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.
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 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.
John Paxson ID'd four positions locked in as part of the rebuild.
The PG spot? "We are still evaluating Kris Dunn."
Why it's becoming increasingly clear the Bulls need an upgrade at a pivotal position in today's NBA. https://t.co/75G4XWbnaj
— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) February 8, 2019
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.
Bulls under Fred Hoiberg: 5-19 with average margin of defeat of 13.4 points.
Bulls under Jim Boylen: 5-16 with average margin of defeat of 18.6 points.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 18, 2019
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.
The Chicago Bulls have had zero players report their head coach the past two days. That might be more because of the team being in Mexico City ahead of tonight’s tilt against the 12-15 Orlando Magic. The game, the Bulls fifth under Jim Boylen, pits two teams with more drama and uncertainty than promise at this point, against each other. In the Bulls case, it has become like a dramedy with basketball as a backdrop.
Chicago Bulls Try to Turn it Around in Mexico City
A Sad Song
There have been numerous stories written on the turmoil the Bulls have put themselves through, including this one. It has become untenable and there are still 54 games left, including tonight. Will Boylen last the entire season with the team in such disarray? According to him, he was prepared for the “mutiny” from the players. If this has been what preparedness looks like, we need to redefine the word. His drill sergeant coaching style is rarely a popular one among professional athletes; not that it should be a popularity contest. The players still need to be willing to listen to the coach. That is not the case here.
Boylen says he views the San Antonio Spurs as the gold standard for how a team should operate. Not a bad organization to emulate. The issue is that this Bulls organization – run by John Paxson and Gar Forman – is not the Spurs. Boylen is not Pop. San Antonio built their well-respected image through years of being relevant. They won championships, drafted well and you always felt that they had a chance. Meanwhile, the thought of the Bulls organizationally incites thoughts of old Vince McMahon entrance music.
They might be able to argue they gave drafted well, a tenuous argument, but that will not be enough for a fanbase growing more fed up by the day. The problem is, as obvious as it may seem to those on the outside, there is almost no chance the embattled pairing of GarPax does not return next year. We have seen time and again from ownership, they are loyal to management to a fault. White Sox fans can attest to that. Perhaps the one change glimmer of hope is that the Sox might be about to return to relevance. In other words, even this owner wants to make changes after a while. When it will be is anyone’s guess.
If Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls seemed ill-fated, Boylen and the Bulls is D.O.A. It is a shame for any franchise with the history of the Bulls. They are taking advantage of a passionate and rabid fanbase, and have been for 15 years. Sure there have been ups – the Derrick Rose and short-lived Jimmy Butler era – but there has been a lot of mediocrity. After the last game, Kings players were overheard in the tunnels of the United Center, mocking the Bulls. Let that sink in. Chicago fans are left to hope their favorite team can be like the Kings. Ouch.