As the NBA season draws near, teams are beginning to talk about the upcoming year and what their main goals for the season are. The majority of players will say they want to contend for a championship, and many of those will believe that their team is good enough to do so. A smaller few, however, will say that they think their team can “surprise people” or “be competitive.” Those players are on teams that are, most likely, intentionally tanking.
You know the concept; an organization trades off older or more costly players for draft picks or young, cost-controlled assets. The end result is that you lose more games now, but you get a higher draft pick and the better chance at bringing in franchise-changing talent. The 76ers of recent years are the poster child for modern-day tanking.
While most others writing about the NBA right now will regale you with stories of past champions, great players and bright futures, I want to party like it’s 1999 and remind you of the most painful season in Chicago Bulls history. Let’s talk about the lockout-shortened, “Forgetta-Bulls.”
Coming off their sixth championship in eight years, the Bulls were torn apart at the core in the summer of 1998. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were all due to be free agents, but likely all had an interest in returning to the Bulls if Phil Jackson had returned. However, there was a strong rift between Jackson and then-general manager Jerry Krause, and Jackson’s return was likely never going to happen.
Despite the popular notion that the Bulls threw Jackson out with yesterdays trash, Chicago made a sincere effort to bring Jackson back. But PJ wanted independence from Krause and a guarantee that the big three players would return, which is something that Jerry Reinsdorf wasn’t willing to offer. So Phil left and was replaced by Tim Floyd, Jordan retired, the Bulls worked a sign-and-trade for Pippen with the Rockets and Dennis Rodman played 35 more games the rest of his career between the Lakers and Mavericks.
So Krause and the Bulls went about Plan B. Once the lockout ended in mid-January 1999, the roster deconstruction started. The Bulls had two rookies they drafted the previous June, Corey Benjamin and Cory Carr, along with roster holdovers Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Randy Brown, Dickey Simpkins, Rusty LaRue and Keith Booth.
The Bulls traded Longley to the Suns for some low-quality bench players, highlighted by forward Mark Bryant, and a first-round draft pick that turned into Ron Artest. Kerr was traded to the Spurs in exchange for veteran Chuck Person, who was promptly released, and another first-round pick that was wasted on Dalibor Bagaric. The other big move of the expedited offseason was bringing in former Slam Dunk Contest winner Brent Barry to add a bit of offense to an anemic team.
The rest of the 1999 Bulls were a mix of veterans who couldn’t get better jobs and rookies looking to break into the NBA, such as Charles Jones, Mario Bennett, Kornel David and Andrew Lang. After a two-game preseason, which was essentially a home-and-home with the Indiana Pacers, the season was ready to start on Feb. 5. Somewhat interestingly, the Bulls opened the season in Utah against the Jazz — in the same building that Jordan knocked down the championship-winning shot just six months prior.
Utah’s starting lineup against the Bulls in the opener featured John Stockton, Karl Malone, Jeff Hornacek and Bryon Russell returning from the starting lineup of the 1998 NBA Finals team (Greg Ostertag only started one Finals game, but he was in there as well). On the other side, the Bulls started Kukoc, Harper, Barry, Bryant and Lang. Despite the clear talent gap, the Bulls held their own before eventually losing 104-96 behind 32 points from Kukoc and 18 from Harper.
The Bulls started the season 1-8, but they made a few changes in the lineup to get things rolling a bit. Simpkins and Brown earned more minutes and had what must be considered pretty decent seasons, all things considered. The Bulls had a stretch where they went 7-9, running their record to 8-17 on the season. It was bad, but at that moment they hadn’t yet sunk to the historically-bad level that they’d soon reach.
A week after collecting their 10th win of the season over the Vancouver Grizzlies, the Bulls ran into the red-hot Miami Heat, who were about to finish the regular season with a 14-6 run to grab the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The Heat were coached by Pat Riley, who’d been the Bulls’ nemesis in the playoffs several times during the Jordan era. Despite practically everyone important from those great Bulls teams being gone, Riley and his players clearly wanted to embarrass the Bulls to exact some sort of revenge.
What followed on that April evening was one of the most embarrassing performances of professional basketball that was ever witnessed. The Bulls were held to just 49 points, a modern-day NBA record for fewest points in a game:
They put the ball in the basket just 18 times in total while shooting 23.4 percent from the field as a team. Read the box score from that evening, if you dare:
The Bulls stumbled to the end of the season, finishing 13-37. Frankly, they were fortunate to win that many games. They scored just 81.9 points per game, which qualifies as the worst scoring average of all time (again, in the modern “shot clock era”). Unlike most tanking teams, there were basically no keepers on that team. Harper was 35 years old and on his way out, ready to collect three more rings in Los Angeles with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. Barry was once viewed as a building block, but he was traded to the Sonics after the season.
Kukoc, once thought to be a star in the making, never materialized as anything more than a very good player on a great team. He put up career highs in points (18.8), rebounds (7.0) and assists (5.3) for the 1999 Bulls, but he struggled to take on the lead role after having played alongside Jordan and Pippen. He remained with the Bulls into the following season, but after struggling with injuries he was eventually traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
It took the Bulls six awful, terrible, no-good, very bad seasons after Jordan retired before they finally put a squad together that was good enough to play in the postseason. You can argue the merit of the rebuild versus the architect of the rebuild until you’re blue in the face, but there’s no doubt that several poor decisions made by Krause and Reinsdorf, starting with the breakup of the 1997-98 championship team, set the Chicago Bulls organization back an inordinate amount of time.