The story of the Chicago Bulls' downfall

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Derrick Rose is at the center of the basketball universe. It's a few days before Christmas in 2011, and the shy, 23-year-old point guard finds himself in the middle of a suburban Chicago shopping mall as throngs of fans scream for his attention. A few hours earlier, the Chicago Bulls formally announced that they have signed the reigning MVP to a max extension worth close to $100 million. The future was bright for one of the NBA's most prominent franchises.

"I'm tremendously blessed, and I don't take anything for granted and I appreciate everyone," Rose says at the news conference. "And I think I can finally say this now, 'Mom, we finally made it.'"

Now, as Rose makes his way to a table in the middle of the mall, chants of "MVP, MVP" ring out around the complex. Security personnel, some holding guns visible, try to make sure that Rose doesn't get overwhelmed by the adoring public.

Six years later, dreams have given way to a litany of injuries, centered on Rose tearing the ACL in his left knee in the first game of the 2012 playoffs. The organization hasn't been on stable ground since.

As the Bulls prepare to face an old nemesis, now flanked by some familiar faces in Cleveland, here are the 12 moments that defined their fate, from a promising team with the youngest MVP in league history to a bickering and confused club whose return to the precipice of greatness seems far, far away.

1. April 28, 2012: A devastating injury

Rose suffers a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee while trying to leap off his left foot in the dwindling minutes of an Eastern Conference first-round game against the 76ers.

No story on the rise and fall of the Bulls can be told without remembering that day. "He had a freak accident that even to this day it still feels surreal," Taj Gibson says. "Because we had a bunch of nice talent. We had a nice core of guys that everybody just wanted to win. Everybody was unselfish."

Says Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson: "I know it's easy to sit in this seat and say, 'Blame it all on, blame whatever happened on this injury.' But I don't think people understand how significant that turned out to be. First of all, that injury for him personally, what that meant to his physical ability and career and the mental stress it put on him, that was a huge thing. But from a business standpoint, it limited so much that we could do. If you lose that type of player, they're really going to struggle."

The injury, combined with Rose's recently signed extension, crippled the Bulls' salary-cap space. Rose decided not to return during the 2012-13 season after being cleared to do so by team doctors midway through the season, but the Bulls, led by Joakim Noahand coach Tom Thibodeau, battled their way to an impressive first-round series win over the Brooklyn Nets. They were dispatched in the next round by LeBron James and the Miami Heat, who'd bested them in the Eastern Conference finals two seasons before. Rose returned from the injury to start the 2013-14 season but tore the medial meniscus in his right knee in his 10th game, missing the rest of the season.

2. Oct. 29, 2014: Promise, pain and more promise

Rose returns in the season opener, scores 13 points and the Bulls beat theNew York Knicks104-80. But he'll tear his meniscus again on Feb. 24, 2015 and won't return until April. However, it was during this season that a notable emergence occurred, a hopeful stabilizing force for the present and future: Jimmy Butler.

The 30th pick in the 2011 draft was developing faster than many in the organization ever expected. After not playing much in his rookie season, Butler started to gain more traction in his second season and turned into a consistent starter in his third, averaging 13.1 points and playing almost 39 minutes a game. Teammates and coaches raved about his work ethic and his ability to connect with people.

With Noah struggling to find a rhythm thanks to offseason knee surgery and Rose in and out of the lineup because of various injuries, Butler carried the group over the first few months of the season.

"He's confident in who he is," said Buzz Williams, Butler's college coach at Marquette, as his star pupil started coming into his own. "He knows that tomorrow he needs to work harder than he did today. And he's not caught up in the hype and the surrounding minutiae of what's going on."

Butler credits the time spent with trainer Chris Johnson as one of the main reasons he started to feel as if he could earn a place among the league's elite. Paxson looks back at drafting Butler as the best pick the Bulls have made during his tenure.

"I think, as can often happen in our business, the guys that are in school for four years tend to get overscouted," Paxson says. "And you think that their upsides aren't as great as a younger player, and I think that happened to Jimmy. "But through his diligence and hard work, he made himself into this top-10, [top]-15 player in the league."

3. May 10, 2015: A foreboding playoff loss

After earning a 2-1 series lead in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls blow a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead in Game 4, ending with a buzzer-beater from James. The Bulls lose the next two games, culminating in an embarrassing 21-point home loss in the series clincher. Thibodeau is fired two weeks later, ending one of the most successful runs in franchise history.

Throughout the season, leadership roles within the team's framework on and off the floor had shifted, and the tension between Thibodeau, general manager Gar Forman and Paxson was palpable. Things got so bad fora litany of reasons, but it boiled down to a breakdown in communication. Thibodeau wanted to maintain the ability to run his program the way he saw fit. Forman and Paxson wanted to have more say, specifically with regard to how many minutes star players such as Noah and Rose were playing in games. One of the things that irked Forman and Paxson most, sources say, was that they didn't feel they got enough credit for providing Thibodeau with rosters full of professional players.

"There was definitely a disconnect between the coaches and management," Noah says now. "It was a little bit of a mess. And to be a championship team, everybody has to be on the same page. It was definitely a missed opportunity."

No player publicly criticized Thibodeau during this time, but some had grown weary of his authoritarian approach, expressing that frustration to Forman and Paxson. The unity that had defined the Bulls early in Thibodeau's tenure had started to erode.

"The moment I realized it was in some games when Thibs -- because normally when we would have bad games, Thibs would constantly curse us out," Gibson says. "You could feel it in his heart because when he's mad, he explodes. And it was at times when, in games when he knows we're playing like trash, and he knows we're not bringing it, and he's not even cursing us out. You know something's up."

"That last year was so different because you always heard the front office and Thibs don't get along," Butler adds. "So it was always around here in the building. In the media, if you decided to read that. Everybody knew what was coming, quote unquote."

"In pro sports ... that's not unusual," Thibodeau says now. "And I felt like injuries had a lot to do with us not reaching where we may have been able to go. But I felt that we dealt with it as best we could, and I was very proud of the team and all the things that we accomplished."

With the benefit of time, Noah, who had the most volatile relationship with Thibodeau, shares a similar sentiment. "Would I change anything? Hell no, man. That's who I am. I always gave it everything I had. So I'm going to blame Thibs for what? For going to the All-Star Game twice, and getting first-team All-NBA, being a Defensive Player of the Year. Blame Thibs? Hell no."

4. June 2, 2015: Things change

Fred Hoiberg is named coach of the Bulls. For months, league observers believed the Iowa State coach would take over for Thibodeau whenever he was finally ousted, given Forman and Hoiberg's friendship that went back to Forman's early days in Chicago's front office when Hoiberg was a player there. Forman, who sold Hoiberg as an offensive guru who would get the Bulls up and down the floor and as a "great communicator," was privately hopeful that he had just landed Steve Kerr 2.0.

The Bulls came into the 2015-16 season believing they had a realistic chance to contend for a championship. They had Pau Gasol and Noah down low, with Rose coming off an injury-free summer and Butler coming into his own after being named the NBA's Most Improved Player.

As a former MVP, Rose still had clout within the locker room and came into the season with a renewed sense of confidence that he could regain his All-Star form in Hoiberg's offense. Noah was still viewed as the emotional leader, but his role was diminished slightly after being taken out of the starting lineup by Hoiberg. In a change from years past, Butler came into the new season producing most on the floor. After rejecting the Bulls' offer the year before, he'd inked a five-year max deal worth almost $95 million that summer.

Speculation abounded throughout the summer from fans and media that there was a power struggle between Rose and Butler for the right to wear the mantle as the face of the Bulls. Both players consistently deflected any perceived tension. Rose said at the time that Butler was the most talented player he had ever played with. "Nobody still knows how good he could become," Rose said, "so that's the great thing about it." Butler loved saying that he was still just "a kid from Tomball, Texas," but some team employees started rolling their eyes at that -- especially in the wake of Butler ripping Hoiberg after a loss to the New York Knicks in mid-December, saying in part that the young coach had to "coach harder."

"I remember him talking about in the summer, talking about like, 'I'm going to be the point guard. I'm the one who should be making the decisions,'" Noah says. "And I was like, man we got Derrick here, why is our 2-guard talking about, 'I'm the point guard?' ... I think when you're at the top of the chain, when you say things, it reflects on everybody."

There is no better illustration of the breaking point between one era of Bulls players and another than the deterioration of Noah and Butler's relationship during the 2015-16 season. The pair had grown very close in Butler's first few seasons, but, as the season unfolded, it became impossible for the organization to ignore just how much love had been lost between the formerly tight pair. According to multiple sources, Noah and Butler engaged in several heated disagreements throughout that season.

"What happened?" Butler says. "I don't know. All I can say is, obviously he's been with me since I was a nobody in this league. And I went about things a lot differently. My voice wasn't heard. And he's been with me as I came to be an All-Star as well in this league. And my voice was heard then. And when my voice is heard, I'm going to let it be heard."

"We're just different people," Noah says. "We were always very close; me and Jimmy were always very close, but things change."

"It was hard because we all came in together," Gibson says. "We were the core, and it's rough when your core starts breaking up."

5. Jan. 28, 2016: A picture's worth

During a January game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, Butler checks out of the game at the end of the first quarter and takes a picture with his close friend, actor Mark Wahlberg, who is sitting courtside near the bench, wearing the new Jimmy Buckets gear from Jordan Brand.

Butler didn't always feel as if some members of the group were putting in the work that he was. According to multiple sources, one of the things that always irritated Butler, specifically regarding Noah, was the All-Star center's propensity for showing up late to team activities, setting a poor example for younger players. "Yeah, if they didn't like the way that I went about things, and I was pissed off because I know how hard I work and I want people to work as hard as I work, I'll take that," Butler says now.

He started isolating himself from the rest of the group, dressing in different parts of the locker room before and after games, according to sources. After years of crafting the narrative that he was just a regular guy, Butler suddenly didn't seem to mind the trappings of celebrity.

"I'm not pushing myself away or separating myself from anybody, but I want everybody to be great, man," Butler says. "Because when everybody's being great, then that just helps my legacy. I can't do this by myself. It's not 1-on-5 out there. It's 5-on-5."

"Jimmy went from the 15th player on the team, the last player coming off the bench, to the star player of the team in four years," Noah says. "When that happens, I'm sure that there was an adjustment period for him. There was an adjustment period for the organization. And there was definitely a change of culture."

The identity that the Bulls developed under Thibodeau was gone. The offense that Hoiberg was brought in to fix was lethargic, and the defense didn't have the same fighting spirit that it did in years past. Hoiberg was viewed by many within the organization as being "too nice" in regard to how he handled certain situations with players on the floor.

Rose missed 2015-16 training camp after fracturing his orbital bone on the first day of practice. When he returned, he struggled to regain his form. Noah never seemed to click with Hoiberg after the new coach took the center out of the starting lineup in the preseason. The Bulls had some early success that season but never regained their footing after a January shoulder injury sidelined Noah for the rest of the season and Butler missed a month because of a knee injury.

"Obviously what I'm saying right now, my message isn't getting across," Hoiberg said after an embarrassing loss to the struggling Orlando Magic in late March.

"When we started a skid in some games, I could just see it in the way -- the body language," Gibson says. "Our body language, we never had really ever had that body language where we would just be like we didn't care sometimes. Sometimes I was just like, 'Are we serious?' Are we really to this point where we're starting to act like those teams we used to talk about."

"I felt like -- it just changed. It just changed," Noah said. "And the message changed from when Thibs was here. Thibs was very demanding and very strict in the way he wanted things run. When he left, that kind of left, too, the structure part."

6. April 13, 2016: No one is safe

At a hastily arranged news conference after a season in which the Bulls failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in eight years, Forman and Paxson acknowledge their disappointment and make it clear that nobody on the roster is safe.

When the season ended, Rose still had a year left on his contract, but he no longer had the same level of support from within the organization. To many of the Bulls employees who had watched him since he came to the team as the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, Rose's passion for the game had waned. The injuries, the rehab, the inconsistency on the floor and the fact that he was no longer universally beloved in his hometown of Chicago had all taken their toll. Most importantly, Rose wasn't producing the same way when he did play, registering 58th out of 60 qualified point guards in real plus-minus, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I can't get mad about peoples' opinions, I always say that," Rose, who declined via a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, said during a January 2016 interview.

"They got every right to say or think whatever they want to say and think. And whatever they say and think don't affect my life."

Rose still believed he could get back to an elite level, but his game no longer backed up that sentiment. As he had done so many times throughout the years, Noah defended Rose at every turn.

"The dynamic changed in the locker room, and that's always tough," says Paxson, who won three NBA championships as a player. "It's just a matter of people maturing and growing and their expectation of others around them. You do have to respect and admire the players and the teams that year after year they have that commitment and chemistry together. Unfortunately, for us that changed."

On June 22, 2016, the day before the NBA draft, the Bulls sent Rose, along with Justin Holidayand a second-round draft pick, to the Knicks in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon. Noah would soon follow, signing with the Knicks as a free agent for $72 million over four years.

Then came draft night. After having conversations with several teams, including Thibodeau's new team -- the Minnesota Timberwolves -- the Bulls decided not to part with Butler. The Boston Celtics had been a long-rumored destination for him, but the Celtics hesitated to give the Bulls the type of high, unprotected future first-round picks the Bulls desired. As for the Timberwolves, the Bulls simply didn't feel they were getting enough back in a potential deal for their best player. According to sources, the offer the Timberwolves made to the Bulls at the time centered onRicky Rubio and the rights to the fifth pick, which would later become Providence guard Kris Dunn.

For his part, Butler understood at this point more than ever that his role within the organization was precarious.

7. June 27, 2016: Words and actions

After selecting Denzel Valentine in the draft, Forman uttered the phrase that will be etched on the 2016-17 Bulls' tombstone. Forman said the Bulls wanted to get "younger and more athletic." Then, a few days later, the Bulls came to terms with 30-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo and followed that up by signing 34-year-old Dwyane Wade.

The Bulls played up the fact that Rondo was coming to Chicago having just led the league by averaging 11.7 assists a game and shooting a then career-high 36.5 percent from beyond the arc. But Rondo's well-documented issues off the floor at his previous NBA stops seemed like a strange fit for a team that was trying to find unity. Wade certainly didn't fit the type of player that would work best with Hoiberg's system: He was just 7-for-44 beyond the arc in the 2015-16 season. Neither player fit the "younger and more athletic" mantra.

As much as Forman tried to spin that the Bulls had been planning for weeks to try to land Wade, the reality was that the organization, according to sources, was shocked that Wade's relationship with Miami Heat czar Pat Riley had devolved to a point that the Bulls had the opportunity to sign him. With the Bulls' front office still unclear on whether it wanted to move forward with Butler, the idea of remaining relevant with Wade instead of a total rebuild proved too enticing to pass up.

Wade signed a two-year deal that included a player option in the second season worth almost $24 million. He was charming during his opening news conference in late July, explaining how he had always dreamed of playing back home in Chicago for the team he cheered as a kid. He also made it clear in his first public comments that it was "Jimmy's team," a distinction the organization knew was important to the All-Star swingman. Butler, who was in town as part of a pre-Olympic tour with Team USA, smiled as he watched from the back of the team's practice facility.

The Bulls started off the 2016-17 campaign 11-7, and Butler and Wade developed a fast friendship. Pictures of the Bulls going out on team-bonding events started to pop up on social media with smiling faces all around. One night in Salt Lake City, the team went to see the movie "Bleed for This." In Denver, it was a group excursion to an amusement complex.

But the good times wouldn't last. Rondo, who was suspended for a game in early December after exchanging words with assistant coach Jim Boylen and allegedly whipping a towel in his face, was benched for five games after playing in just one half of a loss to the Pacers on Dec. 30. Rondo later explained that the coaching staff said that he wasn't playing fast enough. Rondo disagreed. The Bulls languished around .500 for the rest of January before a fateful night against the Hawks that left the organization in pieces.

8. Jan. 26, 2017: The team meeting

After the Bulls blew a 12-point lead to the Atlanta Hawks, Wade chastised teammates after the game. A team meeting was called for the next morning.

"These games are supposed to hurt," Wade had said after the loss. "I don't know if that is in guys in this locker room. Hopefully they can prove me wrong, but I will challenge them to see if losses like this hurt. We can play bad, we can miss shots, but we're having too many of these lapses. We're having too many of these losses. This just can't be acceptable if you want to do something besides have an NBA jersey on and make some money. That's all we're doing around here."

Then he told reporters to head over to Butler's nearby locker so he could unleash some words of his own. "M-----f-----s just got to care if we win or lose," Butler said. "At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the T. Be a star in your role, man. That's how you win in this league."

Several younger players took to social media to defend themselves, and so did Rondo. "My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team," he said of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in an Instagram post. "My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don't deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it's the leadership."

The team meeting, which occurred the next morning, had the Bulls reeling.

Gibson, an affable forward who got along with everybody, had the respect of Wade, Butler and Rondo. Now, as the season threatened to rip apart, he spoke up for the first time, and, according to several people in attendance at the meeting, his words reverberated the most. Just remember that time before you went to the draft or before you got to college and how you were. Most of us come from nothing. So we got to appreciate this like it's our last day.

Gibson used the word "intense" to describe the proceedings. "When I said what I said, it hit and they understood what I meant."

After the meeting was over, Wade said, "If I was concerned about being liked, I wouldn't have said what I said the other night. ... Winning cures all. I just want to see us win. ... It's just about our approach to the game as a team. Are we giving everything we have as a team? If we are, then we are who we are."

The next day, during a post-practice session with the media, Gibson revealed that young players told Wade they wanted him to practice more. According to multiple sources, several young players spoke up in the meeting, voicing their displeasure with Wade in how he called them out.

From that weekend on, Wade mostly kept to himself, aside from Butler and some sporadic interactions with other players. Wade, Butler and Rondo were fined after their public remarks, but the organization's decision to bench Wade and Butler for the start of the Jan. 27 loss to the Heat angered both All-Stars, sources say.

9. Feb. 23, 2017: The heart of the team departs

As the trade deadline approaches, Butler's name again surfaces in rumors, but it is Gibson who is sent elsewhere -- to the Thunder, along with Doug McDermott and a future second-round pick in exchange for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne.

Those in the Bulls' front office knew it was unlikely they would give Gibson a big-money extension in the summer, so they decided to move on, but his departure was felt by many on a personal level, including Butler.

"One thing you could count on Taj, he was coming in bright-spirited every day," Butler said after the deal. "Any day that I walked in pissed off or sad or whatever it may be, all you got to do is look at Taj, man. Taj is always smiling. That's what we're going to miss. He did all the little things for us and played extremely hard. But I think the person that he was -- that's what's going to be missed."

The leadership void left by Gibson's departure meant Rondo, Wade and Butler would have to pick up even more slack internally, but the fractures even between the three veterans never fully healed.

This point was on display after an April 5 practice at Temple University. While it's not uncommon for teams to break into smaller groups after practice to get some shots up, the juxtaposition of Butler and Wade shooting baskets on one side of the floor while Rondo and the rest of the Bulls were on the other end getting work in was striking.

As Hoiberg continued to try to find his footing within the locker room, it became clearer that the Bulls had more issues than ever. Besides the ongoing drama between the three veterans, younger players such as McDermott, Michael Carter-Williams, Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic and Valentine weren't showing the type of growth the organization had hoped. Hoiberg did not look as if he was enjoying his new surroundings -- as the stress from the losses and the issues off the court built up. Not only was it becoming apparent the young coach was struggling with the transition from college to the pros but it also was becoming clear that Forman and Paxson's most recent draft picks weren't panning out.

Rondo underwent a resurgence on the floor, which began when he was reinserted into the starting lineup on March 13, scoring 20 points in a win over the Hornets. The Bulls sneaked into the playoffs, finishing 41-41 on the season, the beneficiaries of a tiebreaker over Wade's former team, the Heat.

The Bulls shocked the league by winning the first two games of their first-round series against the Boston Celtics, but a fractured thumb in Game 2, and ongoing wrist issues, knocked Rondo out for the rest of the series and derailed the Bulls' chances. They would not win another game.

10. June 22, 2017: Another big exit, another reboot

After exchanging multiple phone calls on draft day, the Bulls and Timberwolves agree on a deal that sends Butler and the rights to the 16th pick (which the Timberwolves use to select Creighton's Justin Patton) to Minnesota in exchange for Zach LaVine, Dunn and the rights to the seventh pick (which the Bulls use to select Arizona product Lauri Markkanen). A year to the day after Rose was traded, it is Butler's turn to move on.

The Bulls were criticized in some corners of the league and by a portion of their own fan base for not getting more in return for the team's best player. Paxson chuckles now at the notion the Bulls didn't take the best offer they were given.

"Teams would call us all the time and probe about Jimmy and that type of thing," Paxson says. "But no one ever made us any type of legitimate offer. In fact, most teams, when they would make an offer, it was somewhat insulting. So we always listened, which teams do, but it really came down to, could we start to rebuild with some quality young players? And hope that knowing what our future holds, it's going to be painful at times. But if we get into these next few drafts at a fairly significant level, the hope is that pairing what draft picks we have going forward and the players that we got in this deal, we can get back sooner rather than later."

There was a sense of excitement with the team's offices about the new beginning. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Butler sat in Paris with Wade and some other friends as he wrapped his mind around everything that had occurred.

"I guess being called the face of an organization isn't as good as I thought," Butler told the Chicago Sun-Times the day after the deal. "We all see where being the so-called face of the Chicago Bulls got me. So let me be just a player for the Timberwolves ... "

"Whatever they want to call me ... face ... I don't even want to get into that anymore. Whose team is it? All that means nothing. You know what I've learned? Face of the team, eventually you're going to see the back of his head as he's leaving town, so no thanks."

Butler wasn't the only one venting frustration after the deal went down. So did his trainer Travelle Gaines, unleashing a social media missile by blasting Forman on Twitter: "0-82.worst culture in the league.I met drug dealers with better morals then their GM. He is a liar and everyone knows."

Forman and Paxson defended their communication with Butler, believing they had been honest about the possibility of a potential deal. "It's never easy to part with any talent, but we were in that position of definitively defining our direction, which we had not really been able to do really since the Derrick injury, to be honest with you. We were always just trying to plug holes and patchwork things, and that was difficult, so this gives us an opportunity to not even look back anymore."

The Butler deal marked the end of an era. As Paxson made the deal, he knew it meant some potentially lean years ahead.

"The difficulty and pains comes when your young guys are out there during an NBA season and they're competing but they're not winning games," he says. "The challenge for us as an organization ... is to maintain a positive belief that this is just the start of something."

The Butler deal also served as a public healing of sorts between Thibodeau and the Bulls' front office. "Tom and I have spoken since after the deal," Paxson says. "There's always fault on both ends when something like that ends the way that it did. So we accept our responsibility, and I'm certain Tom does too. You always feel bad when that happens, but when you're now looking forward, which we were doing and obviously Minnesota's doing the same thing, you're looking at the direction you want for your team and what's best for your team."

11. Sept. 27, 2017: Unity, in another city

The Cavaliers announce the signing of Wade, who had agreed to a contract buyout from the Bulls. He reunites with his former Heat teammate James and will play in the backcourt alongside none other than former Bulls star Rose, who signed with the Cavs in July.

Wade surprised no one in the Bulls' organization by picking up his player option back in June for almost $24 million. The only surprise came the night before media day when Wade and the Bulls came to a buyout so both parties could go their separate ways.

"We understood that Dwyane, at this stage, wants to try and play for a contending team," Paxson said after the Wade buyout became official. "When both sides can agree that it's probably best in that situation, then something can happen."

The Bulls ended up paying Wade close to $39 million for one season. As much as Paxson tried to put a positive spin on the amicable divorce, the reality was that the decision to sign Wade never paid off for the organization.

12. Oct. 17, 2017: The punch heard around the league

Bobby Portis and Mirotic get into an altercation in practice that leaves Mirotic with a concussion and facial fractures. Portis is suspended eight games by the Bulls, while Mirotic is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

Two years of playing against each other in practice and competing for the same minutes finally reaches a boiling point between the two underachieving young players. After going back and forth all day, Portis throws a punch that knocks Mirotic out and leaves him writhing on the floor. Members of the organization are shocked by what is unfolding in front of them. Since training camp opened, Hoiberg played up the fact that his young team is competing hard against each other and trying to get better. Now, the embattled coach is left to answer how a back-and-forth between two players could spin so far out of control.

"I've been a part of this thing as a player," Hoiberg says. "I've seen altercations happen every year, every week, every month. You see things that happen on the floor. When's the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on where you had that competitive spirit; you have to have it if you're going to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don't know."

Paxson acknowledges that the situation is "unprecedented" but affirms the organization will stand behind both players.

The punch, and the damage it causes, only raises the same question to many across the league: As has been the case throughout Hoiberg's tenure, skeptics wonder how much control does he actually have on his team?


Even when the Bulls try to stay under the national radar, it seems they find a way to make news. And there are certainly more questions than answers about their future. Yet despite the tension surrounding the organization's past few years, the main characters in the Bulls' most recent renaissance speak fondly of their time together.

"That team gave everything they had," Thibodeau says of his time in Chicago. "I think it resonated with the city, the organization was great. So, when you look back, was it perfect? No, but nothing is." He adds, "Ultimately, we didn't win the championship. But we felt like we gave everything we had but there were no regrets in the end, and that's something we all could be proud of."

After not speaking for more than a year, Noah and Butler patched things up this summer during some training sessions in California, according to sources. Noah says he and Rose still talk about how much they miss some of the good times they had with Thibodeau and their teammates in Chicago.

"I know I never would have gotten those awards [including Defensive Player of the Year in 2014] without Jimmy Butler, without Taj Gibson," Noah says. "I'll probably look back on my basketball career and say, 'You know what? Those were the best times in my life.' ... We definitely had our differences. But at the end of the day, Taj, Jimmy, Pooh [Rose], all those guys are brothers for life."

Butler lists the lessons he'll carry with him from his days in Chicago: "People are going to like you, people aren't going to like you, people are going to talk. You can't always listen to what people are going to tell you. Control what you can control. Go out there and be the best player that you can be. Be the best teammate that you can be. And just play hard. ... You win, nobody has anything but good things to say about you. When you don't, that's when you're a problem. Or you have a problem with somebody else, or with anybody. That's what I've learned here."

"We had 60-win seasons," Noah says. "We would go into summers, like, really believing that we could win a championship. That's rare. ... So yeah, I miss that grind with those guys, believing that we had a shot of winning a championship. That was the best. Believing that you can win a championship is the best."

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