The tweet above was from media day leading into the 2017-2018 Chicago Bulls season. Gar/Pax routinely spoke about building a culture in Chicago, but what kind of culture were they trying to build? The Bulls traded Jimmy Butler, their then 3-time All-Star, to Minnesota for the potential of Zach LaVine – regarded as a volume scorer and great athlete – Kris Dunn, and the 7th pick which became Lauri Markkanen. This happened June 22nd, 2017. I remember sitting with friends watching the draft and finding out about it on Twitter before it was announced. I went silent. Not only did I coin the hashtag “BUTLERMANIA” during Butler’s early days of ascension, not only did I spend years arguing with guys on Twitter about Butler’s ceiling and how the Bulls had a player similar to Paul George, not only did I fully believe the Bulls went overboard getting Rondo and Wade to complement Butler and it was never going to work, but I believed that the Bulls could build a franchise around Jimmy Butler. We had seen performances like him dropping 52 points against Charlotte or his 53 points against Philadelphia. We saw the game winner in the preseason against Atlanta when Stacey King officially coronated him Jimmy G. Buckets. We saw him dunk on Chris Bosh when the Bulls ended Miami’s legendary 27 game winning streak.
The signs were there, but John Paxson infamously said that “no one in untradeable except Michael Jordan.” Zach Lowe in 2017 felt the Bulls were uncomfortable with Jimmy Butler as a foundational player. They essentially chose Fred Hoiberg over Jimmy Butler. It was abundantly clear early on that Fred Hoiberg wasn’t the coach of the future and was definitely not the offensive genius they hailed him to be when they hired him. The NBA is a players league and the Bulls essentially chose the doomed Hoiberg over Jimmy Butler and went with a rebuilding project instead.
The 2016-2017 Minnesota Timberwolves went 31-51, were 10th in offensive rating and 27th in defensive rating. Butler arrives and the T-Wolves go 47-35, their defensive rating remained at 27th, but their offensive rating soared to 4th. The Timberwolves made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. They lost in 5 to the Houston Rockets. The next season was steeped in controversy. He rejected a 4-year, $110 million contract extension from Minnesota and was allegedly “frustrated with the nonchalant attitude of his teammates.” Butler shows up a week before the season and leads the third-stringers to a victory in a scrimmage over the starters and is yelling and swearing at them the entire time. It’s all very Kobe-esque. The Timberwolves eventually trade him to Philadelphia, where he plays 55 games and averages 18 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and nearly 2 steals per game. The 76ers take the Raptors to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and are literally a bounce away from overtime to try and make the Eastern Conference Finals. Brett Brown didn’t want to deal with Jimmy Butler anymore (reportedly) and so Philadelphia signs and trades him to Miami in the offseason.
Which brings us to today: Last night, the Miami Heat eliminated the #1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks and have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. These playoffs, Butler is averaging 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.1 steals, and shooting 47.7% from the field. He’s been fantastic. The team Miami built around Butler is what Chicago could have done: Athletes that can shoot the ball, Butler and Bam are able to operate out of the post or through the pick and roll, and it makes them a difficult team to guard. This is kind of the pace and space team Gar/Pax envisioned, but I guess they couldn’t envision it around Butler. Erik Spoelstra, who I’ve routinely crowned one of the best 5 coaches in the NBA, could and that’s the difference between an organization like Miami and the Chicago Bulls. Miami never tore their roster completely down, but instead tweaked it and made shrewd moves (like trading for Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala who have been valuable for them this postseason) and drafted very wisely to guys that fit what they wanted to do. They’ve also developed players and integrated Butler into the successful culture that really began when Shaq was traded here and paired with Dwyane Wade. Riley started the culture and shaped it for Spoelstra to step in seamlessly. Miami has had 3 championships and 5 Finals appearances in the past 14 years so the results speak for themselves.
The Bulls? Well, since the Butler trade, they’re on their third head coach after extinguishing Fred Hoiberg a little over a year and a half after they chose him over Jimmy Butler. They replaced him with an even more incompetent coach in Jim Boylen, who has also been fired (thankfully) and now, even Gar Forman has been terminated. Meanwhile, the Bulls are 71-158 (.310) since trading Jimmy Butler. The Timberwolves may not have benefited from trading for Jimmy Butler, but Butler himself has seen success leading Minnesota to the playoffs, being a bounce away from the Eastern Conference Finals, and now making the Eastern Conference Finals in Miami.
The Bulls though? They’re left with many questions: Do they have a franchise player? Who will be the next coach? Can Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley build an actual winning culture in Chicago? What players on the roster can contribute to a winning team? Miami doesn’t have those questions. They took a chance on Jimmy Butler, built a team around him, and now are one round away from another Finals appearance. The Bulls had the same choice and they blew it. They didn’t believe Butler was worth building around and now, they’re stuck in basketball hell with no real direction.
Things will inevitably get better for the Bulls under new management, but the real point is they never had to get to this point. We gave up on the Jimmy Butler-era when we could’ve built something like what we’re seeing in Miami. We lost the Jimmy Butler trade.