By Adewale Apata
When searching through the Bulls 52 year history, you’ll find that most of their greatest players were acquired through the draft. Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, Artis Gilmore, Jimmy Butler and Toni Kukoc were all drafted by Chicago. Then there’s a couple more guys that the Bulls acquired through a trade who are definitely on the top 10 list of greatest Bulls of all-time, Bob Love from the Bucks and Dennis Rodman from the Spurs. Also, a draft night trade which is the best trade in Bull’s history as Jerry Krause traded Olden Polynice for Scottie Pippen during the 1987 NBA Draft.
But you’ll have a tough time finding great Bulls who were acquired via free agency. There’s two requirements that a player must fulfill in order to make the greatest Bulls of all-time, acquired through free agency list:
- This top 5 list does not factor in how the player performed prior to joining the Bulls or what he did after he left Chicago. This list only takes into consideration how the man performed as a Chicago Bull.
- The player had to play at least 2 seasons for the Chicago Bulls.
Without further ado, here’s the list of the Chicago Bulls top 5 players of all-time, acquired through free agency.
#5. Ron Harper –Before signing with the Bulls, Harper was a dynamic scorer with the Cavaliers and Clippers averaging 19 points. But his offensive role reduced dramatically after signing with the Bulls in the summer of 1994 as Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc were the main scoring options while Michael Jordan was taking some swings in the White Sox minor leagues. Harper’s role on the team became even less significant when Jordan came back wearing #45 on March 19, 1995.
However, when the Bulls were eliminated by the Orlando Magic in the 1995 playoffs, Phil Jackson got an idea on how to use Ron Harper. In an interview with nba.com’s Ian Thomsen, Ron Harper said, “When we got to the playoffs and we played Penny Hardaway, a big guard, Phil said, ‘You’re going to start. I want you to guard Penny.’” In the next season, the Bulls had a record breaking 72 wins, swept the Magic and won their 4th NBA Championship.
Harper’s statistical output significantly declined due to him averaging 16.5 shot attempts with the Cavs and Clippers but all the way down to 6.5 with Jordan and Pippen on his team. His recovery from ACL surgery prior to joining the Bulls also slowed him down. But his re-focused energy on the defensive end to contain the tall 6-7 superstar point guard Penny Hardaway and his harassment of hall of fame caliber smaller point guards like John Stockton, Gary Payton and Tim Hardaway with his 6-6 frame helped the Bulls establish themselves into a lockdown defensive squad on all levels.
#4. Steve Kerr – The sharpshooting Kerr is the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-point percentage with 45.4% and he shot 46.6% from downtown as a Bull. His presence in the Bulls second 3-peat run allowed Jordan, Pippen and Kukoc plenty of space to operate with due to the opponent’s reluctance to double team and leave Kerr open. John Stockton made that mistake in the closing seconds of game 6 during the 1997 NBA Finals when he left Kerr open to double Jordan then came the assist to arguably the best spot up shooter of all-time to give Chicago their 5th ring in 7 years.
In the closing seconds of game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Stockton wisely decided not to leave Kerr to double Jordan. But Byron Russell was left on an one-on-one island with the greatest hooper of all-time and Jordan flamed that jumper in his face to hand the Bulls their 6th championship. After tough times with Cleveland and Orlando, Steve Kerr resurrected his career in Chicago and played a significant role in the Bulls second 3-peat.
#3. John Paxson – Some Bulls fans may think John Paxson was always a Bull during his career in the NBA but he played 2 years with the Spurs before signing with Chicago in 1985. You might be wondering why Paxson is ranked ahead of Kerr on this list? The answer is, Johnny Pax was better than Kerr in the Playoffs. Steve Kerr was a better regular season player than Paxson averaging 8 points, 50% from the field and 46% form downtown vs Paxson’s 7 points, 49% from the field and 36% from downtown. But Steve Kerr’s level of play dropped off in the playoffs as he averaged 5 points, shot 43% from the field and 37% from the 3-point line. While Paxson’s level of play remained consistent in the payoffs as he averaged 6 points, shot 49% from the field and 38% from the 3-point line.
Both guys have game winning shots to clinch a NBA title under their belt: Kerr’s game winner vs the Jazz in the 1997 Finals and Paxson’s game winner vs the Suns in the 1993 Finals. But John Paxson had more clutch moments than Steve Kerr in the playoffs. Paxson led the league in 3-point percentage for the 1993 NBA Playoffs by shooting an astounding 62.5%! Also, I’ll never forget how Paxson caught fire in Los Angeles vs the Lakers in game 5 of the NBA Finals by shooting 75% from the field while scoring 20 points. That clutch performance helped the Bulls celebrate their 1st ever championship.
#2. Carlos Boozer – The Booz Cruise gets a lot of flak in Chicago due to his lack of ability or effort on the defensive end. However, he was a solid offensive threat as a starting power forward on the Bulls best team since their dynasty ended in 1998. The Bulls finally made it to the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 playoffs and Boozer averaged 17 points, 9 rebounds and shot 51% from the field that season. Booz played his low post scorer role well with the Bulls for 4 seasons.
#1. Pau Gasol – During the summer of 2014, Bulls fans were getting excited with the anticipation that Carmelo Anthony would join D. Rose, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah. But just like other superstar free agents in the past, he was just using the Bulls to ink a bigger contract from the Knicks. So, the Bulls turned their attention to the 34 year old Pau Gasol.
Gasol was pass his prime but he still put up some very respectable numbers in his 2 years as a Bull. Pau Gasol averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assist and 2 blocks and made the all-star team in both his years in Chicago. He’s the best player acquired through free agency in the 52 year history of the Chicago Bulls.
Will the summer of 2019 finally be the year that the Bulls sign an all-star caliber free agent in his prime? Or do they have to stick with just finding great players through the draft and trades? The Bulls must develop their young core of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. because according to the Bulls history books, help is not on the way through free agency.
Basketball reference. (2018). Sports Reference. Retrieved from https://www.basketball-reference.com/
Carlos Boozer. (2012). Retrieved from https://hellisotherblogs.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/carlos-boozer-raps/
John Paxson. (1993). Retrieved from http://www.nba.com/top-nba-finals-moments-john-paxson-jumper-game-6-1993-finals
Kerr Shot versus Utah Jazz. [Tom Cruze/AP]. (1997). Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/basketball/bulls/ct-bulls-steve-kerr-nba-finals-spt-0611-20170610-story.html
Ron Harper. (1998). Retrieved from https://www.stutteringhelp.org/content/ron-harper
Pau Gasol. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.hoopsrumors.com/2016/07/spurs-pau-gasol-finalizing-agreement.html
Steve Kerr in Bulls Pin Stripes. (1996). Retrieved from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/519673244473941160/
Thomsen, T. (2015). “Harper Recalls Change from Scorer to Role-Playing Winner” www.nba.com/2015/news/features/ian_thomsen/02/25/ron-harper-once-lived-kevin-loves-tough-transition