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Wayback Wednesday: Ramblings of a Disappointed Bulls Fan

Luol Deng on the Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 09 (Xbox 360)

Welcome to Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! This is a feature where we look back on yesteryear, dig into the archives, indulge in some nostalgia, and in some cases, wonder just what we were thinking. Check in every Wednesday for features and retrospectives on old basketball video games, old NLSC editorials published as-is with added commentary, and other flashback content.

I’m still working on some new videos for Wayback Wednesday and our other featured content, so this week I’m digging into the archives to look back at another old article. This is a lengthy piece I wrote about the Chicago Bulls in the wake of Ben Gordon’s departure in the offseason of 2009, something that I certainly wasn’t thrilled about at the time. A fair bit has changed since then, so I thought it’d be interesting to post it again, and provide some follow-up opinions and commentary.

As usual, I’m presenting the article more or less as it was originally published. That means if I come across any grammatical or punctuation errors, I’m curbing any urges to edit them, and running with the piece as-is; the only changes I’ve made are the addition of some images to break up the text, and a correction of a misspelling of LaMarcus Aldridge’s name. My apologies if it’s a bit of a difficult read, but as always, it’ll hopefully highlight my improvement as a writer.

With that said, let’s take a look back…way back…

Ramblings of a disappointed Bulls fan

Originally published July 4th, 2009

A couple of years ago, I was sitting nervously in the WaMu Theatre at Madison Square Garden watching the 2007 Draft unfold, wearing a brand new Ben Gordon authentic jersey that I’d just paid $175 for and hoping he wouldn’t be traded less than 48 hours after I’d bought it. It wasn’t just about the jersey though, as I genuinely felt that Gordon should be a big part of the team’s future. When contract negotiations repeatedly stalled the last couple of seasons, I hoped both sides would work out their differences and come to an agreement before another team entered the picture.

So much for that.

Ben Gordon will reportedly sign a five year, $55 million contract with the Detroit Pistons when the free agent moratorium finishes on July 8th and players are free to put their name on the dotted line. This development naturally raises a lot of questions. Is Gordon worth $11 million per year? What’s next for the Pistons, who have reportedly also agreed to terms with Charlie Villanueva but still have Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince under contract? What’s next for the Bulls, who are now considerably thinner at guard?

And here’s the big one for me: Why didn’t the Bulls even make Ben Gordon an offer?

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge the naysayers. Sportswriters and a contingent of Bulls fans alike are saying good riddance to Gordon, writing him off as a selfish player who only hurt the team with one dimensional play and a bad attitude. And in all fairness, he is not the most all-around player in the NBA. But at the end of the day you need to put points up on the board and that certainly is something that Gordon can do. And as for having a bad attitude, from all accounts that’s overblown nonsense stemming from a couple of remarks Gordon made during last year’s failed contract negotiations.

Ben Gordon on the Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 08 (Xbox 360)

I guarantee you that those same people who are happy to see him gone will be scratching their heads if (when?) the Bulls struggle to score 90 points per game this season. “Where’s the offense?” they’ll cry. “Why don’t they bring in a 20 ppg scorer?” Well, they had one, and they just let him go. For nothing. No Draft picks. No project players with plenty of potential. Not even the proverbial bucket of popcorn. Nothing.

And so I ask the question again: Why?

Why declare that re-signing Ben Gordon is your highest priority when you won’t even offer him a contract? Why decline to match an offer that is just $1 million per year more than previous deals that have been on the table? Sure, it’s easy for me to say that when I’m not writing the cheques but surely, if he’s a priority…come on. If the way John Paxson and new General Manager Gar Forman are going to handle their priorities is to sit on their hands and let opportunities slip by, I sincerely hope they never openly declare winning a championship to be their top priority. I’d hate to think what they’d do next (and indeed, I’ve made a rather snarky suggestion as to what they might while discussing the situation in the Forum).

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. Let’s say that the team had gone as far as it was going to go with Ben Gordon in the lineup and a change needed to be made. Why not work out a sign-and-trade last offseason? Why not explore their options towards the deadline? While we’re at it, why not pull the trigger on a deal around the time of the 2007 Draft? Why let your top scorer for the past four years walk for absolutely nothing, not only leaving you without a core player but a potentially valuable trade asset? How do you bounce back from that with the Bulls’ current payroll and talent pool?

Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf was adamant that he wasn’t paying the luxury tax and quite honestly I don’t entirely blame him for feeling that way. As I said before it’s very easy for me to endorse cheques that I don’t have to cover and a dollar-for-dollar tax is a steep price to pay, even for a wealthy man like Jerry Reinsdorf. Still, for me the bold declaration of not paying the luxury tax brings back haunting memories of the bold declaration about not falling victim to the same fate as the post-Larry Bird Celtics in the early 90s by breaking up the championship team, so I can only hope things work out better this time. And speaking of bold declarations, it was one said that organisations win championships, not players. Well, perhaps it’s time for the organisation to take the fall.

n the Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 08 (Xbox 360)

That brings us to John Paxson, a man who’s done some tremendous things for the Chicago Bulls but some downright terrible things as well. After the horror of the post-championship “rebuilding” era at the hands of Jerry Krause, Pax was – if you’ll excuse the terribly clichéd expression – a breath of fresh air. He sent troubled players like Jalen Rose and Eddie Robinson packing, drafted well and made tough decisions that looked as though they’d pay off in the long run such as trading Eddy Curry to New York for solid veterans on the downside of their career and what would turn out to be the second pick of the 2006 Draft. With Paxson in the GM’s seat, the Bulls have been a Playoff team in four of the past five seasons, twice coming close to 50 wins during the regular season, advancing to the second round in 2007 and coming close to upsetting the Celtics this past season. They’ve had very modest success and the good work Pax has done must be acknowledged, without question.

Ah yes, but then there’s the bad decisions. There was trading away JR Smith without a second thought due to his off-court troubles. Granted, that wasn’t a completely awful idea, but from a basketball standpoint Pax squandered an opportunity to have a big guard capable of scoring in bunches coming off the bench. Also, he was still on his rookie contract at the time with one year left at the team’s option, so it would not have been a huge financial risk or long term commitment had things not panned out. That same offseason saw the biggest blunder of all, signing Ben Wallace to that ridiculous contract. He was of course moved for Larry Hughes and his terrible contract a season and a half later; Hughes then made himself unwelcome within a season and was traded for a couple of bad contracts in Tim Thomas and Jerome James.

And speaking of bad contracts, Kirk Hinrich was signed to a handsome extension in 2006 and promptly regressed. Luol Deng was also given a huge contract coming off a season in which he not only regressed but was also injured, subsequently providing an encore performance this past season. Andres Nocioni’s contract wasn’t much better, though Paxson did make a shrewd deal in getting Brad Miller and John Salmons at the deadline last season. Meanwhile, Coach Scott Skiles had been tuned out before his dismissal and things didn’t go much better for his successor Jim Boylan, who wasn’t retained after the Bulls missed the Playoffs. To nearly everyone’s disbelief and disappointment, Vinny Del Negro was chosen as their new coach last year, despite lacking coaching experience at any level of the game.

The second overall pick that Paxson appeared to steal from the Knicks in 2006 has also proven controversial thanks the Draft day trade of LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas, though admittedly the jury’s still out on that one and if Thomas continues to show progress this year we might have to re-evaluate it. Still, it was a deal that sent away a legitimate post scorer, something that the Bulls still lack.

All the while, the situation with Gordon remained up in the air and as a rift developed between Gordon and the Bulls’ brass, his impending unrestricted free agency became more and more worrisome…especially with Reinsdorf laying down the law in regards to the luxury tax. With all those bad contracts swelling the payroll, signing Gordon and staying under the luxury threshold would have been a difficult task.

Kirk Hinrich on the Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 08 (Xbox 360)

And so now, he’s gone. For the good of the franchise, I believe Paxson has to follow him out the door.

That might sound melodramatic but consider that Paxson has made many of the same mistakes his predecessor Jerry Krause did after the breakup of the championship team. Just as Krause settled on the wrong free agent in Ron Mercer, Paxson also erred in his big free agent signing (Wallace). In Tim Floyd, Krause infamously selected a coach who lacked NBA experience to guide a young team, a mistake also repeated by Paxson (Del Negro). Both traded legitimate post players in Draft day deals (Elton Brand for Tyson Chandler, the aforementioned Aldridge for Thomas). For all the good things those men have done, talent has been lost for too little in return, bad contracts have been handed out and focus on “character issues” has only served to thin the talent pool and squander trade assets.

Most likely, the Bulls will have to do the best they can with what they’ve got in 2009/2010 and hope that they can use the cap room they’ll have next year to sign a quality free agent to get back on track. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same situation they were facing ten years ago as they prepared for the 1999/2000 season. It leaves me with a sinking feeling because that ultimately led to the aforementioned Ron Mercer signing and plenty of heartache, ironically until Paxson came along and appeared to be turning things around.

The time seems right for some fresh blood in the front office. The answer might be Gar Forman but after the way the situation with Ben Gordon was handled, I’m not so sure. Meanwhile, I do hope Gordon succeeds in Detroit. It pains me to say that about a Division rival, especially given the storied rival between the Bulls and Pistons, but I would really like to see Gordon prove the naysayers wrong.

In turn, I hope to be proven wrong about Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich (assuming of course he remains a Bull), both whom I do like and want to see succeed but similar to Paxson, my faith in them is waning. And while I may pull out my favourite “I told you so” YouTube clip in regards to the “Keep Deng, let Gordon go” talk of a year ago, I derive very little pleasure from doing so as I’d much rather be wrong now that Gordon is now gone and Deng remains. However, until I’m proven wrong about Deng, I will contend that it should be him that’s leaving rather than Gordon.

Luol Deng on the Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 09 (Xbox 360)

It isn’t to be, however, and it doesn’t pay to dwell on things like this too long. Nor does it pay to hurl obscenities at John Paxson, nor flame my fellow Bulls fans who take the opposing view on Gordon and his value to the team. At the end of the day I will always be a Bulls fan, albeit one a lot less enamoured with the front office and a lot hungrier for change.

I just hope it doesn’t take another six years of frustrating decisions before the right changes come along.

Commentary

So…yeah. A lot has definitely changed.

While virtual Ben Gordon has gone on to do some amazing things in my NBA Live 06 Dynasty, the real Gordon hasn’t fared nearly as well. After joining the Detroit Pistons, Gordon once again found himself on the bench, with fewer minutes and a smaller role. He wouldn’t come close to his best years with the Bulls, and was ultimately traded to the Charlotte Bobcats. After an injury plagued 2014 season, the Bobcats cut him, and he latched on with the Orlando Magic. He played only the first year of a two year deal before he was waived, and while it looked like he might join the defending champion Golden State Warriors this season, he was cut in October.

I therefore have to give John Paxson and Gar Forman some credit here. Ben Gordon certainly didn’t turn out to be a superstar that they let walk for nothing, and overpaying to keep him may well have set them back in the long run. Of course, they still have a habit of losing key players for very little in return – the salary dump deal involving Luol Deng comes to mind – but other moves have proven to be better. I should also note that Deng turned out to be a good investment, at least for a few years there. I was definitely too pessimistic about him.

Derrick Rose dribbling in NBA Live 16

Of course, just as the Bulls missed out on the big names in the offseason of 2010, they missed out on the top players in 2010; I was sadly correct in that prediction. Carlos Boozer wasn’t a bad consolation prize though, at least for his first couple of seasons in Chicago. Jimmy Butler has proven himself to be a steal for a late first round pick, and while he’s unfortunately declined a bit this season, Pau Gasol had a throwback campaign last year. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have been hampered by injuries in recent years – Rose most notoriously – but both became All-Stars before misfortune struck, with Rose also picking up Most Valuable Player honours in 2011.

The Bulls made the Eastern Conference Finals in Rose’s MVP season, and have had some decent postseason runs despite having some depleted and deficient squads at their disposal. They’ve fallen short of expectations, but with all their injuries, they’ve also had to deal with terrible luck. They’re in limbo with Rose right now: whether he’s a part of their plans moving forward, or they want to trade him, he needs to play better for either scenario to be feasible. For now though, they’re stuck. However, Butler has been signed long-term and has really come into his own, and Bobby Portis has a lot of potential, so thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom.

Still, as a Bulls fan, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. So much misfortune, so many “what ifs”. With reports that Paxson and Forman are at odds, it’s sadly clear that the front office is still rife with dysfunction. Until the situation with Rose can be resolved, however, and the team re-tools and re-loads, I’m left to hope for the best and enjoy the good wins when they come. The current Bulls are too inconsistent to be true contenders, but perhaps they can at least have some good moments, before big changes inevitably come. I just hope that when they do, they’re savvy, and for the better.

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