The sun shined bright upon the Chicago Bulls for most of the 90s, but after winning their last championship in 1998, dark storm clouds quickly began forming over the franchise. In the summer of ’98, Bulls management started selling players left and right. It would be impossible to replace Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen outright, but the front office was confident that they had a plan to see the team through.
On paper, their idea wasn’t bad. In a way, they were even ahead of the curve. These days, nobody is complaining about tanking. Back then, however, rebuilding through the draft was seen as a massive step in the wrong direction for Chicago.
In 1999 they drafted Elton Brand and Ron Artest. The following summer, the Bulls went after Tracy McGrady. If that had happened, Chicago may have actually had a championship or two to show for it and Jerry Krause would’ve looked like a genius. But T-Mac went to Orlando instead, and the Bulls were left with Ron Mercer in his place. The Bulls tried really hard to lure McGrady to Chicago. Recently, T-Mac talked about that on Shannon Sharpe’s podcast. Here is what McGrady had to say about Chicago’s courtship that summer:
"“I stepped foot off the plane, walk through the terminal when I first step through the terminal, I see Benny the Bull, I see the cheerleaders like they had a whole parade for me at the airport. I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord’. (Then I ) get to the hotel, get into my room, they pop in a tape, Oprah sent me a personal message, oh boy, Oprah’ talking to me. I go the freakin’ Cubs game, take me out to the ball game, I’m in the dugout where Ernie Bates, I throw out the first pitch, sit in the stands, they’ve got an airplane flying over with advertising and talking about me, and I’m like oh my Lord. Like they rode out the red carpet for me. ”"
In the 2003 draft, the Bulls drafted Kirk Hinrich. A solid point guard from Kansas State University. That way they got a smart and solid point guard, who could run the offense. His rookie averaged 12 points and 6.8 assists per game while shooting 39% from the three-point line. Later that year, Chicago hired Scott Skiles as their new head coach. He was their third head coach that season; the other two were Bill Cartwright and Pete Myers. Even though coach Skiles struggled and finished the 2003-04 season 19-47, he was the right coach for that young team.
The Chicago Bulls should take notes from their 2004-05 team if they want to climb back out of mediocrity.
In the 2004 draft, the Bulls got the third pick and selected Ben Gordon out of UCONN. He was a great addition to the Chicago backcourt alongside Kirk Hinrich In that same draft, Chicago committed one of the biggest heists in franchise history, by trading Jackson Vroman, a future first-rounder, and $3 million in cash for Luol Deng. In the second round, the Bulls added Chris Duhon, who was a nice addition and contributed a lot to that team. In that same summer, they signed Andreas Nocioni, a solid forward from Argentina.
During that summer, the Bulls created their core. Before the season, expectations weren’t high. Before the season, they were ranked last in their division. SLAM Magazine’s Lang Whitaker was just one of many critics of Chicago’s plan, elaborating in a harsh piece he wrote for the 2004-05 season preview.
"“One of these days, the Bulls will run again. Just don’t look for it to be this year. As bad as the Bulls were last year—and they were really bad, finishing 38 games out of first in the East—their best player from that team is now a New York Knick. Da Bulls spent the summer adding Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and gold-medalist Andres Nocioni, but any future success in The Crilla rests with solid second-year guard Kirk Hinrich and the still unproven young bigs, Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. As the baby Bulls enter their fourth NBA seasons, they’ve reached the tipping point. Which way will they fall?”"
Chicago started the season slowly and it seemed, that experts were right. They’ve started 0-9 and in their first 11 games, they’ve only won once. Out of their first 15 games, they collected only two wins. But then things began to turn around.
At first, one five-game winning streak, then six, then five again. In late March, they won a staggering eight games in a row. Overall, they’ve finished the regular season with 47 wins. If you take away their horrendous start, they finished with an impeccable 45-20 record, good for a 56.7 win pace.
Their bad start wasn’t a surprise, since that team was very young and had a lot of newcomers. But after they got comfortable with each other, they began to win. Chicago had balanced scoring, where four players averaged double figures. The leading scorer was Eddy Curry with 16.1 points per game. Ben Gordon won the Sixth Man of the Year award, which rarely happens for a rookie, by averaging 15.1 points per game and uplifting that Bulls team in a big way.
As you might expect, because of their inexperience, the Bulls struggled on offense. They finished 21st in points per game. But where they were lacking offensively, they’ve compensated defensively. Chicago finished 7th in points allowed and had the second-best defensive rating in the league. They had good defenders all over the squad, so maybe it wasn’t a huge surprise. Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Andreas Nocioni, Tyson Chandler. They all were good defenders.
After such a promising regular season, the Bulls met the Washington Wizards in the playoffs. Although Chicago won the first two games, their lack of inexperience showed, since they couldn’t close out the series and lost the next four games. That series was close, where the total overall margin through the series was less than two points, but as I’ve mentioned before, the Bulls’ inability to close games, cost them a lot. They’ve lost game five by 2, and game six by 3 points.
The end of the season was disappointing, because, they could’ve advanced deeper into the playoffs, but that 2004-05 season gave Bulls fans some real hope about better times coming. After long years of tanking and incompetence, the city of Chicago finally had a team, that fans could finally rally behind.