Today on Punching the Clock, my old co-host returns and we discuss the current events of Chicago sports. John Paxson of the Bulls has some interesting news for us to dive into. We discuss Cubs/Sox and Bears as well.
T for 3: Wilder-Fury, Sox/Cubs Spring Training, and Bulls Should Get Rid of Who?
On the debut of ‘T for 3’, Tyler looks back on Saturday’s Fury-Wilder fight, talks Cubs/Sox spring training, and suggests the Bulls part with a key figure.
Season of Woe Winding Down
That is all well and good. Except you have all been hoodwinked, bamboozled…you get the point. The Bulls, as predicted here, somewhat abandoned their tanking efforts and strung together a respectable run after the All-Star break. That was followed by a five-game skid that reminded everyone of what the goal was supposed to be. Then there is the question of personnel with regards to who is really part of the plan long-term for this team.
‘Tank’ was the word for the Bulls entering the season and at the outset, things seemed to be trending that way. Fred Hoiberg was replaced with Boylen. Then the front office committed to Boylen in the midst of what was being reported at the time as a mutiny of sorts. Through half of their games, the Bulls had only 10 wins and seemed destined for a top-3 pick. That is significant with the new NBA Draft Lottery rules. With a mere 14 wins at the break, it seemed intentional intervention was the only way Chicago would fall out of the bottom three.
Kris Dunn will not be a Chicago Bull next season. That much has become painfully clear. Not only have Bulls execs openly challenged and questioned the third-year pro, but reports have also surfaced about the team’s scouting of Murray State sophomore standout, Ja Morant. On top of all of that, Dunn’s best games all come with Lavine sidelined; just like his 26-13-6 game against the Washington Wizards. However you look at it, Dunn seems to be the odd man out of the young core.
Injuries have struck this team all year so some of their statistical shortcomings are to be expected. It does not explain it all away and that is where Dunn and Boylen come into under scrutiny. Both are touted for what they bring defensively, but neither has lived up to that billing. Players have turned in favor of the embattled coach and teammates have voiced support for Dunn. Neither is a lock to return, but the Bulls have at least told us that the coach will. Meanwhile, Dunn, who was part of the Jimmy Butler trade, has seemingly been showed the door since he arrived.
D Is For…
Bulls Balling, Bail on Bombing
The Chicago Bulls beat the Philadelphia 76ers 108-107 behind 39 points from Zach Lavine. He also had five rebounds and four assists. Most importantly, he ended the game by blocking a lob attempt by the Sixers. Robin Lopez added 19 while Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen had 15 and 11, respectively.
Late Season Surge
Chicago is 5-3 since the All-Star break. It is a modest total, but the team is gelling and can hang their hats on beating two of the top-five teams in the East. The Boston Celtics were at the start of their current slide, but Philly came in on a heater, having won four of six coming into their matchup at the United Center.
Zach is averaging 27-5-5 post-break and Lauri averaged 26 points and 12 boards for the month of February. The Bulls are also 7-3 with Porter (18-5-2) in the lineup. His efficiency (49.6% from the floor, 49% from three) and off-ball prowess fit so well with Lavine and Markkanen’s more ball-dominant styles. Lauri’s ball handling has been on display of late as well.
These are all good things, undoubtedly. But there is still a bitter aftertaste from every win knowing it pushes them closer to locked in for the fourth slot in the lottery. They will still have a shot at the number one pick, but drop in probability is not insignificant. They also run the risk of a farther fall when the ping pong balls drop.
Of course, that depends on who the Bulls have their eyes on. There has been speculation that Murray State point guard Ja Morant would be the target, but Chicago won’t be able to get him after three (and possibly even number two). It was thought to be a foregone conclusion at the start of the year they would be selecting from the trio of Duke players Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, or Cam Reddish. Nbadraft.net, however, has them linked to Gonzaga‘s Rui Hachimura.
At any rate, whomever they pick, they will have put an intriguing young nucleus together. Their ceiling is a complete mystery, but we know GarPax can put together competitive rosters. That Chicago has semi-pivoted on the tank is not a surprise. It is surprising that they held on to vets, namely RoLo. He is averaging 16 points, almost seven boards, two assists, and two blocks per game since All-Star weekend.
This space was used to lament the current status of the Bulls front office and their tendency to abandon rebuilds ahead of schedule. And how their press conferences and interviews are often standoffish. But the fact is they can identify and develop talent. The hope for Bulls fans has to be that that latter set of skills is what is most prominent going forward.
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.
Trade Deadline Reaction
The NBA trade deadline came and went yesterday with a flurry of activity. There were a few distinct winners and losers as well. Deals that were (and were not) made will have a significant impact on the playoffs. At least until the Finals, that is.
Bulls Treat Trade Deadline Like Free Agency
The Chicago Bulls traded forwards Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis along with a future second-round pick for forward Otto Porter from the Washington Wizards just a day before the NBA trade deadline. The move is an admission by the Bulls front office that they were never going match any serious offers to Portis, an impending restricted free-agent. Moreover, the organization acknowledged it has a diminished image in the eyes of free agents. It is a poor state of affairs for a franchise with their history.
One thing that has plagued them is the reluctance to fully commit to a rebuild since trading Derrick Rose. Moving Parker and Portis could (and should) have set up a chance for Chicago to embrace the tank. Instead, the trade for Porter makes them better. It is already a four-way battle for number one with the Bulls fourth on that list. The odds are similar to a top-three pick, but the floor is also lower. Chicago does have the second-toughest remaining schedule of the bottom four teams; behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In an interview on AM 670 WSCR in Chicago, Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson became defensive when faced with questions about the job security of he and GM Gar Forman. It was a standard line of questioning; to which Paxson was obstinate. Both Paxson and Forman have been around long enough to know, eventually, you run out of other people to fire.
Deadline Winners and Losers
Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Milwaukee Bucks went out and flipped big man Thon Maker to the Detroit Pistons for wing Stanley Johnson. His cup of coffee ended when the Bucks shipped him out with Jason Smith to the New Orleans Pelicans for forward Nikola Mirotic. The Greek Freak is a legitimate MVP candidate and adding a sniper like Mirotic (shooting .368 from three this season) to lineups with Brook Lopez (.387) and Khris Middleton (.384) should create wide-open lanes.
Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge got his wish, at least for now. The Pelicans held on to Anthony Davis after their very public courtship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Boston was unable to be a bidder at this juncture, but Davis remaining in New Orleans means the Celtics will be allowed to participate in the A.D.-sweepstakes this summer. Whether or not they can retain him is another story entirely. Ainge is not worrying about that or Kyrie Irving‘s potential exodus, apparently.
Markelle Fultz: This is more of a humanitarian nod than anything. His career has been derailed without ever leaving the station by thoracic outlet syndrome. The Orlando Magic acquiring Fultz gives him a chance to recuperate out of the spotlight and with no pressure. No one knows how the draft or free agency will unfold. But if Fultz can recover – a big if at this point – the Magic may have found their point guard of the future. All of that comes after what figures to still be a lengthy recovery.
Bobby Portis: This should probably be the Bulls. As mentioned Portis went to Washington with Parker for Porter. That was a surprise to fans as well as teammates. Bulls guard Zach Lavine spoke highly of Portis, who is set for restricted free agency. Chicago was not going to match the kind of offers Portis is expected to receive. A claim that Portis did not seem to buy himself. The Bulls will miss his outside shooting (.375 from three) and his toughness.
Philadelphia 76ers: Alright, this one is kind of nitpicky. Philly made one if the best moves before the deadline in acquiring walking-bucket Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. He immediately steps in to give the Sixers, perhaps’ the most talented starting five in the East. The rub is that Milwaukee and the Toronto Raptors also made moves to improve and remain deeper; as do the Celtics. Philly is not going to be channeling their inner Thibs, playing guys 48 minutes. Their sudden lack of depth is concerning for the playoffs.
Feelings: A couple of the biggest rumored deals on the actual day of the deadline did not get done. The Davis trade and trades that would have sent guard Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz or to Toronto (with former teammate Marc Gasol). All were very public (especially the Lakers-Pelicans talks) and now the healing begins. Players whose names were bandied about now have to use it as fuel. The Conley talks revolved around veteran point guards that have all been traded aside from Conley himself. But the Lakers are younger and still growing as players. The win last night over Boston helps even though it came down to a Rajon Rondo buzzer-beating layup.
Nets Work Worth Noting
The Chicago Bulls most recent loss came at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets. The lesson to be learned is not from the loss itself. After all, the Bulls have lost plenty this season as injuries and general dysfunction have not meshed well. A midseason coaching change is also never a goal, yet here Chicago sits at 11-40 (4th worst in the NBA) as rudderless as ever and the butt of jokes around the league.
Brooklyn has gone from perennial punchline to being linked to names like Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving in the past two campaigns. No big signings have come as of yet but not long ago they were, as the Bulls are now, an afterthought for big names seeking new digs. They focused on improving their culture despite their shortcomings on the court.
They have re-entered the ‘destination’ side of the ledger, at least in discussions. That is due to the job started by the hiring of GM Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson in 2016. They dealt with a depleted roster and few viable options for improvement. A year later the Nets acquired an embattled D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brook Lopez and the rights to Kyle Kuzma.
Brooklyn has already tied their win total from last season with 28 and sit sixth in the East. On pace for their first winning season since 2013, it is what Brooklyn has done off the court that bears replicating. The Nets committed to their rebuild. They let players play to their strengths and incorporated a faster-paced system with heavier emphasis on the three-ball.
Bull Market Markedly Bad
If that sounds familiar to Bulls fans that is because it was the logic given for hiring the since-fired Fred Hoiberg. Jim Boylen was installed to instill toughness, simply repeating the cycle that saw Tom Thibodeau replaced by Hoiberg. Chicago has long been perceived as a non-destination for prime free agents. The proper coaching hire could go a long way toward changing that.
Acquiring Russell may have been the most important development in the Nets resurrection and is the most relevant to the Bulls. Reports are Chicago is one of current-Laker Lonzo Ball‘s preferred destinations should he be moved in a trade for Anthony Davis. It has also been reported the New Orleans Pelicans are enamored with Ball but that just adds to the intrigue of him landing in Chicago.
More changes are needed even if the Bulls were to acquire Ball. Not necessarily an entire organizational overhaul; the current regime has done well identifying and developing talent. They struggle to attract outside talent and the dysfunction of this season will certainly not help. They have gotten worse as the season has gone on but the chaos has made it hard to judge the actual talent of this team.
Forward Jabari Parker‘s contract helps make everything work. His play since rejoining the Bulls rotation adds to his appeal. It also helps Chicago save face and preserve their efforts to shed their label of hometown talent not wanting to play here. Now Chicago sits in position to flip what was a questionable contract into a better situation at point guard.
More of the Same
It remains to be seen if the duo of John Paxson and Gar Forman can actually complete a rebuild. The business of sports is “what have you done for me lately” and any remaining goodwill GarPax had evaporated a weeks ago. They admittedly need to hit on this rebuild to remain, but anything short of a mass exodus of fans and players likely means they’ll remain.
Bulls Fans Given Little Hope in Tumultuous Season
Same Old Song
Stop me if you have heard this before, but the Chicago Bulls lost again. I wrote how the NBA is in a really fun place right now with the young talent and intrigue across the league. Not a part of that feel-good aura surrounding the Association, the Bulls. The place where they reside is neither fun nor intriguing; unless of course, you enjoy rubbernecking.
Expectations were not high coming into the season. The second year of a rebuild, a coach with job security questions (he has since been fired), and a roster that, despite some young pieces, is largely devoid of the talent needed to turn around the fortunes of a franchise. They drafted early last year – likely this year as well – but haven’t been the worst team in the standings despite the on-court product.
Not All Bad
That is not to say the front office duo of John Paxson of and Gar Forman have drafted poorly. To the contrary, the embattled pair can actually hang their hat on identifying talent that exceeds their drag slot. They can even claim development as a plus. That is where it ends, however. How they have handled players beyond that has left a lot to be desired.
More concerning is that it has come in a variety of forms. There were players the Bulls had and moved (Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic), players they sold the chance to get (Jordan Bell), even players that hinted at wanting to be in Chicago (Michael Porter Jr.). Granted, there is no guarantee those players would be who they are or that the Bulls would have even known what to with them.
Perception is Reality
Chicago’s inability to string together successes in the draft and free agency, then parlay that into a championship has been omnipresent under this leadership group. In a recent interview on local radio, a former Chicago beat reporter asserted that, around the rest of the NBA, players consider the Bulls a laughing stock.
Half-way through the 2018-19 season – and two coaches in – it is hard to argue those players are wrong. There have been personnel and schematic issues that have continued. Why that is important is because it was fundamentally why Fred Hoiberg was relieved of duty. Under Jim Boylen, the team has played better defensively, but have largely dropped across the board offensively.
Fans Deserve Better
So fans are left to wonder. When will the team be competitive again? They seem committed to being bad this year after denying the need to in the past, but they continue to win games they shouldn’t. It’s bizarre cheering for your team, not necessarily to lose, but definitely not to win. Since they do well on the draft and develop aspect, it makes sense to want them to have their pick of prospects.
This is life at the moment for Bulls fans. It is similar to the Chicago White Sox, also owned by Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and their situation with Kenny Williams. He had a heck if a run, but it is time for a change. The GarPax era has under delivered. Hopefully this coming offseason – yes it is already at that point – brings the sweeping changes. Hopefully, those changes bring another championship.
2018 Bulls are Bad
What is the endgame? That has to be the question on the minds of all Chicago Bulls fans following Wednesday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets that dropped their record to 7-25. This is shaping up to be the worst season since the 1998-99 season; following Michael Jordan‘s retirement. The issue here, however, is this Bulls team did not lose an MJ. They are not coming off of a single championship, let alone a second three-peat. In fact, this Bulls team only won 27 games all last season; 13th in the East.
Building Through The Draft
The thought going into last season was the Bulls would be rebuilding. That is code in 2018 for tanking. Chicago won more games than they should have, ending up taking Wendell Carter Jr with the seventh pick and Chandler Hutchison with the pick acquired in the Nikola Mirotic trade. Carter has been compared to Al Horford; a technician that can fill a variety of roles on offense and anchor a defense. Hutchison was a player the team fell in love with during the pre-draft process; going so far as to guarantee they would select him. Both may become really good players, but the NBA is a superstar driven league.
Top to bottom, this roster is just a collection of secondary and tertiary options playing out of position (Jabari Parker) or in the wrong role (Justin Holiday). The hole at small forward – created by the Jimmy Butler trade – is glaring. Drafting the right prospect is not necessarily the problem for this front office. The Bulls have largely done well on that front, but that is relative. They were a middling playoff team, so they could get by with getting the most out of under-the-radar players. When teams are bad, they must get immediate, high-impact players. Last year’s first-round pick, Lauri Markkanen forms a talented and dynamic duo with Carter Jr in the frontcourt, but that is where the hype ends.
Rumors swirled over the summer that, behind closed doors, the Bulls are not completely sold on Kris Dunn. Zach LaVine began the season as a candidate for Most Improved Player. That praise has since given way to criticism over LaVine’s late-game shot selection. To make matters worse, he is now dealing with an ankle sprain that will sideline him up to a month. It is just another injury added to the list in a season that saw Chicago start the season without Dunn, Markkanen or Bobby Portis – who is also dealing with an ankle injury. While no one likes to see injuries, it would be foolish to overlook the proverbial silver lining.
2018 Bulls Bad; 2019 Better?
The aforementioned issues have the Bulls with the worst record in the league; a dubious honor with the kicker being a shot at the number one pick. This assumes – already a risk with this team – that Chicago doesn’t get in its’ own way and win games unnecessarily. Discussion on the overall confidence in this front office is warranted. Questioning the tactics of Head Coach Jim Boylan, also fair. The 2018 Bulls are bad. Getting the first pick in the collective hands of Vice President John Paxon and General Manager Gar Forman, however, has proven beneficial in the past. Perhaps they can deliver again.