The Bulls’ recent rough stretch may have prematurely ended a once promising Bulls season. How did they get here, and will it get better?
At least the Chicago Bulls didn’t drop a fifth straight game in this final stretch of the season, beating the Indiana Pacers 98-96 last night after four straight soul-crushing defeats—two to the New York Knicks, Saturday night’s dismantling by the hapless Orlando Magic, and Monday’s heartbreaker to the Atlanta Hawks.
But unfortunately, despite the fight they’ve shown the last two games, the Bulls recent four-game losing streak may have effectively ended their season with 8 games still left, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
Coming into last week’s home-and-home series with the Knicks, the Bulls had already put themselves in a position where they more or less had to win out to save their season with tough contests with Atlanta (lost), Cleveland, and Miami still on their schedule.
That fourth-straight loss to the Hawks two nights ago knocked the Bulls’ odds of reaching the postseason down to 10.4%; the Detroit Pistons, the team they’re trying to catch for that 8th and final Eastern Conference seed, has a 78.2% chance of clinching a postseason berth, and the Washington Wizards (12.7%), while being tied in the loss column with Chicago, own the tiebreaker with the Bulls.
Aside from games against the Pacers (whom they just beat) and the Pistons themselves, the Bulls have no way of directly shaving their current deficit and must hope that, in addition to them winning the rest of their games, Detroit and Washington both stumble.
And then, should they manage to overcome the swiftly dwindling odds and fight their way into the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference that they have gained, lost, and regained again at least three times in the past month, they would get at least four dates with their own personal playoff bane—LeBron James—to get the playoffs started. Good luck.
To say the least, the 2015-16 campaign has not gone according to plan for the Bulls. They came into this season expecting to build on last year’s second-round loss to LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers, hoping that a new offensive-minded coach, a rapidly improving Jimmy Butler, a healthy Derrick Rose, another stellar year from Pau Gasol, and improvement from their young role players would propel them to their first championship since the Jordan days.
After starting the season 22-12, they have since been arguably the biggest disappointment in the league, losing 25 of their next 39 games and playing themselves out of the postseason picture.
Injuries have certainly been a factor in the Bulls’ struggles, but saying that health problems are the only reason this team isn’t in the upper echelon of the East would ignore some really obvious issues.
The offense that was supposed be the strength of this team under first-year coach Fred Hoiberg has been inconsistent, as people not named Rose or Butler still can’t create their own shot; and of course, those two don’t seem to be able to function properly together.
In fact, if you want to compare stats, the Bulls offensive rating is actually significantly worse this year than it was last year (108.5 vs. 105.1), dropping from 10th in the league to 24th—that’s 7th worst in the league.
The once-rugged defense under Tom Thibodeau, while statistically being middle of the pack (106.7 vs. 105.11 last year, dropping from 11th to 15th), has been completely awful at times. There have been multiple games this season—Saturday night’s 111-83 waxing by the Magic, for example—in which the Bulls haven’t even looked competitive.
Needless to say, no one expected a consistently scrappy, high-energy team to suddenly become a group that has no problems taking nights off, particularly with a postseason berth on the line, after just one season.
The low-hanging fruit would be to criticize the firing of Thibodeau, the grind-it-out defensive guru, last offseason in favor of someone with a more offensive-oriented philosophy—the Bulls eventually settled on Hoiberg, the former Iowa State head coach. But let’s be honest here: the GarPax-Thibodeau marriage was unstable even when the team was near the top of the conference/surviving admirably in those 2012, 2013 seasons without Rose.
Once it became clear that Thibs could take this team no further—whether because he whittled players’ bodies down to the nub with excessive minutes in meaningless regular season games, leaving them moving like the walking dead in the playoffs, or because he just couldn’t solve LeBron in the playoffs—a change of direction was warranted. But the type of change expected was one simply from a more half-court, grinding team with offensive deficiencies to a more average defensive team that could beat people with high-powered offense. They weren’t supposed to become torturous to watch at a time when they were projected to fight for a top 3 seed in the playoffs.
Perhaps it’s not totally unexpected that the Bulls would suffer some identity crises this season, having to adjust from an uncompromising, incredibly intense head coach to a markedly more soft-spoken rookie coach finding his way in the league. Why else would Jimmy Butler essentially demand that Hoiberg yell at them more often?
Also, maybe Hoiberg could have tried sticking more closely to Thibodeau’s offensive system—a slower paced half-court offense that actually mirrors his grind-it-out approach to half-court defense—rather than pushing for a fast-paced, free-flowing offense that works against the natural comfort zone of this current roster as well as exacerbates the defensive issues.
To draw a parallel to the unintended consequences of football coach Chip Kelly’s offensive schemes: increasing the number of offensive possessions, as well as shortening the duration of said possessions, results in correspondingly more defensive possessions for the team. And especially when Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, or Nikola Mirotic are on the floor, the repercussions of Hoiberg’s philosophy can be really glaring.
Perhaps this philosophy just needs more time—and different personnel—to blossom into something more effective, but the early returns have not lived up to expectations.
But just blaming the head coach seems to absolve the players of the lion’s share of the blame, and let’s be clear: they do deserve that blame. Bad, undisciplined defense is largely effort-based; either you’re committed to playing active defense or you aren’t…
While that reflects badly on a coach—Thibodeau would have had an aneurysm midway through the season—the only person that truly controls a player’s effort is that individual player. Though offensive stagnation has been discussed as a scheme-related issue, don’t forget to look at the best players on this team, Butler and Rose, and the effect that their “my-turn” kind of play can grind the offense to a halt. Case in point: with the Bulls down 94-93 and under a minute left last night, Butler and Rose teamed up to kill one possession—Butler by picking up his dribble in a corner and Rose by attempting a contested layup on two Hawks after wasting the shot clock—and then Butler squandered the very next one by taking a bad 3-pointer with 14 seconds on the shot clock.
Butler’s 4-point play a moment later doesn’t make up for the fact that he and Rose didn’t do a good job of promoting efficient, winning basketball. Opponents have even noted that when only one of them (or neither of them) or on the floor, the Bulls exhibit better ball movement and more effective offense.
The only problem with taking that notion and immediately trying to rid of both players: without Butler and/or Rose, the 2015-16 Bulls might have been lucky to win 30 games. That leads into the next point…
Where there are complaints about the roster, anger with the front office is not far behind. Perhaps even more so this year than in years past, the call for the heads of Gar Forman and John Paxson have grown louder. Though it is highly unlikely that they lose their jobs following this offseason, it is certainly fair to wonder whether those two have the ability to construct a champion.
The coaching change they orchestrated has not gone over well so far, though that still has the potential to change. The championship window for this particular core has likely closed, and yet GarPax did not attempt to acquire more picks in the upcoming draft or useful future pieces at the trade deadline, working under the (even then) misguided assumption that they “had enough” to win a championship this year. And they likely will have to replace Gasol this offseason and, in all likelihood, Derrick Rose in 2017, if he makes it through next season with the team.
In short, whether you want to look at the coaching, the players, or the front office, there simply is no rosy outlook for the duration of this Bulls season. If they really wanted to play in this year’s postseason, they needed to start winning last week, not last night; the recent four-game slide they just got off of may have already rendered their postseason hopes null and void.
However, whether the Bulls miss the playoffs or scrap their way to an 8th seed only to promptly go home for the summer after a week with the Cavaliers, they will end this season the way they began it: looking for their first title since 1998. The question then becomes: how long is it going to remain that way?