While Sixers find success, Bulls try to shortcut 'The Process'

 
 
Updated 4/28/2018 6:34 PM
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  • John Paxson, Bulls executive vice president, left, address the media next to general manager Gar Forman after a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 13, 2016, in Chicago. After three years of "Trusting the Process" and winning fewer than 20 games, the Sixers are in the NBA playoffs. Should the Bulls do the same -- or can they take a shortcut?

    John Paxson, Bulls executive vice president, left, address the media next to general manager Gar Forman after a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 13, 2016, in Chicago. After three years of "Trusting the Process" and winning fewer than 20 games, the Sixers are in the NBA playoffs. Should the Bulls do the same -- or can they take a shortcut? Associated Press/2016 file

After several years of promoting "Trust the Process" as a catch phrase, the Philadelphia 76ers' radical rebuilding style is paying off.

The Sixers won 52 games and will open the second round of the playoffs in a few days against the Milwaukee-Boston winner.

To get here, Philadelphia gutted a borderline playoff team and endured three straight seasons with fewer than 20 wins. The Bulls' rebuild included the first part of the process, but they're trying to take a shortcut past the three dreary NBA seasons.

Two key questions: can the Bulls' method be successful and how long will it take before they're basking in a playoff series triumph?

Obviously, that's difficult to say with any certainty. NBA rebuilding is mostly about luck, whether through the draft lottery or having potential franchise players come through in a particular draft class.

Bulls management clearly had no interest in reliving their 1999-2001 experience, when the team won 15 and 13 games, tasted rancid lottery luck and ended up with Marcus Fizer and Eddy Curry.

Philadelphia's prolonged tank gave the Sixers more margin for error. They basically whiffed on three lottery picks -- Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Michael-Carter Williams. Philadelphia got Noel in a trade for current New Orleans playoff hero Jrue Holiday.

Circumstances conspired to keep the 76ers down. Due to foot injuries, Joel Embiid didn't play for two years after being drafted. The team's other 2014 first-rounder, Dario Saric, stayed in Europe for two seasons. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, missed his rookie year due to injuries.

If Embiid had been healthy, maybe Philadelphia doesn't get Simmons. If Simmons played as a rookie, the Sixers likely wouldn't have been in position to take Markelle Fultz with the No. 1 pick in 2017.

Most owners don't have the patience to purposely rely on such a strategy because fans stop buying tickets. But now the Sixers have an impressive three-man nucleus with Simmons, Embiid and Saric, with Fultz an unknown quantity.

During the bad years, Philadelphia developed some helpful role players, including Chicago natives Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes. The Sixers added veteran help this year, with J.J. Redick the team's leading scorer in the first round. In-season pickups Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have been valuable.

The Bulls are off to a decent start in their rebuild, since the three players acquired in last year's Jimmy Butler trade -- Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen -- showed some promise. And they may already have some of those helpful role players with Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, David Nwaba and possibly others.

So can the Bulls match The Process while skipping the most painful parts? Here's a timeline of how it must work:

Step 1: Hit on the draft pick

If the draft lottery goes according to form, the Bulls will choose No. 6 on June 21. The pick could be in the top three or it could be lower if another team gets lucky. They'll also have New Orleans' pick at No. 22.

However it turns out, the Bulls can't afford to miss this year. Since John Paxson and Gar Forman have been running the show, the Bulls have had good results with lower picks (Butler, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic) and missed on a couple of lottery chances (Tyrus Thomas, Doug McDermott).

Unless there's a spate of injuries, the Bulls should be better next season, which means they may not get another chance at a top-10 pick. The pressure is on, since there is a much higher rate of failure in the one-and-done draft era. If it needs to be pointed out for the 20th time, the two best rookies in the 2017 draft class were chosen 13th (Donovan Mitchell) and 27th (Kyle Kuzma).

Paxson sort of previewed the Bulls' thinking by talking about the need for another wing (Mikal Bridges, Michael Porter Jr.?) while labeling center Robin Lopez a piece for the future. No argument here.

Step 2: Prepare for a bold move

Don't expect the Bulls to be active in free-agency this summer. There's a good chance the only new faces on the roster will be the two draft picks.

At some point, though, the Bulls must make a bold move and it should happen before Dunn is due for a contract extension in 2020. The Bulls will have cap space to make a splash in 2019 free-agency and could get a jump on things by making a trade before the deadline hits in February.

A prerequisite to this plan is taking a step forward in team success next season, making the Bulls a more desirable landing spot. There are not any examples in the modern era of an NBA team becoming a Finals contender using draft picks exclusively.

Even the teams that did well in the draft made at least one significant addition, such as Bill Cartwright to the Jordan-era Bulls, Horace Grant to the Shaq-era Magic and Andre Iguodala to Golden State.

Step 3: Finish the climb

This is the most treacherous step. The ladder gets slippery as teams climb higher, and most attempts stall before reaching a championship level. The Bulls have experienced that feeling a couple of times in the past decade.

While the Sixers were able to load up on draft assets while staying bad, there's still no guarantee they'll reach the pinnacle. When the NBA increased its TV revenue, it also helped to assure Philadelphia's owners wouldn't lose money during the tank.

After selecting this year's draft picks, the Bulls are hoping to have the pieces to make a long upward climb, with cap space available to enhance the chances of success.

But this is how it works. By the time NBA teams realize they aren't good enough to grow into title contenders, it's usually time to start the process all over again.

Trust won't be enough to help the Bulls.

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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