The Fork in the Rebuild


The way I see it, the Bulls have come to a critical fork in the rebuilding process. Three paths stand before our favorite team, each one seeming to stretch to the promise land. Each path presents different challenges along the way, and none of them guarantee success. As you might expect, one path is long and requires a great deal of patience and fortitude to complete. Another path is short, but mercurial, prone to failure and totally reliant on the flexibility of a teams coffers and the whims of fickle superstars. The final path is shrouded in mist, no one knows how long it will take to travel. Some have been on that path for decades, others have spent a single off season on it. It is a road for searchers and pilgrims. The path requires sacrifice, and patience, but more than anything, the final road requires destiny and faith.

The Long Road: Building a Culture

In my last post, the Paxson Presser, I recalled the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, a team seemingly without superstars, that came out of nowhere to win a championship. The Pistons succeeded because they built a culture of hard work, teamwork, with a heavy emphasis on defense. Detroit rode the old maxim “defense wins championships” all the way to the promised land. Between the years of 2003 and 2008, this iteration of the Pistons used their philosophy and culture to propel themselves to the Eastern Conference Championship 6 times. The culture of defense, teamwork and hard work brought them sustained success. While 6 Eastern Conference Championship appearances is impressive it pales when compared to the ultimate example of basketball culture…

You would have to look all the way back to the 1996-97 season to find the last time the San Antonio Spurs were not in the playoffs. Over this impressive 22 season span, the Spurs have won 5 championships, played numerous different lineups (featuring several different superstars), employed various tactical schemes, but have had only ONE master guide along their path to success.

Gregg Popovich is the strong, steady guide for the Spurs franchise. He is the man with the vision. He created the particular culture that permeates the path the Spurs walk. His simple offense, when executed with precision, is a beautiful jazz composition; The virtuosity of the individual supported and encouraged by the team. Players passing the ball between each other like a jazz band passing solos. Team defense is the cornerstone of the Popovich method; the players moving together, absolutely synchronized when “switching” and “helping.” More jazz. Popovich understands the strengths and weaknesses of his players, and sets them up to succeed as best he can. His vision and understanding, the culture he instilled in the franchise, is what makes the San Antonio Spurs one of the most successful organizations in the NBA.

The long path of a rebuild promises sustained success, but requires much. First, it requires a culture, an ideology, an identity for the franchise: The framework. This is usually developed by a strong individual. Whether it is someone in the front office, or the head coach, or, on the rare occasion, a player, whoever it is that has the vision, they must make it clear for the entire franchise. Next, personnel who fit the vision must be brought in to support the culture, and walk the path. Finally, everyone involved in the franchise has to “buy in”. They have to actively support the culture, ideology, identity, and vision of the franchise. Just because you have players that fit the preferred framework, doesn’t mean they will buy in. This path takes time, patience and fortitude from all involved. But when a franchise creates the right culture, buys in to the right vision, success can follow quickly and will be sustained for as long as belief in that culture and vision last.

The Short Path: Buying a Super Team

On July 8th, 2010, LeBron James announced on live TV that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and taking his talents to the Miami Heat. With that decision, LeBron dragged the NBA’s shortest path to victory squarely into the spotlight: The Super Team. The LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh Miami Heat were by no means the first super team in NBA history; many franchises have had collections of superstars winning championships for them. The Kareem/Magic Lakers, the Bird/McHale Celtics, the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, the Garnett/Pierce Celtics (come to think of it, it’s been mostly the Lakers and Celtics with the super teams), and the late ‘90’s Jordan/Pippen/Rodman Bulls.

Ever since LeBron’s “Decision,” the concept of a super team has gained popularity among players and fans. It is widely regarded as the quickest path to winning titles. The only things it requires of a franchise, is money and a reason to play for that franchise. Freeing up enough money to sign multiple superstars in the salary cap driven NBA, can be difficult for some franchises. It usually means trading young players and draft picks (sacrificing the future), for old/bad players with expiring contracts. Even after a team clears enough room under the salary cap to sign free agent superstars, there is no guarantee that any of them will want to play for that franchise.

It takes a superstar to get more superstars.

Most of the current super teams started with a single superstar who was able to convince other talented players to join his team. Russel Westbrook helped lure Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder. James Harden asked his buddy Chris Paul to join him with the Houston Rockets. Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the promise of championships with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and the Golden State Warriors.

While buying a super team via free agency is a relatively quick path to success, it can be a very mercurial and volatile path as well. It is wholly dependent on the whims of the superstars and how deep a teams coffers run. The franchise must be constantly shuffling supporting players in and out of the organization, balancing the salaries and egos of the superstars. The future is sacrificed for the present. Fans live in a constant state of anxiety, wondering if this is the year the superstars become frustrated and abandon their team. The shortest path, while it may deliver instant success, promises an anxious, restless journey.

The Pilgrims Path: Trust the Process

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” – Mathew 13:45-46

The final path for the Bulls to choose requires what most would call luck, and I call destiny (it’s more dramatic!). It is a path that has been tried by many teams in the past. A path that the most desperate, and unfortunate franchises find themselves on, even without knowing they are on it. The Philadelphia 76ers are the team that has most recently popularized this path. It is the most fickle and treacherous of all the paths, but it is also the most rewarding: The path to the Chosen One.

This rebuilding process begins with finding a once in a generation talent: the Pearl of Great Price. Over the last decade or so, the Philadelphia 76ers turned the search for such greatness into an art. The idea was to give themselves as many chances at finding that player in the draft as they could. This meant trading decent players for draft picks. Taking other teams unwanted players for salary relief, just so long as a draft pick was included in the transaction. It also meant giving up on the development of promising young players if they didn’t look like a generational talent. Promising young talent can get you a boat load of draft picks when the right team comes calling. And so, for nearly a decade the 76ers wandered through the heavy mists that shrouded the path, trusting only the process, until one fateful draft, they found what they were looking for… Joel Embiid.

He was raw, unproven, and brash. He was also smart, large, and athletic. Joel Embiid might be the next NBA great, the player that dominates the league for a decade or two. His name may yet ring with the likes of Chamberlain, Jordan and LeBron. That’s what the 76ers are counting on. Having found their Pearl, the next step for Philadelphia was to surround him with a team. That’s were they are at in the rebuilding process, finding the players to complement Embiid.

The Pilgrims Path is a journey of faith. Faith in the front office and scouting department to find that once in a generation player. Faith that spending every asset, exhausting every opportunity to collect more draft picks, will result in finding a future NBA legend. Only after that great player is found do you start compiling a team that complements his talents and skills. It remains to be seen if Philadelphia has truly found “The One” in Embiid. I hope for the Bulls sake they have not.

Choosing Wisely

Three paths stretch out before the Bulls; the long path of building a culture and identity, the short path of buying talent through free agency, and the pilgrims path of destiny and faith shrouded in uncertainty. The Bulls have already trudged a little way down each path, testing each road out.

Last summer, Paxson and the coaching staff preached the need to change the culture of the team. They took some steps down the long path, advocating a culture of hard work and competition, even when over matched by more talented opponents. The young players took that message to heart, learning to play hard and win together. Kris Dunn learning to close out games midway through the season was one of the biggest positives of the year.

The Bulls have also carved a large amount of space out of the salary cap, preparing for a possible march down the short path in the summer of 2019. That’s when a number of intriguing superstars will become free agents. The Bulls have struggled recently to sign big name free agents, but that doesn’t mean that 2019 won’t be different.

They have also flailed a short distance down the path of destiny and faith. Trading Niko Mirotic for a 1st round draft pick, and purposely tanking the 2nd half of the season to assure themselves a top ten pick; The bare minimum effort at finding a legend in the draft.

In typical Bulls fashion, they are trying to do everything at once. They are trying to have their cake and eat it too. The front office would probably say they are “making their own path,” or, they would remind us there isn’t just one way to rebuild… and they are right. Perhaps they can straddle all three paths at once. There is no rule against it. It’s possible they get only the best outcomes from each scenario, avoiding all the challenges and setbacks of those particular rebuilding paths. Maybe they can build a winning culture, attract superstar free agents with oodles of cap space, and find the next great NBA legend via the draft, all in the next two seasons. More likely, their focus will be so scattered with the ongoing balancing act of straddling those three paths, that the franchise falls flat and someone else is brought in to stand it back up.

Three paths… Choose wisely.