It wasn’t supposed to last this long. When Michael Jordan slightly pushed off Bryon Russell to square up for a 17-foot jump shot with 5.2 seconds left in 1998, the future was a giant question mark. The moment the shot clock expired, the rebuild began. Bulls fans knew the band was broken up. This would be the sixth and final championship with Phil Jackson as the coach, and Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman as stars. It was impossible to predict what the rebuild would look like.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf spoke on the post-Jordan plan in The Last Dance documentary,
“After the fifth championship, which was ’96-’97, we were looking at this team and realizing other than Michael (Jordan), the rest of the guys were probably at the end of their high productive years. We had to decide whether we keep the team together or not. And we realized maybe this was the time to do a rebuild and not try to win a sixth championship,” Reinsdorf said in the documentary.
After the sixth championship, Reinsdorf and GM Jerry Krause hired University of New Orleans head coach Tim Floyd to lead the Bulls, but unexpectedly kept Jackson’s Triangle-centric assistant coaching staff in place, continuing to run the Triangle without Jordan. The result? A 49 – 190 record in four seasons under Floyd as head coach.
Things only became darker from there. The Bulls accumulated six top five picks out of eight seasons immediately following Jordan’s retirement. That is almost unheard of level-luck. And how did they use them? Pretty poorly. Selecting Elton Brand with the first pick in the 1999 draft was their best overall move. After that, they chose Marcus Fizer fourth in 2000, Eddy Curry fourth in 2001, Jay Williams second in 2002, Ben Gordon third in 2004, and LaMarcus Aldridge second in 2006, before immediately trading him to Portland for eventual bust, Tyrus Thomas.
Their prized No. 1 pick, Elton Brand, would only play two seasons in Chicago before being traded to the LA Clippers for Brian Skinner and the draft rights to Tyson Chandler. A fine deal on the surface, but odd given Chandler’s best position was also center, just like their newest draft pick, Curry. It would prove to be a bad pairing, with Curry shipped off to the New York Knicks after four seasons and Chandler traded to the New Orleans Hornets after five seasons.
All that to say, it would only get worse. The Bulls seemed to acquire noble semi-stars too early (Ron Artest, Brad Miller, Bobby Portis) or too late (Ben Wallace, Dwyane Wade, Rip Hamilton, Pau Gasol) in their career while continuing to whiff in the draft.
That is until Derrick Rose, a hometown kid born and raised in Chicago, arrived as the first pick in the 2008 draft. It was a miracle in every way, with the Bulls possessing a slim 1.7 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. Under head coach Tom Thibodeau, Rose led a defensive powerhouse from 2008-2016, winning MVP at 22 in 2011. The Bulls finished with a league-best 62-20 record and clinched the first seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since Jordan’s last season in 1998.
Those few healthy years of Rose’s prime felt special. Alongside Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and solid two-way players Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls were the beast of the East. But there was a spectre of injury around every corner. When it happened, it was just as brutal as imagined. In 2012, during the 4th quarter of the Bulls’ first playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Rose tore his ACL. He would miss the entire 2012-13 season. Rose, nor the Bulls under his leadership, would never be the same. Every season after that initial injury saw Rose in and out of the rotation with additional injuries. Yet, as impressive as those Bulls were, they came and went with Rose’s health.
When Rose was moved in 2016, he left a historic personal legacy as the Windy City’s favorite son since Jordan. The Bulls tried to rebuild around young star Jimmy Butler while moving from Thibodeau as coach. When they acquired Zach LaVine from Minnesota, the deal landed with little fanfare for Butler of all players. The Bulls sucked, and LaVine was coming to the team as a young star with attitude issues and empty stats.
It was hard to believe then, but this acquisition would be the first piece towards the Bulls’ eventual rise to contention. Next would come a massive mid-season trade last season for All-Star Nicola Vucevic, a verified double-double machine. Then this summer, the Bulls front office went all-in on signing super-sub Alex Caruso, up-and-coming point guard Lonzo Ball, and aging star DeMar DeRozan, whose contract was ridiculed for its length and price tag by many.
Well, who’s laughing now?
The Bulls are contenders, sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 32-18 record. Even though they have a relatively thin bench, and their starting power forward Patrick Williams is undergoing surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left wrist, they’ve maintained a next-man-up mentality. DeRozen was just announced as a starter on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Well-deserved, as he has been the engine behind the Bulls’ success, averaging 26.5 ppg and providing lockdown defense and unselfish leadership on both sides of the ball. The Bulls look great. And the City of Chicago finally has a team to root for. A team that can handle an injury to one of its four stars and keeps on trucking. Maybe, just finally, that 20-year-old rebuild is finally turning a corner. Perhaps the city of Chicago can finally exhale after two decades of holding their breath as Jordan walked out of the United Center for the last time.
The Bulls are back. And that matters to the team, the fans, and the city of Chicago. It’s finally time to enjoy the now, instead of living in the past.