Friday, February 19, 2010

Chicago Bulls' Ever-Changing Rebuilding Strategy

Since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls after his last championship in 1998, the Bulls have made three distinct attempts at re-building.

The first iteration involved Ron Mercer (drafted in 1997), Brad Miller (undrafted in 1998), Elton Brand (drafted in '99) and Ron Artest (drafted in '99). All these men had outperformed in at least two years of college play. Miller, in particular, led the US team at the 1998 World Championships, when NBA stars refused to go due to labor negotiations. Toni Kukoc, who had contributed to three championship teams at West Madison, remained on the roster after Jordan and Pippen departed. This roster could have been quite promising if left to stew in its juices.

But Bulls management, impatient, then decided to re-stock the roster with young phenoms. On draft day in June 2001, Chicago traded Brand to the Los Angeles Clippers for the second pick in that draft. Chicago selected Compton CA prep standout Tyson Chandler, a Jurassic-sized creature who looked ready to man the post for a while. Oddly, Chicago selected another high school center, Eddy Curry of suburban Chicago, with its own pick at #4 in that draft. Meanwhile, Chicago began building around Jamal Crawford, a kid with one year of post-high school experience whom they had selected at #8 in the 2000 draft. Meanwhile, Miller, Artest, and Mercer, then barely men, were traded to Indiana in 2002 for Jalen Rose and Travis Best. Miller and Artest eventually became the building blocks, with Jermaine O'Neal, of the Pacers Resurrected, who shockingly returned to the Eastern Conference's elite just a couple years after Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, Mark Jackson, and Rik Smits flew south for the winter.

When this strategy failed -- the Bulls having endured three miserable seasons of 21, 30, and 23 wins immediately following the Brand trade -- General Manager John Paxson, who took control of the team in April 2003, began pursuing a patient strategy of building through the draft, choosing college players who had thrived in the NCAA tournament. Thus he selected Jay Williams in 2002 (a Duke alum, who had led the team to the 2001 NCAA title), Kirk Hinrich in 2003 (a Kansas Jayhawk who took his team to the Final Four in 2002 and the title game in 2003), Ben Gordon in 2004 (a U. Connecticut player who won the 2004 championship), Luol Deng in 2004 (the top freshman on a Final Four Duke team, which missed playing in the final by just one point, losing to Gordon's Huskies), Chris Duhon in 2004 (Deng's Duke teammate, and a freshman during the 2001 championship run, though he played not a minute that season), Tyrus Thomas in 2006 (a freakish freshman who led his LSU team to the Final Four, turning in 21-13-3 in the regional final), Joakim Noah in 2007 (the captain of a Gators squad that won the championship in 2006, then did it again), Derrick Rose in 2008 (he who almost willed his Memphis Tigers to the NCAA title), and Taj Gibson in 2009 (who, in some contradistinction to the others, lost in the second round of the tournament with his Trojans).

Meanwhile, the avatars of Chicago's previous youth movement were quickly disposed of. Chicago traded Jamal Crawford to New York in 2004 for a bunch of old or weak players, then traded Curry to the same Knicks in 2005, and Tyson Chandler to New Orleans in 2006. (I would be remiss to not mention Chicago's huge Ben Wallace signing in July 2006, which apparently would disturb my thesis of slow growth through baccalaureates. I must admit, the perceived need to add a veteran was quizzical then, and still is. The team was not yet ready to rise, featuring a core of Deng/Gordon/Hinrich, average age 23. In the event, Wallace did not play to his prior peak while with the Bulls, and Chicago was able to trade him away in February 2008 for Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden.)

It should be noted that high school players were ineligible for the NBA draft after 2005, and that foreign players were discredited following the failure of Darko Milicic, the #2 pick in 2003. Thus, selecting successful college players, once a quotidian and humdrum strategy, may now be once again banal, more than I would like to imagine for purposes of this blog post.

Of course, one cannot accumulate assets forever without some adverse risk events materializing. Williams sadly wrecked his knee in a motorcycle crash in 2003 and never returned to NBA action. The Bulls let Duhon walk away to New York in summer 2008, and let the shot-happy Gordon become a new Piston as a free agent in July '09. They traded Thomas to Charlotte in February of 2010, after he uttered a hot tirade against his coach. (With that trade the Bulls acquired Acie Law, who had reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2008, and with another trade on the same day Chicago acquired Hakim Warrick, who won the NCAA championship with Syracuse in 2003.)

In any case, the Bulls' current core of Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, and Noah is good, but not great. Greatness may require the complementary services of Dwyane Wade (Final Four alum of 2003) or Carlos Boozer (Jay Williams's former teammate from that glorious 2001 Duke squad). In an era dominated recently by Bryant, James, Howard, and Garnett, it would be meet if a collection of Dick Vitale's favorites could win the NBA title.

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