The problem has always been there. It’s been subtly covered in newspapers, magazines and even books written about the team. Yet, no one seemed to be paying attention, or at the very least, was dismissive of how deep and pervasive the issue truly was and continues to be. I guess winning can have that kind of effect on people.
But on Thursday night, the Chicago Bulls officially exposed their most obvious flaws when they traded Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick in the NBA Draft, to the Minnesota Timberwolves for their No. 7 pick, as well as Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn.
Ignore the fact that Chicago took the exact same deal the two sides couldn’t agree on exactly one year ago, only this time LaVine is coming off an ACL injury and Dunn may not be as good of a player as people thought he’d be coming out of Providence. Pay no attention to the irony of Derrick Rose and Butler being shipped off to different teams exactly one year to the day apart. And you certainly should put no stock in the fact that the Bulls used another valuable draft pick on a player (Lauri Markkanen) who isn’t a franchise changer or a cornerstone, and taken without even being brought in for a workout (a la Marquis Teague), and who could potentially wash out of the League in a few years (a la Marquis Teague).
None of this matters. These things are simply symptoms of a culture problem that has plagued the Bulls for decades and continues to rear its ugly head.
Now, even though Jimmy Butler may be a three-time All-Star, an elite defender and certified two-way player in the NBA, but he’s also complicit in his own trading. His frosty relationship with management, despite them giving him the keys to the franchise after the Rose trade, his lack of effort on the court at times, which was rooted in a clear lack of respect for Fred Hoiberg and his staff, as well as an outspokenness that was often taken as arrogance (Hollywood Jimmy), kept the “Trade Jimmy Butler!” bandwagon full in Chicago.
The prevailing thought was despite what he brings to the court, the Bulls would never win anything of significance with him as their best player and it made sense to blow everything up. Of course, it’s hard to quantify this considering Chicago never actually committed to building around Jimmy Butler in the first place, but that became the unfortunate narrative that ushered the soon to be 28-year-old out the door.
But all of this underscores Chicago’s culture problem where there is no loyalty to anyone outside of the front office and those who fall into that category are routinely undervalued, underappreciated and ultimately, expendable. This is was just as true for Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, as it was for Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and the newly reunited Butler and Thibodeau. They all gave everything they had to the organization in their commitment to winning, and all were unceremoniously let go and discarded as having no value.
When the late Jerry Krause stated that players and coaches don’t win championships, organizations do, effectively dismissing the talents and contributions of Jordan, Pippen, Jackson, Jim Clemons, Tex Winter and Johnny Bach, it was a peek into the attitude and mindset of the Chicago Bulls organization that has continued to this day.
While the organization and many fans felt that getting rid of Jimmy Butler made sense and was the right thing to do as it relates to the future of the franchise and being able to build a contender down the line, those same feelings were invoked when Rose, Noah, Deng and Thibodeau were let go. Unfortunately, these decisions have never taken into consideration the landscape of the “modern NBA” and the way things work today.
Moving forward, the Chicago Bulls front office, and loyal fans of the team would be wise to remember several key points.
The first is that players these days don’t need a large market or an iconic franchise, when it comes to building their personal brand. What benefitted Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, means less today given the advent of the internet and social media. Adding to that point is the fact that NBA players are connected online just like everyone else. They’re also certainly a lot more friendly with each other than their ’80s and early ’90s counterparts. That said, these guys talk to one another. They share their thoughts and opinions with each other, and they have the power to steer a guy to a franchise (Kevin Durant to Golden State, or LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami), or away from it (the Jimmy Butler to Cleveland rumor).
Lastly, whether in the ’80s, ’90s or today, all NBA players want to be a part of a team and an organization with a healthy culture. This is why teams like the San Antonio Spurs have thrived and remained an elite squad over the years, and why the Golden State Warriors quickly leaped to the next level when Steve Kerr was brought in as head coach. This is also the reason the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks no longer hold the same status and distinction they once did because the organizational culture was toxic. This is the space the Chicago Bulls now find themselves in considering the comments made by people such as Reggie Rose, or the Thursday night Twitter lashing given to the organization by Butler’s personal trainer, Travelle Gaines.
These things resonate, and if the Bulls ever hope to experience an organizational resurgence that the Lakers, Warriors, Celtics have had, or the sustained excellence of teams such as the Spurs, then the next organizational move they make should be in the front office, not on the court. It doesn’t matter what roster moves you make when the team culture isn’t one that’s positive, loyal and fully committed to winning.