Bulls Break(down) Came Long Before All-Star Weekend
CHICAGO, IL — The Chicago Bulls hit the break with no All-Stars, a record of 14-44 (good for 13th in the East) and a myriad of issues. But the reality is their breakdown occurred long before the NBA annual mid-season hiatus.
They came into the season with questions of talent and roster fits. Coaching was an issue that has only been exacerbated by Jim Boylen taking over for Fred Hoiberg. And the front office’s greatest strength has become their biggest detriment.
Chicago entered the 2018-19 season with renewed hope of future success. They were entering the second year of their latest rebuild – there have been several in the past 15 years – and it finally seemed like they were starting to repair their image in the eyes of free agents with the signing of Jabari Parker.
Well, that rebuild is still stuck at square-one as the ‘core’ has not had significant enough time playing together to truly evaluate if they actually play well together. And Parker has been shipped out for Otto Porter after the Bulls apparently forgot who they were signing.
Injuries have hurt as every member of the Bulls young nucleus has missed significant time throughout the season. It has not always looked like a functioning unit even when they do all play, though. And the tea-leaves suggest who management sees as the next domino to fall.
The Bulls top-two scorers, Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen (Porter has only played in four games as a Bull) both thrive with the ball in their hands. Kris Dunn is an attacking, downhill type of player who lacks a consistent outside shot, as evidenced by his .339 average on 1.8 attempts per game.
Because they lack consistent outside shooting from the point, defenses are able to clog the lanes, preventing the drives off shot-fakes that (should) make both Lavine and Markkanen dangerous. This is also the reason there has been renewed talk of moving Lavine to point, a position he has played with success in the past.
That makes sense if the Bulls were to select a guard such as RJ Barrett or Cam Reddish in the draft. But signs seem to point to them looking at Ja Morant of Murray State. Bulls boss John Paxson has not committed to Dunn and Morant’s buzz is building.
The sophomore is a better athlete and scorer than Dunn. He is not necessarily a better shooter, but he is certainly a more willing participant, particularly from three-point range. Morant’s numbers are far superior to any that Dunn has put up even in college.
Dunn is not without his strengths. For one he is a hard-nosed competitor, a theme we will circle back to later. Conversely, Morant is not without question marks. ‘Why did he bloom late’ and ‘is he good enough to take over Duke trio Barrett, Reddish, and (likely top-pick) Zion Williamson’ being chief among them.
Two Coaches, One Season, Zero Solutions
When Chicago fired Hoiberg and elevated Boylen, Paxson cited ‘lack of competitive spirit’ by the players, adding it was not about wins and losses. The problem with that is even those who wanted Hoiberg gone knew he was not working with a full complement of assets.
Frame that with the Bulls regression post-Fred and their extremely early commitment to Boylen for the 2019-20 season and you get a glimpse into how they have become the butt of jokes around the Association. Such turmoil – Paxson has hired and fired five coaches – is a never a good look.
More damning is the blatant pattern that the hiring and subsequent firings have shown. The hard-coaching grinder followed by the more laid back, players coach and then back again. There is no right answer as to which is the better style, but the Bulls seem to be off in their pairing of coach and roster.
As noted, even his staunchest detractors would say Hoiberg was never really given a chance. He came from Iowa State as a first-time NBA head coach but was saddled with a veteran squad. Then the Bulls get the makings of lineup suited for Hoiberg’s pace and space offense but two months after firing him.
Boylen is more in the mold of Tom Thibodeau. Longtime NBA assistants with ties to top-tier coaches, brought in to tighten the reigns. The difference is Thibs came from outside, whereas Boylen has been with the Bulls since 2015. If he was not effective as ‘bad cop’, how can he be so as ‘top cop’?
That is what makes the commitment to him for next season seem so premature. You pay him as your head coach, sure. But if you have already gained a reputation for organizational instability in such a critical area, why paint yourself into that corner?
In fairness, the last time the Bulls had success with a coach like Boylen, he (Thibs) was given time to mold the team in his image. Perhaps the biggest thing working in the current coaches favor is, despite the early uprising, Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr were not among those upset by the coaches tactics.
Chicago is clearly banking on the hope that if they were able to get a meeting with a free agent, they could wow them in person. Their interactions with media and the stories going around about their perception signal a change in their situation changing anytime soon in that regard.
Paxson Both Problem and Solution
For years the Bulls front office has gotten the most out if their draft positioning. That is the result of sound scouting and player development. But it is also a necessary function of their reluctance to bottom out to maximize their potential in the draft.
They have been competitive for the better part of Paxson’s tenure, no doubt. But with only one appearance in the Conference Finals since MJ left town, something has to give. That does not mean a change in the people running the show, though there are many with that perspective. It does mean a change in approach.
Chicago has had a positive offensive rating (relative to the rest of the league) four times in the last 21 years. They have had a positive defensive rating 11 times over that same time frame with Paxson in control for the vast majority.
Paxson has shown a clear ability to identify players but he and his coaches have had tumultuous relationships by their end. It can not continue to be everyone around without assessment of the person bringing these coaches in.
Again, that is not to suggest Paxson remove himself from the position. But perhaps the best move would be to identify executive talent well as he does draft prospects. He then needs to get out of the way. Who knows if he is micromanaging, but he does more harm to himself than good with surly press conferences and interviews
They also need to dedicate themselves to rebuilding this thing from the ground up. They need to do whatever possible to get a top-three pick. They have avoided the temptation to pivot towards a playoff push, but they do not take it far enough.
Robin Lopez should have been bought out after failing to find a trade partner for him. But for whatever reason, maybe competitiveness, not only has the Bulls brain trust not moved him, they will not and have not sat him or reduced his playing time. That could be a costly mistake.
Then there is Doug Collins. The one-time Bulls coach and NBA lifer returned to the organization in 2017 as a Senior Advisor. Fans hoped he would be able to help, even if it meant sitting on the sidelines again. At some point, though, he too will cease to be thought of as separate from the madness on Madison Ave.