It was fully 16 and a half months ago that I called for the Chicago Bulls to get themselves their own NBA D-League team. It was August 2013, still two months before Derrick Rose would return after tearing his ACL and about three and a half months before he would tear his meniscus in Portland. At the time, I bemoaned the lack of development of a Bulls’ first round pick who had seen sporadic minutes in his rookie season and seemed like he would benefit from a stint in the D-League in his second season.
16 and a half months later, here we are again.
Tony Snell has not been good this season. He was not good last season and he’s somehow been worse so far this season. He’s barely been able to get on the floor outside of garbage time and he can’t put the ball in the basket when he does. I do not deny this.
I do, however, believe that the current state of the Bulls is holding him back.
Tom Thibodeau wants to win every game. That’s not entirely a bad thing, since it has led him to win a lot more games than he’s lost since taking over the Bulls in 2010. But there are some drawbacks, namely playing his starters too many minutes (well documented) and not allowing younger players to play through their mistakes.
Tony Snell (like Marquis Teague before him, and James Johnson before him, and so on) is not going to help Thibs win games playing like he is. But he’s also not going to get any better if Thibs doesn’t let him on the court. (Same goes for Doug McDermott, though he’d probably be fine if he could just hit a few shots here and there.) This is the classic conundrum faced by any good team. Insofar as the Bulls are concerned, their options seem to be either play Snell (or whoever) more and live with whatever his shortcomings are or staple him to the bench. But that willfully ignores the option of sending him to the D-League.
Now, there are a couple of caveats: First, the Bulls share the Fort Wayne Mad Ants with 12 other NBA teams, because 13 NBA teams are too dumb to take full advantage of the D-League as a resource. This makes it hard to get excited about sending your players down to develop, because a young guy who’s struggling to grasp what’s expected of him under Thibs probably won’t immediately adjust to a new coach and a new system and new teammates. Not to mention that you’d have to reintegrate him upon his return. That’s a problem.
Second, the Bulls have actually used the D-League in the past, so I’m being a little unfair by saying they’re ignoring it entirely. It’s just that they use it as an absolute last resort — Johnson and Teague both played briefly for the Iowa Energy, the Bulls’ former affiliate, and both were traded not long thereafter — and can’t be bothered to invest the resources to build their own affiliate. Is a D-League team a moneymaking venture? No. Is it as sexy as spending $130 million combined on David Robertson, Zach Duke, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera? No. Will it pay off in the long run? I believe it will, yes.
The Bulls couldn’t be bothered to invest in Marquis Teague’s development, and therefore traded him for Toko Shengelia, who never got off the bench for the Bulls before he was waived so the Bulls could sign three other guys who never played before being waived. They couldn’t be bothered to invest in Erik Murphy, their 2013 second rounder, and waived him after not playing him ever. Would those two have developed into anything if the Bulls had a D-League team? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ll never know, and they sure as hell didn’t develop into anything under the status quo.
There are some players who can develop basically on their own. Witness Jimmy Butler. But expecting every player to figure it out like that is silly, and the Bulls should know better. By refusing to properly develop young talent, they’re just hurting their future teams.