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Bulls’ Future Uncertain Amid Looming Free Agents, Lack of Cornerstones

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The Chicago Bulls have had an eight-year stretch that most teams would die for. The franchise has made the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons, and this season will make it eight, assuming they make it. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they aren’t just any team. They’re the Chicago Bulls, a team with six championships from two decades ago that’ll forever define the organization. Making the playoffs isn’t enough, whether it’s fair or not. Competing in the playoffs is everything.

The Bulls haven’t made a deep playoff run since 2011 before you-know-what happened. They had a good chance to dethrone LeBron James and a depleted Cleveland Cavaliers team last postseason, but it was for naught. The Bulls fell short and are essentially the same team this season. They’ll almost certainly make the playoffs again, but another disappointing postseason loss is likely coming at the end of the year. After this season, that much might not even be guaranteed.

Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Bobby Portis, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson are the only players locked in after this season. Joakim Noah will be a free agent this summer, as will Pau Gasol in all likelihood. Rose and Gibson will become free agents after the 2016-17 season. By the 2017-18 season, Butler, McDermott and Portis are the only players currently locked into deals (Mirotic and Snell have qualifying offers and Dunleavy is non-guaranteed). This Bulls team could look real different, real quick.

Nov. 16, 2015 - Chicago, IL, USA - Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (44) grabs a rebound in front of Indiana Pacers center Ian Mahinmi (28) during the first half on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, at the United Center in Chicago (Photo by Nuccio Dinuzzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

 (Photo by Nuccio Dinuzzo/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Butler is the lone cornerstone of the franchise. He’s 26, locked into a long-term contract, and really, really good. The rest of the Bulls’ roster is filled with question marks.

The trio of McDermott, Mirotic and Portis, all at or under the age of 24, figure to be nice future pieces, but none of them project to be future stars. McDermott has improved dramatically this season, nearly doubling his PER from a season ago, but his lack of athleticism and age (he turns 24 in January, which is ancient for his experience), will hinder him from becoming more than a good role player.

Mirotic was sensational as a rookie, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting, but he’s taken a huge step back this season. He seems constantly unsure of himself, not knowing whether to pump fake or shoot, pass or drive. His shot is flat and inconsistent despite his reputation as a stretch big. He’s also a liability defensively and on the boards. Mirotic turns 25 in February, so he needs to start showing progress soon. If he doesn’t, his three-year deal with the Bulls may be his last.

Portis, the Bulls’ 2015 first-round pick, is already a fan favorite. The campaign of #freebobbyportis has taken on a life of its own, but no social media trend is going to get a player on the floor. Fred Hoiberg has been adamant in not playing Portis this season, and that’s not a good sign. If Portis can’t see the floor with his shot-making skills on a team desperate for offense, then there’s something Hoiberg can see that others can’t. Hoiberg isn’t benching Portis because of the redshirt year Tom Thibodeau often utilized for rookies. Hoiberg probably just doesn’t think Portis is good enough right now. If that’s the case, it’s hard to believe he’ll turn into a future All-Star for the Bulls if he can’t even earn a rotation spot on the 27th-ranked offense in the league.

Butler is great and all, but championship-caliber teams need multiple All-Star players. The easiest way to acquire stars is via free agency, but Chicago has proven to be a hard sell. Carlos Boozer and Ben Wallace are the biggest free-agent signings in Bulls history (and Gasol, to a lesser extent). That sentence speaks for itself. Carmelo Anthony passed up a championship-ready Bulls team to re-sign with the New York Knicks. Once again, that sentence speaks for itself. The Bulls likely aren’t getting a star through free agency, even if they’ll have newfound money once the cap surges.

The second easiest way to acquire a star is through a trade. The Bulls almost never make trades, and when they do it’s usually a salary dump, a la the Luol Deng trade. Unless Gar Forman and John Paxson are let go, Chicago’s stance of trades won’t change anytime soon. That leaves the draft as the only way the Bulls can find another star.

Chicago has all of its own first-round picks, but none of those picks are projected to be any good. Making the playoffs every year has its perks, but it also means you’ll draft outside of the lottery every season. It’s very rare to find Jimmy Butlers lying around late in the first round. There’s usually a lot more Tony Snells.

The East has gotten a lot better this season, but it’s hard to envision any team with Butler on it in the East not making the playoffs. It’s worth noting that the Bulls own the Kings’ first-round pick if it’s outside the top 10 by 2017, but things aren’t looking good on that front. The Kings have gotten off to a rough start this year and are seemingly always terrible. That pick will likely turn into a worthless 2017 second-rounder, which would make the Deng trade a pure salary dump.

800-plus words into this article and Rose hasn’t even been mentioned as a future building block. Rose very well might re-up with the Bulls when his current deal is up, but he’s no longer “The Man” of the team. The front office isn’t building the team with Rose in mind anymore. If they are, they’re in trouble. He’s worth taking a flier on because he’s a former MVP who’s still only 27 years old, but his days as an All-Star player look finished. He’s lost the athleticism, and even worse, the killer mentality that made him one of the best players in the league. He’s not a key part of the Bulls’s long-term future anymore, as sad as that may be.

The Bulls will compete in the regular season for the foreseeable future. Playing in the East and attracting enough decent players to play in Chicago will do that, but the Bulls’ future is as uncertain as it’s been since before they drafted Rose. Unless the Bulls change their stance on trades or Chicago becomes a popular free-agent destination, this team will be devoid of star power for years to come. Butler, Mirotic, McDermott, Portis and a youthful coach in Hoiberg is a nice start, but it’s not enough.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, the next half-decade or so might look a lot like the last.

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