Last week, the Chicago Bulls were eliminated from the NBA Playoffs by a superior Milwaukee Bucks team. The 116-100 loss was a sour ending to the best season for the Bulls in quite some time. But the NBA never sleeps, and it wasn’t even 24 hours later before thoughts of the offseason started to permeate the collective consciousness of Bulls fans. The number one topic on peoples mind? Zach LaVine’s unrestricted free agency.
Putting aside the question of whether or not LaVine deserves a Max Contract (spoiler alert: He does), I would argue that the Chicago Bulls, as an organization, can’t afford NOT to offer him The Max.
By offering LaVine a Max Contract, Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley have a chance to heal, once and for all, the wounds of the past. They have an opportunity this summer to exorcise the final demon from the soul of the Bulls organization, a demon that has lingered in the Front Office since the Dynasty, and has planted the seeds of doubt and mistrust in the Reinsdorf Family all around the NBA.
A Brief Jog Down Memory Lane
It was the end of the 1997-’98 NBA Season and Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, et al, were once again hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy above their heads in Grant Park. It was the pinnacle of the Bulls dynasty and, at the same time, the end of an era. The brilliant architect of that team, general manager Jerry Krause, should have been a beloved hero of the city, taking his place next to other Leaders of Men, like Mike Ditka and George Halas (two names that might have folks cringing now, but were revered at the time). Instead, Krause was despised, for even though he helped build the Bulls into an international juggernaut, he was also the key reason the team was breaking up. A fatal mix of Money and Pride led to irreconcilable differences between the Bulls players, coaches, and Front Office. The Reinsdorf Family backed Krause, going along with his vision for the team, and as the last fan exited Grant Park, one of the most dominate teams in NBA history broke up.
The way the Dynasty ended, that pivotal chain of events that painted Jerry Krause as a villain and the Reinsdorf Family as cheapskates, shaped the reputation of the Bulls organization for decades. It’s a reputation that has proved harder to expel than the demon that tormented Regan MacNeil in the Exorcist. There was hope in 2003, when Dynasty hero, John Paxson, took over the GM position from Krause, that things would change. Paxson was able to rebuild the Bulls a couple times through the draft, finding young and hungry players like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Loul Deng, Andres Nocioni, Joakim Noah, and Derrick Rose, who could immediately compete in the NBA.
The Bulls had several good runs under Paxson’s watch, but they were never able to land a game changing superstar in free agency. The solid drafting and team success wasn’t enough to persuade players around the league that the Bulls as an organization had turned over a new leaf. Stories of unhappy players, and John Paxson throttling head coach Vinny Del Negro didn’t help matters. After six or so years of running the franchise on a day-to-day basis, Paxson stepped aside, taking the “hands-off” (pun unintended) role of Vice-President of Basketball Operations and promoting Gar Forman to the vacated GM position.
Under Gar Forman, the reputation of the Bulls organization got even worse. Rumors of coaches spying on players, the ugly way Loul Deng and Derrick Rose were talked about while injured, the curt dismissal of the second greatest head coach in team history (pouring one out for Thibbs), the refusal to build around Jimmy Butler, and awful coaching hire after awful coaching hire, all of that drama falls squarely in the lap of the Front Office during Gar Forman’s tenure as GM. It was a sad, repugnant time to be a Bulls player and fan, and the rest of the league took notice.
The New New
It would be nice to think that Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley have managed to erase all of the decades of Front Office Bad in the short time they’ve been running the Chicago Bulls, but that would be wishful thinking. In truth, they’ve made great strides in reversing the negative image surrounding the Bulls. They’ve hired a competent coach in Billy Donovan, and they’ve done well in building a competitive roster in a very short time. In DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, they’ve successfully lured big ticket free agents to come to the Bulls. Marc Eversley, in particular, is a trusted name in basketball circles. NBA insiders know him to be honest and above reproach when it comes to his relationship with players. No one has worried about “spies” in the locker room since he’s been GM.
The approach from Arturas and Eversley to injured players has also been a breadth of fresh air. The Bulls give timely updates on a players status, constantly acknowledging the effort and work an injured player is putting into their recovery. Even when a player experiences a setback, no one from the Front Office is dropping hints that the player just needs to be tougher. There is no expectation for a player to return quickly, play through pain, and risk further injury.
Have players come back too soon from injury this season? Probably. LaVine has played through a ligament tear in his wrist and knee pain at the end of the season. Alex Caruso was a shadow of himself when he returned from his broken wrist, gutting out the last few weeks of the season as the team battled for the playoffs.
The difference between what we’re seeing from LaVine and Caruso and what’s happened in the past, is player agency. There was no expectation from the Round Table that LaVine or Caruso play through their injuries and pain. Both players chose to do it for the good of the team.
When you compare what the Bulls Front Office has said about Lonzo Ball this year, and what was said about Derrick Rose by Forman and Paxson in the past, the approach is night-and-day. Both Ball and Rose were sidelined with lingering discomfort after a serious injury, but the current Front Office has been sympathetic, supportive and transparent of Ball, whereas, Derrick Rose was isolated, criticized for not playing, and news of his recovery process suppressed. Fans have not been left wondering why Ball isn’t playing the way they were with Rose. Throughout the entire ordeal the Bulls have made it clear that Ball is working hard toward recovery. For Rose, GarPax made it seem like he just didn’t want to play basketball, not that he was working his way back from a series of devastating injuries.
The Bulls Round Table has done a great deal in a very short time to exorcise the demons of the past. But there is one more hurdle that needs to be hopped.
The Chicago Bulls need to show the NBA that they are ready to operate like the multi-billion dollar, international organization that they are. They need to eliminate “cheap” from the description of the Reinsdorf Family. In order to do that, (1) they need to pay a player a Max Contract. (2) They need to consistently operate as an over-the-salary-cap team, and (3) they need to occasionally spit in the face of the luxury tax. The League needs to know that the Chicago Bulls are not a “Mom-and-Pop” organization that would nickel and dime both Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The Bulls need to prove they are no longer the team that would trade Jimmy Butler when he was on the cusp of a big pay day. The NBA needs to see that Chicago is serious about winning championships, and is willing to pay the entry fee to compete for one.
Offering Zach LaVine a Max Contract will go a long way toward repairing that final, long-lasting sting to the organizations reputation. If the Round Table can remove the stigma of “cheap” that has haunted the Reinsdorf Family for decades, across multiple sports (shout out to my fellow White Sox fans) then maybe we can finally shout from the rooftops with the same confidence as Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress, “THE BULLS ARE BACK!!!”
Until Arturas and Eversley send LaVine the paperwork this summer, and I start measuring my bust size for a dress, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!