The Bulls are finally acting like a big market team again

It started with a billboard. Chicago Bulls fans took it upon themselves to raise more than $8K for an advertisement on the corner of Lake St. and N. Racine Ave. in the city’s West Loop neighborhood with a simple message: “Fire GarPax.”

The sign had gone up just weeks after the Bulls’ braintrust of John Paxson and Gar Forman decided to trade Jimmy Butler, a flat-out superstar in the prime of career with two years left on a contract that was massively below market value. It was the type of scenario most front offices and ownership groups dream about, one that opens up an endless amount of team-building avenues with a little creativity. Instead, the Bulls chose to punt, deciding they’d rather sacrifice a few seasons by tanking than trying to build around the best draft pick they ever made.

Three years later, Butler returned to the United Center again, this time to be named an NBA All-Star for the fifth time in his career. The game was in Chicago, but the Bulls’ presence was merely relegated hosting duties. The franchise had no All-Stars, but it was worse than that. There was no hope. The Bulls were among the NBA’s worst teams year after year, but they weren’t quite bad enough or lucky enough to land Luka Doncic or Zion Williamson. The only time the Bulls were ever discussed nationally is when their comically overmatched head coach found a new way to embarrass himself and his city, be it by igniting a near player mutiny a week into the job, installing a literal punch clock in the practice facility, or annoying opposing coaches with his bizarre timeout usage.

As the team’s best player, Zach LaVine, was being interviewed by ESPN right outside the arena, fans interrupted his answers with a loud “Fire GarPax” chant. It was a new level of rock bottom for an organization that only specialized in reestablishing how low it could go.

It never should have been on the fans to get this involved, of course. Paxson had been the team’s top executive for 17 (!) years; Forman was brought into the fold when the team hired Tim Floyd to replace Phil Jackson in 1998. The decision to fire them should have been an easy one, but even the simplest choices become convoluted in the weird world of owner Jerry Reinsdorf. To the chairman, keeping Paxson and Forman was an extension of the ‘loyalty’ that his closest allies believed was his defining characteristic. To everyone else, it was a fancy way of saying he was either too cheap or too lazy to care about his team as much as the fanbase did.

Paxson could have had his job forever if he wanted to, but why? He was clearly miserable. He had started calling his radio interviews “interrogations,” his team was terrible, his hand-picked coach had turned into a punchline. The billboard, the chants, the losses, it finally started to pile up.

Paxson did the only thing he could do: he asked to be replaced.

2020 Chicago Bulls NBA Draft Team Operations Room

Photo by Joe Pinchin/NBAE via Getty Images

Two years later, the Bulls have a new front office and a reinvigorated sense of hope, even as the team entered Thursday’s trade deadline five games below .500. Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley were hired from the Nuggets and 76ers respectively to be the team’s new braintrust. Forman was fired, and Paxson was promoted into a position of no authority. Jim Boylen’s dissertations on spirit and the soul after every loss have been replaced by Billy Donovan’s competence and professionalism.

A team that had zero All-Stars only two short years ago now has two.

The Bulls swung the biggest deal of the trade deadline, sending out two lightly-protected first round picks and former GarPax lottery selection Wendell Carter Jr. to the Orlando Magic for Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu. It would be headline news for any team, because Vucevic was the only star that changed teams at the deadline. For the Bulls, it felt like a signal that they should finally be taken seriously.

For the last two decades, the Chicago Bulls did not make trades with the goal of improving the team. Yes, they swung a deal for John Salmons and Brad Miller ahead of an instant classic playoff series with the Boston Celtics in 2009. We’ll also give them credit for acquiring Otto Porter Jr. — included in the Vucevich trade as a salary match — even if it didn’t work out. Aside from those two examples, every trade the Bulls made in the last 12 years was essentially a salary dump. By trading for Vucevich, the Bulls were for once acting like the big market team they always should have been.

Karnisovas and Eversley had to do something. Since being hired ahead of last offseason, their only moves were signing veteran Garrett Temple to a one-year deal and drafting Patrick Williams at No. 4 overall. The rest of the roster was untouched from what Paxson and Forman had built. Hiring a real coach in Donovan had at least made the Bulls less humiliating, but any improvement was coming from resurgent veterans like Thad Young and an incredible efficiency leap from LaVine rather than the players the Bulls drafted in the top-10 after trading Butler.

Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, and Carter were’t going to be the saviors GarPax had hoped for. The Bulls either needed to trade LaVine and tear it down again, or give him a true co-star. The Bulls believe they have found the latter in Vucevic.

The player Vucevic is today at age-30 barely resembles who he was when he entered the league in the 2011 draft. The 6’11 big man did most of his work in the post throughout the start of his career in Philadelphia and Orlando before he remade his game to fit into a league that demanded more shooting range out of its big men. After not even attempting 10 three-pointers total in any of his first five seasons in the league, Vucevic has turned himself into something close to a knockdown threat. This year, he’s making 40 percent of his threes on 6.5 attempts per game.

Vucevic has never played with anyone as good as LaVine, and LaVine has never played with anyone as good as his new center. The two should form a deadly two-game on offense with Vucevic’s newfound shooting ability setting up a killer pick-and-pop routine. LaVine is already one of the league’s best at getting to the basket. Add in Vucevic’s passing ability — he’s finished in the 93rd percentile or above in assist rate for centers the last four years, per Cleaning the Glass — and the Bulls’ offense just became a lot more dynamic.

The Vucevic trade wasn’t the only move the Bulls made on Thursday. They also pulled off a three-team trade highlighted by the acquisitions 21-year-old guard Troy Brown Jr. and veteran center Daniel Theis from the Celtics. Theis has been a productive player in Boston for the last four years and was only let go so the team could avoid the luxury tax. Brown is a former five-star high school recruit at point guard (here’s a 2015 feature we wrote on him back in the day) who was moved to the wing in college in Oregon and then in the NBA. While Chicago’s rumored pursuit for Lonzo Ball came up short, it’s possible Brown could play a similar game as a connecting piece who brings plenty of skills to the table without needing to be a volume scorer.

It is no exaggeration to say Karnisovas made more trades to impact the roster in the span of a few hours than Paxson did in nearly two decades. The previous regime wanted to build slowly through the draft, hoping their selections would mature together and form a golden generation for the organization. They found some success with the Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng clubs of the mid-00s, and again with Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Tom Thibodeau at the start of the 2010s. Those teams always came up just short, though, handicapped by their own narrowing thinking and refusal to throw their weight around as a big market club.

The deal for the Bulls made for Vucevic on Thursday was the type they should have made when they had Butler. No one would have missed mid-round picks like Bobby Portis, Tony Snell, and Denzel Valentine then. In reality, the Bulls likely never even seriously considered it. By finally ditching GarPax, the Bulls opened up a whole new world of possibilities the franchise had spent decades ignoring.

Perhaps the most exciting thing for the franchise is that there’s more work to be done. Adding Vucevich makes the team better, but it doesn’t exactly lift them to contender status in the East. The Bulls need to take another big swing. You can bet they’re going to do it after the way they overhauled the roster at the trade deadline.

Chicago could still be waiting for its precious draft picks to develop right now if the fans hadn’t taken matters into their own hands. The Reinsdorfs just didn’t care enough to install a new front office themselves. Whether this is the start of the Bulls changing their league-wide perception remains to be seen, but for once the Bulls did something different. They thought big.

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