead this team to 10 victories.

What’s the outlook for the Bulls this season? As Clubber Lang once said, “Pain.” I think this Bulls team could be one of the worst in NBA history. The Charlotte Bobcats (Hornets) posted a 7–59 record for the 2011–2012 season and the Philadelphia 76ers notched just 9 wins in 1972–73.

The 2000–01 edition of the Bulls posted a 15–67 record (the franchise’s worst) and I don’t think this year’s squad is winning 10 games. Maybe I’m just bummed to see the Bulls plummet like this but when you lose two forwards to a fight in practice, there’s clearly a lot more going on behind the scenes with this team than the public knows.

With that said, I’ve still been a Bulls fan for 25+ years and there’s a lot of interesting storylines I’m following aside from the ongoing saga of How To Run A Franchise Into The Ground by Gar Forman and John Paxson.

Zach LaVine

While it’ll be great to have an elite dunker back in Chicago, LaVine is entering the kind of situation that Kyrie Irving left Cleveland for, a situation where he will be the Bulls’ star player. He’s ahead of schedule in his recovery from his ACL tear and is projected to take the floor before the end of 2017. I’m in no way projecting LaVine to be the savior of the team, but I think he’ll be able to keep the Bulls in games with his scoring.

Having a season under a defensive-minded coach like Tom Thibodeau couldn’t have hurt, but LaVine was a liability in Minnesota. Being the Bulls’ primary scorer will be tough enough, but he’s going to have to turn around and get some stops for the Bulls to have a shot at winning any ballgames. If he’s able to bounce back from his knee injury, LaVine could have a career year in the Windy City. Even with his impending restricted free agency, upper management has already said they plan on keeping LaVine around. He could be a part of the next playoff-bound Bulls squad.

Lauri Markkenen

Chicago’s first round draft pick wowed this summer playing for EuroBasket then was one of the bright spots in a preseason victory over the Cavs a week ago. Drafted ahead of highly touted Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr., Markkenen will have a lot of pressure to produce in year one, especially after Mirotic/Portis I (I doubt there will be a rematch) forced him into the starting lineup.

If Lauri is able to take to the NBA grind quickly, he could provide some early firepower the Bulls need as the rest of their key players get healthy. I’m a little wary because of how quickly the hype for Niko disappeared as he struggled to do anything consistently well on a nightly basis. Markkenen didn’t wait three years to come play for the Bulls like Mirotic, so he could develop nicely despite the upper management chaos that’s consuming the franchise.

Denzel Valentine

I’m really still living off of his 2016 Las Vegas Summer League hype. He had an average rookie season at best and the Bulls brought in Holiday and LaVine, both who play his position. The Bulls also have a lot of guards on their roster, so playing time could be hard to come by later in the season.

However, I really think he could be a bright spot this season. With his freshman year under his belt and his nagging injuries of last season behind him, the sky’s the limit. Having Valentine develop into an asset wouldn’t be the worst thing to come out of the next few seasons.

Unfortunately, that’s the only fun storyline I’m looking at.

Fred Hoiberg’s job security

In his professional coaching career, Fred Hoiberg is a scintillating 83–81. That includes a team that pushed the eventual Eastern Conference champion Cavs to 6 games in the 2015 NBA playoffs. The decline in 2015–16 was expected, but to miss the playoffs with that team is still a head scratcher to me.

With the Bulls abandoning all hope of being competitive this season, how safe is Hoiberg? If this team has less than 10 wins come January, is he still coach? Despite Chicago being terrible in the early 2000s, then coach Tim Floyd wasn’t fired. He resigned… because he lost control of the team and management’s favor. With the start this season’s off to, could Hoiberg face the same fate?

Much to fans’ chagrin, Hoiberg will probably be pacing the sidelines next season as well.

Can the Bulls stay healthy?

The injury bug is nothing new to Chicago. Ever since Derrick Rose went down that fateful April day, various players have logged more time off the court than on the court. Newcomer Quincy Pondexter had an unexpected bout with MRSA earlier in the year while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery that ended his 2016–17 campaign. He’s projected to play on Thursday and gives the Bulls a little more bench depth.

As Rose proved, coming back from any knee surgery is bad; an ACL tear can be the most difficult recovery process. What if Zach LaVine can’t live up to expectations, let alone his previous play? Could the main piece that we got for Jimmy Butler be gone next season?

Mirotic was signed very late in the offseason, making it seem like the Bulls didn’t even want him back. His NBA career could ride on this new contract, so this injury is highly disappointing.

Kris Dunn was a highly-touted draft pick for the Timberwolves last season but he obviously failed to make an impression there. Once he’s back, how quickly can he get comfortable being the starting point guard? And Cameron Payne will be out until midseason; can he overcome his stigma as Russell Westbrook’s dancing partner?

The real story here though is: how much longer can the Bulls and the NBA stand by idly while Robin Lopez bullies every mascot in the league?

#FireGarPax

I believe the first time I heard #FireGarPax was after the Bulls rewarded Luol Deng’s years of service with the organization with a trade to Cleveland. Since then, the cries against John Paxson and Gar Forman have only grown louder. Although trading Derrick Rose before his contract expired was a smart move, there haven’t been many other bright spots.

Trading Jimmy Butler when he still had two years left on his deal still leaves a lot of fans perplexed. Jimmy had said publicly that he wanted to remain with the team, but that’s not to say there wasn’t behind-the-scenes drama. The treatment of other fan favorites such as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson has left a sour taste in fans’ mouths. Tom Thibodeau also left in 2015 due to constant struggles with GarPax regarding the team’s direction.

How much longer can Paxson and Foreman be allowed to run the Madhouse on Madison? While the Bulls expect to be bad, do they expect to have one of the worst records in league history? And even with Draft reform right around the corner, tanking does not guarantee a high draft pick. Can owner Jerry Reinsdorf stand aside while the Bulls let their own “process” take effect?

No matter the answers, Bulls fans are in for a long season of losing. Even with a tumultuous summer, I’m not alone in my guarded optimism for this franchise. But with Tuesday’s fight and a roster filled with question marks, it wouldn’t take much for fans to turn on the Bulls.

There was no social media after Jordan’s second retirement. Fans were unhappy with Tim Floyd’s Chicago teams but they also had enjoyed six championships in the 90s. The #FireGarPax movement could be enough to lead to changes with the right momentum but it all comes down to the product the Bulls are putting on the floor nightly.

The 2017–18 Chicago Bulls could let infighting and bad management derail them to one of the worst records of all-time. The Bulls could also be healthy at midseason and winning more often than they should be. While by no means playoff bound, the latter would soothe fans’ worries for the future. But with the ineptitude Hoiberg, Paxson, and Foreman have shown over the past few seasons, it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better in the Windy City.

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