CHICAGO – The big news of the NBA summer was Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, thus, in theory, improving a team that set a record for the most wins in the history of the league.
And then there was the shock, Dwyane Wade, Miami legend and, in effect, logo and franchise face and leader, leaving the Miami Heat to sign a two-year contract with the Chicago Bulls.
Durant’s Decision may have the greatest impact, but Wade’s was the biggest surprise in also turning the Bulls into perhaps the greatest curiosity and mystery of the coming NBA season.
What the heck happened there?
It was really no surprise the Bulls broke up the championship team that couldn’t.
It was a painful four-year decline since the sad day in April when the Bulls — I am convinced — were on the way to the 2012 NBA championship. After all, they had just completed their second straight season leading the league in wins with a top coach in Tom Thibodeau, a league MVP in Derrick Rose and a well-rounded team that had routed the inaugural Miami Big Three that season. Then in the 40th minute of the first playoff game against the eighth seed, Rose tore his ACL. He never was the same, and neither were the Bulls.
Oh, they tried to be, and there were gallant efforts. But Rose had two more knee surgeries, meniscus in the other knee, and by last season everyone was worn out. Thibodeau and Bulls management could barely accept one another anymore, not unlike when a child dies. The result often is a divorce.
There’s too much pain. Rose’s injury was like that for a team.
We talk about eras in sport coming to an end, the Spurs likely heading there, the Bulls of the ’90s. But some never quite get there once, which was the fate of the Bulls. Considered title contenders for six years with free agent help like former All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol and unsuccessful recruitments of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, it was one disappointment after the next until they had all had enough.
Joakim Noah had a knee surgery as well and wasn’t the same. Rose was intent on having a career, so he was going to ease into last season. Then he fractured an orbital bone the first day of training camp.
Jimmy Butler saw it all, received a maximum contract from the Bulls and decided he should be in charge. Then a month into the season he condemned rookie coach Fred Hoiberg and got tuned out. Gasol, looking for one last championship team, saw it all falling apart around him and tuned out as well.
It was a team with 12 players calling 12 taxi cabs leaving the arena.
They had their time; they were finished.
So the Bulls traded Rose, who had one year left on his contract. They pretty much decided whether he came back healthy or not — and he does seem healthy — they couldn’t stand the can-he-play or not any longer. The community was pretty much worn out as well, and there was little objection.
Gasol had made it clear to management he was opting out to become a free agent to find a potential contender. He would eventually pick the Spurs.
Realizing they would need a center with Noah a free agent, the Bulls acquired Robin Lopez from New York in the Rose deal. Which effectively was the message to Noah they were no longer interested.
So it looked like a rebuild of sorts; the Bulls referred to it as more of a reset. They toyed with the idea of trading Butler and starting again with top draft picks and young players.
Then came the startling news they even refused to believe.
Wade was interested in signing and returning to his native city.
The Bulls had gone through a dance of this sort with Wade in the 2010 free agency and felt, in the end, it was just a ploy for leverage. Fool me once . . . But this time Wade was serious. It seemed Miami was chasing big fish like Durant.
Would Wade take less money again?
No, not at 34.
When they signed Hassan Whiteside to a maximum deal, Wade had enough. He was ready to leave. And he was serious.
From the Bulls standpoint, it was a chance to transition into a new era without bottoming out.
Wade signed for just two years, and then Rajon Rondo came aboard for one.
They would still have ample salary cap room for the upcoming summers, and they had a young core of players that included Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, first-round draft pick Denzel Valentine, and then they traded for Michael Carter-Williams during training camp.
See who might emerge among the young players to support Butler while guided by championship players in Wade and Rondo with options open for top free agents.
It’s not like anyone in the Eastern Conference is really at the level of the Cleveland Cavaliers for now. Let LeBron age a bit more. But remain competitive among that next group, and then be in position to grow from there.
At least that’s what the Bulls hope.
The Bulls have a massive nine new players on the roster with perhaps six in the regular rotation. No team, and certainly no team planning to compete for perhaps a top-four playoff spot in its conference, is facing that sort of turnover and adjustment. But that it’s with two players with championship and multiple All-Star Game experience suggests it’s possible.
It’s perhaps not a parallel, but the Bulls had a similar makeover after a similarly hopeful period.
It was their best team no one ever talks about, their 1971-75 team with Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, Norm Van Lier and Bob Love that averaged more than 50 wins in the early 1970s and lost in the 1975 conference finals.
This latest iteration that came apart also made it as far as the conference finals. After that ’70s team’s conference finals season, it was decimated by injuries and broken up after winning 24 games. They added a veteran like Artis Gilmore from the ABA dispersal draft in 1976 and a rookie high pick like Scott May. They had a great ’77 late season run after a slow start and almost upset eventual champion Portland in the playoffs.
But they were unable to sustain and went into a long decline until drafting Michael Jordan in 1984. The new era begins this season. The Bulls are hoping for more success.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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