It shouldn’t take that long. When Michael Jordan lightly pushed Bryon Russell to make a 5m jump with 5.2 seconds to go in 1998, the future was a giant question mark. As soon as the shot clock expired, reconstruction began. Bulls fans knew the band had broken up. This would be the sixth and final championship with Phil Jackson as the coach and Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as the stars. It was impossible to predict what the renovation would look like.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf spoke about the post-Jordanian plan in the documentary The Last Dance,
“After the fifth championship, which was from ’96-’97, we looked at this team and realized that except for Michael (Jordan), the rest of the guys were probably at the end of their very productive years. We had to decide whether to keep the team together or not. And we realized that maybe now was the time to do a remodel 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-focused assistant coaching staff in place as they continued to run the Triangle without Jordan. The result? A record 49-190 in four seasons under Floyd as head coach.
From then on it only got darker. The Bulls amassed six top five picks from eight seasons immediately after Jordan’s retirement. That’s almost unheard of level-luck. And how did they use it? Pretty bad. Selecting Elton Brand with the first pick in the 1999 design was their best move overall. They then 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 the final bust, Tire Thomas.
Their esteemed 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 great deal on the face of it, but odd considering Chandler’s best position was also in the middle, as was their latest design pick, Curry. It would turn out to be a bad combination, with Curry moving to the New York Knicks after four seasons and Chandler to the New Orleans Hornets after five seasons.
All that saying, it would only get worse. The Bulls seemed to acquire noble semi-stars in their careers too early (Ron Artest, Brad Miller, Bobby Portis) or too late (Ben Wallace, Dwyane Wade, Rip Hamilton, Pau Gasol) while continuing to sniff at draft.
That is until Derrick Rose, a hometown kid born and raised in Chicago, arrived as the top pick in the 2008 draft. It was a miracle in every way, with the Bulls having a slim 1.7 percent chance of the number 1 choice. Under head coach Tom Thibodeau, Rose led a defensive powerhouse from 2008-2016 and won MVP at 22 in 2011. The Bulls finished best in the league with a record 62-20, taking their first since Jordan’s top spot in the Eastern Conference. last season 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 ghost of injuries 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. Neither Rose nor the Bulls under his leadership would ever be the same. Each season after that initial injury saw Rose in and out of the rotation with additional injuries. But as impressive as those Bulls were, they came and went with Rose’s health.
When Rose moved in 2016, he left a historic personal legacy as the Windy City’s favorite son since Jordan. The Bulls sought to rebuild young star Jimmy Butler as they switched from Thibodeau as coach. When they took over Minnesota’s Zach LaVine, the deal ended with little fanfare for Butler of all players. The Bulls were bad and LaVine came to the team as a young star with posture problems and empty stats.
It was hard to believe at the time, but this takeover would be the first piece toward the Bulls’ eventual rise. Then last season would see a massive trade for All-Star Nicola Vucevic, a verified double-double machine. This summer, the Bulls front office went all in to sign supersub Alex Caruso, rising point guard Lonzo Ball and aging star DeMar DeRoza.n, whose contract was ridiculed by many for its length and price tag.
Well, who’s laughing now?
The Bulls are contenders, sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 32-18 record. Although they have a relatively thin couch and their starting power-forward Patrick Williams is undergoing surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left wrist, they have maintained a next-man-up mentality. DeRozen has just been announced as a starter on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Well deserved as he has been the driving force behind the Bulls’ success, averaging 26.5 ppg and having a lockdown defense and selfless leadership on both sides of the ball. The Bulls look great. And the city of Chicago finally has a team to advocate for. A team that can handle an injury of one of the four stars and keep driving. Maybe, finally, that 20-year-old remodel is finally turning a corner. Perhaps the city of Chicago can finally breathe out after holding their breath for two decades as Jordan walked out of the United Center for the last time.
The Bulls are back. And that’s important for the team, the fans and the city of Chicago. It’s finally time to enjoy the present, instead of living in the past.