The Collaps-a-Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are at it again. As many predicted before the season, the team is an incomplete mess, shooting just 43.8% from the field and a league worst 30.8% from behind the three point line. All summer popular opinion held that the team didn’t have any shooting and would hang around .500 and struggle to get a playoff spot, so a record of 14-15 and currently 9th in the conference standings is really exactly what was expected

Is Something Wrong?

This doesn’t feel like a team performing as expected. It feels like a team is drastically underperforming. Losing 9 of their last 12 games, this looks like a good team collapsing, not a bad team performing to their ability. In the first three games of the season, the Bulls shattered any notion that they wouldn’t be able to fit together with three consecutive blowouts. It wasn’t just the score, it was the aggressive defense leading to 17 fast break points a game, helping earn them 20 free throws per game. This all opened up the floor allowing them to hit 43.5% of their threes which when combined with some decent defense lead to a point differential of +11.5 per game.

Even after completing their last annual circus trip Chicago held the 4th best point differential in the league at +6.3. This was mostly because of their solid defense (7th) and rebounding (2nd), but it was certainly not in spite of their offense which was very efficient (7th) even while not hitting a great percentage (21st). Exactly one month before the time of this article, the team was looking like it was just barely outside of being considered elite at 10-6 with some close losses against good teams. Despite big wins against Cleveland and San Antonio since then, this team now looks like a disaster.

The media is understandably defeated. The narrative right now is largely around the Bulls being too one dimensional and relying too heavily on Jimmy Butler. With the league’s worst offense in the 4th quarter, this is undoubtedly true, especially when even Wade, is commenting on it publicly

This meltdown almost completely mirrors the year prior when on November 26th they had the 4th best record, and they started to slip a bit, before absolutely tanking out with a stretch of losing 18 in games in 26 and not making the playoffs with one of the most depressing seasons to end over .500. The narrative that year was that Butler and Rose could not coexist and that the team in general had absolutely awful chemistry

The lack of team camaraderie has been well documented by virtually every source imaginably and certainly had a lot to do with the situation, but that can’t be anything to do with this years collapse. Between Butler’s football, Wade’s leadership, Rondo’s team gatherings, and even more Wade awesomeness this year’s team’s affinity for one another is well documented.

So two seasons in a row where, despite drastic roster changes, a squad with seemingly a lot of talent who is able to consistently beat the best teams in the league but lose to everyone else simply cannot perform in the 4th quarter (6th worst in 2015-2016).  And now Wade, quite possibly the most well spoken and media savvy player of all time, is hinting that the team only runs one play to end games. Well clearly this situation must be on the coach.

Brought in with no NBA experience, Fred Hoiberg has been on shaky ground with the Chicago media and fan base. In a season where Wade and Rondo, signed as champion veterans who could mentor a young team, are shooting career worsts of 43.8% and 38% respectively; with Rondo scoring at his lowest rate since his rookie year; and fewer assists per game since the ’07-’08 season; its easy to see why you could put a lot of the blame on the coach. 

The thing is, Hoiberg’s offense is based on flow and movement. Even in a one set, if you are moving the ball from side to side while also remaining active on the weak side, you will generate a significant number of good looks. It’s on the players to be doing these things, and they seem to just stop doing them in the fourth quarters of games. Most teams resort to hero ball in the last two minutes. The Bulls start with about 8 minutes left. When the Bulls have played with pace and moved the ball, they’ve looked fantastic. 

A team who has long defined their regular seasons over surprising victories over Lebron James, the Bulls last game against him was easily their most thorough success. Every other win often felt like it could easily go the other way, or was simply a surprise blowout, this one was the first time where the Bulls felt in complete control of a well contested game. Certainly Wade, not only with his ability to hit big shots, but mere presence in the team’s huddles was a huge part of that confidence; but Hoiberg’s system could not be ignored in how it forced the Cavalier’s out of position leading to an 49-33 rebounding advantage over an ordinarily strong rebounding team. The Bulls weren't simply having a hot night shooting going 3 for 18 from the three point line. The Cavs were also not simply off, shooting a blistering 54.5% from the field and a not so sluggish 10/26 from 3. While the Bulls had a 17 to 10 advantage in free throws attempted, for a team who averages 23.6 a game, and generally gets the 5th highest portion of their total points from the free throw line while holding opponents to the 2nd lowest FTA per FGA, I wouldn’t say the whistles were a big factor in the result. 

The team has also struggle to bring consistent energy to games, something which is commonly attributed to the coach. Personally, I’ve always felt that was the players responsibility, to me its quite literally their job to be ready to play the game of basketball. Even if you do want to say that it is the coaches responsibility, these are the same issues which plagued the Bulls with their previous coach, Tom Thibodeou. 

A New Baseline

Brought in to bring some discipline and defense to a young team which had gone 41-41 with a first round exit two years in a row, Thibodeau’s first season was an extraordinary success. After a somewhat inauspicious start of 8-9, the Bulls shot off 14 wins in their next 16 games, easily their best stretch since Jordan had last been around. They went on to shock the league with the best record at 62-20, most surprising with Lebron taking his talents to Miami who suddenly appeared destined to be the champion. The Bulls had been publicly spurned by the Heat’s big 3, already creating a solid storyline, and to add fuel to the fire, the Bulls had managed to win all 3 regular season match ups against the the Heat, though by a combined 8 points. While the Heat did prevail 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was a very hard fought series and much more contentious than the record would seem to imply.

Fundamentally the Heat exposed that the Bulls simply had no other options at the end of the game if you forced the ball out of Rose’s hands. Employing one of the most bizarre defensive schemes I’ve ever seen, they started trapping Rose with 3 players before he crossed half court. With a complete lack of a secondary ball handler on a team whose starting shooting guard was Keith Bogans, the Bulls traditionally closed with a lineup of Rose, Deng, Korver/Brewer, Boozer and Noah. The Bulls had basically no one else to make a play down the stretch, and so even though most games were close for a majority of the contest, in the end the Bulls had no answers.

Still, the Bulls had truly over performed expectations and had every reason to be excited for the future with the league’s all time youngest MVP. With a lockout confounding the off season, the Bulls basically ran it back for a year, swapping out Bogans and drafting Butler. Once again earning the NBA’s best record at 50-16 they actually won a higher percentage of their games than the year before in a lockout shortened season. Unlike the year before, Rose had been somewhat limited with injuries missing 27 of the 66 games with assorted ailments. When he did play they still relied heavily on him at the end of games, but the fact that they were winning so much with him out of the lineup seemed promising. 

We’ll never know how that team would fair in the playoffs. Rose infamously tore his ACL playing late in a blowout victory in game one of the playoffs, ending his season. The Bulls immediately melted down, and lost to a Philly team which by all indications during the regular season they should’ve been able to beat without Rose. A team without its heart, the Bulls mostly looked lifeless the remainder of the series, a first in the Thibodeau era which to that point had been noted for its extreme effort and tenacity. They did close out with a win in game 5 and a 1 point loss in game 6, but it didn’t feel great.

The next few seasons were collections of the Bulls hoping to have Rose healthy at the end of the year so they could compete for a title. The 2012-2013 season was always a favorite as a fan. After a season of relying on Deng, he goes down right before the playoffs. Still without Rose, the Bulls should be down and out against the Nets but thanks to some great play by a very injured Noah and some truly unbelievable heroics by Nate Robinson, the Bulls managed to win in 7. Then, with a mini breakout performance for the young Butler matched up against Lebron with Deng injured the Bulls stole game 1 from the Heat, who went on to beat the injured Bulls quite handily.

Lost in all of this and a laundry list of extensive injuries was that the team never had any semblance of an offense in the 4th quarters of games. In 2010-11, and particularly 2011-12 the Bulls had some of the most extraordinary lock down defense of all time. I wish I had access to more stats to show how extreme this really was, but the Bulls were number 1 in fewest points allowed to opponents in the 4th 2011 and 2012. While thats only a small part of the picture, this article by the wonderful Zach Lowe does a terrific job of describing how dominant that defense strived to be at the end of games.

There’s a big reason why Rose won the MVP that 2010-2011 season, and its because of his phenomenal play in both the pick and roll and one set. As this article highlights, it was all Rose doing the work even when using the screener, as his rolling partner only finished on about a third of the plays. Rose was some how even more phenomenal in close game scenarios, putting up nearly 50 points and triple double numbers per 48 in the last 5 minutes of games and overtimes. With Rose’s constant theatrics and all the anger at the Heat threesome for their behavior, it was no big surprise Rose went home with the MVP award despite being the youngest in history to do so.

Without Rose doing his thing at historic levels, the Bulls were left relying on similar performances from less likely candidates. For a couple years, the Bulls could win a ton of games by causing their opponent to go as stone cold in the 4th quarter as they were anyway. As the league slowly started to adjust to Thib’s defense, the Bulls started winning fewer and fewer of those games. Slowly a theme started to emerge. When it was a big game, if there was no pressure, the Bulls could beat anyone, with just about anyone playing on the court. Yet as the league started to learn to thrive on the open corner three, Thib’s defense started to get stretched to its limit more often resulting in fewer and fewer wins.

Its easy to gloss over, but the Bulls had always struggled with continuing to play offense in the 4th quarter, struggling to beat a very young and inexperienced Indiana team being led by then interim coach Frank Vogel. Without what had been their franchise player in Granger, Vogel often had the Bulls on the ropes at the end of games and Rose would be forced to take over. I mean, good lord, look at that video again, Rose was in a special place.

In the following series against Atlanta, the Bulls were completely outplayed in game 1 and while they won 4-2, once again frequently were relying on the fact that Rose had a better defense behind him than Teague. Both players were getting to the rim pretty much at will until the 4th when the games would freeze and Rose was able to win that battle. 

By the time the Bulls watched Lebron hit that spectacular corner three to tie the series at 2-2, it had started to become a pattern that in series versus Lebron the Bulls would win game one, going three and 1 in game 1s vs Lebron. This is phenomenal, and the only statistic I’m aware of with Lebron's winning percentage at .250 or less. Then, with the pressure back on, the Bulls inevitably start to choke and never win more than 2 games. With a dislike for in game adjustments and an unending desire for flawless execution, the story was the Bulls players were tired of Thib’s constant chortling and had begun to tune him out which lead to inconsistent effort. After failing to show up for the next two games and getting knocked out of the playoffs once again by Lebron, something had to be done.

The Bulls management was cautious to try too much change at once. After all, if a couple shots had fallen or not the season easily could’ve ended very differently. Deciding that due to injuries the Bulls had never really gotten a chance to see what the core of Rose, Butler, Noah and Pau could do together. With some young players with high ceilings like Mirotic, McDermott and the newly drafted Portis, the Bulls jettisoned Thibs mostly because his offense was too predictable on top of failing to develop young talent, relying too heavily on his starters, all on top of these new effort issues.

This was the situation Hoiberg was brought in to resolve. The thinking was his charisma and player friendly nature would allow the team to relax and win, coming off the coattails of Golden State’s surprising run to glory. Hoping he could be the Kerr to their Jackson and the players would respond positively to being given the opportunity to perform without Thib’s blinding passion. Yet two years later, the media is questioning if Hoiberg’s offense is too predictable, can develop young talent, or get his team to perform consistently. With these issues transcending coaches, the media is noticing this pattern as well, shifting the blame yet again.

So if all these issues are persisting, its got to be the management thats primarily at fault. They’re drafting these guys that can’t perform or fit together. Rondo has stated the Bulls are among the least athletic in the league, and it’s something they need to overcome. If there’s smoke, there must be some kind of fire. 

Younger and More Athletic

Let’s dive into this thought process a bit. Paxson came on in 2003 to a roster featuring Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Jalen Rose, and Jay Williams as well as a young Jamal Crawford and Fred Hoiberg coached by franchise favorite Bill Cartwright. Despite seemingly coming into a franchise on the rise, it had a lot of holes. I’m still unclear how anyone could hear Cartwright in a noisy arena, and Paxson quickly replaced him with Skills as a more rigorous coach who could improve the defense and develop the youth. Paxson was able to draft Hinrich in response to losing Jay Williams when Wade got taken from under him. He followed it up by gaining the rights to Deng, Gordon, Nocioni and Chris Duhon, quite a draft night.

After a season of remarkably inconsistent performances, the Bulls ended up sweeping the defending champion Heat, and going up two games on Detroit, only to then be unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs losing 4 straight to end 2006. The “Baby Bulls” looked like the had a good young core of a back court with Hinrich, Gordon and Deng, and that if they could shore up their front court they would be in good shape. Having managed to trade an ailing Curry, Antonio Davis and their ’07 first round pick (Wilson Chandler) for the Knicks first round pick in ’06 and ’07, the Bulls had a good opportunity to do so. The 2006 Knicks pick was good for 2nd in the draft and Paxson made an aggressive decision selecting Aldridge but trading him for the more athletic and less polished Tyrus Thomas. Additionally, he managed to spend his way into stealing consecutive defensive player of the year Ben Wallace from the team that beat them by shipping out Chandler who had so far been too inconsistent. 

In retrospect, those were likely two very poor decisions. A core of Hinrich, Gordon, Deng, Aldridge and Chandler would have been very intriguing, and Aldridge has never let them forget this. They got back on track with the draft right away using the other pick from the Knicks for Noah (9th). With a team who was tuning out its head coach, they fired Skiles, and clunked out the year missing the playoffs. As fortune would have it, they would gain the first pick in ’08 gaining a third chance to use a top pick to shore up their front court. With Beasly having an astounding season in college, many felt he was the obvious pick to finally get the Bulls some low post scoring to go with their backcourt. Hinrich was coming off a career year with highs in PPG, FG%, 3P% and FT% and well known as a lockdown perimeter defender, yet the Bulls drafted Derrick Rose, an abject win over Beasly. Sure, Westbrook and a bunch of others were also in that draft but, grabbing Rose is nothing to be ashamed about. He also managed to bring in Asik and trade off Sefalosha to Oklahoma City to gain the rights to the pick used for Gibson.

Vinnie Del Negro was hired as a player friendly coach with no experience to heal the wounds left from Skiles, is this sounding familiar? Paxson had no tolerance for Del Negro who actually did seem to be completely unprepared for the job and the two butted heads in extreme fashion. Seemingly as a fall out of all this, the GM responsibilities got split between Gar Forman and Paxson, and Del Negro was let go with Thib’s brought in to right the ship.

Forman went on to draft James Johnson as a bit of a miss, but then also Gibson and Butler, two excellent picks for so late in the draft. Since Thib's teams were talented and successful, but consistently lacked a second play maker; and also lacking any sort of backup for Rose, they went with Teague as high ceiling athlete who was dropping the in the draft. Draymond Green was available, but considering their needs Teague was a reasonable choice.  Its obviously a miss, but can you really blame someone for coming out with Gibson, Butler and Teague with the 26th, 30th and 29th picks? The next season the Bulls tried again to steal an athlete late in the draft, this time Tony Snell (20th), ex-teammate and body double for young Kawhi Leonard, but with an exceptional shooting form. He obviously hasn’t developed the way Leonard has, but the only person drafted after him you’d really rather have was Gobert. They also managed to get Mirotic for Norris Cole (via James Johnson) and Malcolm Lee as well as McDermott for Gary Harris and Nurkic. He’s also drafted Portis as a surprise so late (22nd) as well as Valentine (14th).

While you can obviously debate the value of each of these moves, none of the players named (Cole, Harris, Nurkic) would likely be the solution to the Bulls’ issues. Niko has shown signs of being an absolute freak at 6’11” with ridiculous range and a quick first step. Doug has shown himself to be far more athletic than just a spot up shooter, and he and Niko have put in significant work on the defensive end. Portis is having a statistically more efficient year, but is clearly lacking for confidence and can’t find his place on defense. He’s also 21 and been fighting for minutes with Niko behind some excellent power forwards in Gibson and previously Gasol. Valentine similarly has shown some flashes but also suffered a couple minor injuries and is fighting for minutes as a ball handling wing player on a team that features Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade. 

Beyond all that, they pick up a kid named Felicio from Brazil as an undrafted big who has been earning himself minutes over Portis. They also managed to recruit a crew of young point guards who are absolutely demolishing D league, but finding it difficult to have a consistent impact on the floor in the NBA. Maybe it’s ridiculous to hold it against the management that Niko, Doug, Portis, and Valentine aren’t playing consistent basketball in their limited careers. Name the players with three years experience or less who are playing consistent basketball? Porzinghis, Towns, Wiggins, and Davis come to mind but those were all top picks, not from the late teens and twenties where the Bulls have been drafting. There’s also some talented guys drafted in that range in Nurkic, Jokic and Booker, but all of them are similarly struggling with consistency.

Acceptance

Which brings us full circle. Maybe there is nothing wrong with the Bulls, and these repeated “collapses” are more a function of the fatalistic Chicago media who got spoiled in the 90s by quite likely the greatest team to ever play professional sports. Since the Bulls last won a title, 8 organizations have brought home hardware. Of the 18 trophies, teams led by some combination of Kobe/Duncan/Shaq/Lebron/Wade combine for all but 4 of them. There was also the total anomaly with Detroit, Dirk stealing one from Lebron and Wade, and Boston collecting superstars just past their prime creating the blue print for the “Big 3” so pervasive in today's NBA.

The Bulls have made a conference finals and a couple conference semi’s in this period. Only the Pacers, Heat, Pistons, Cavs, Nets and Celtics have had much more success than that. Notably absent from that list of champions are teams like Oklahoma City, Los Angels Clippers, Houston Rockets or 18 other franchises. The 76ers, Timberwolves, Jazz, Nuggets, Lakers and Pelicans all have obscene amounts of young talent, and they all struggle to play consistently, because thats what happens with young players, no matter how good they are.

The Bulls franchise attempts to point out all the successes they’ve had and clearly believe it is absolutely vital to at least make the playoffs each season. This is a commendable attitude. The 76ers had to go through some absolutely terrible seasons to gather all their talent, still have a whole lot of growing pains ahead while Oklahoma City sits as a painful reminder that enduring all that losing and collecting the best young talent doesn’t necessarily equate to winning championships. The Bulls have had a decent chance to compete in the East for the vast majority of the past decade, and have had their share of highly enthralling wins in big games.

Maybe there’s a reason that Wade and Butler remain quietly confident this team can turn it around. The Chicago media has gone so far down this path of nothing matters but if you win or lose, and the only success can be measured in rings. You can see this mentality impacting the players, who so frequently are left watching their own shots and describing the sense of relief associated with making the shot. The young players constantly discuss the feelings of pressure getting to them.

The Bulls two biggest issues in my mind would be the lack of defensive play from their point guard and their reliance on hero ball so spectacularly early in the fourth. The first issue is one the Bulls have tried hard to address, from Rondo to Grant to Dinwiddie to Michael Carter Williams, the Bulls are searching for someone to keep shifty point guards from shredding the integrity of their defense. 

The second issue is one I am starting to think is strongly exacerbated by the media surrounding the team. The Bulls have been tragically reliant on hero ball and absolute shut down defense in the 4th quarters since Jordan left. No other team bails out so early on ball movement and weak side motion as the Bulls. This issue has continued through an assortment of lineups and coaches, I have to start to suspect that the outside force of having one of the NBAs largest fan bases so quick to judge is causing players to panic and tighten up.

This all seems more obvious with the coming of a true champion in Dwayne Wade. Wade has earned his place in the hall of fame and doesn’t need to press in any situation on the basketball court, ever. It is remarkable when you watch the games how different Wade looks when the team is going through one of the 6 minute droughts which have plagued this franchise for so long. Even though Rose and Butler in their primes have had plenty of success in these scenarios, its always come off of nerve-wracking efforts. The success of the play never felt inevitable, and when the ball sailed through the hoop you always feel an immense sense of relief among the team and as a fan.

Wade in these situations seems entirely different. He brings up the ball at his normal pace, sizes up the defender, and gets to one of his spots on the floor with little resistance. From there, he either does a move everyone seen him do so many times he might as well patent it, or a nice little pass to someone wide open for an easy bunny as the defense started reacting early to the play they saw coming before Wade had the ball. Sure, almost no one will be able to do it as consistently as Wade, but its notable that no one else for the Bulls has ever stayed poised and played within their game in those moments. They’ve always isolated and been forced to attempt the spectacular. Its one thing for that to happen in the last 2 minutes. Its another for it to happen in the second half of every game the Bulls feel expected to win for over a decade.

There’s no reason to continue this cycle of blaming every single loss on some player or facet of the organization in particular, and we shouldn’t take every streak to be an omen for the future. Butler’s biggest public meltdown came when he called out Hoiberg for not coaching hard enough when the media asked him why his team struggled to continue to play with energy in a road game against the Knicks after jumping out to a 12-2 lead. The Bulls had lost in quadruple over time in Detroit the night before. That’s why they didn’t have energy, why would you even question it? That quote became a refrain for the entire press when discussing the Bulls for the better part of a year, only subsiding when Wade was brought in. There is absolutely no reason Butler should even have been asked that question after one of the most understandable losses possible in an NBA season.

Moving forward the Bulls will continue to be a fascinating storyline to watch unfold. Possessing one of the Eastern Conferences best players in Butler, and most accomplished in Wade, the two will often be let down by surrounding calvalcade of youth. Their performance in January, however, will not need to dictate their abilities in April and May. In a season where two teams are clearly better than everyone else, all the Bulls need to do is make the playoffs to be able to make some noise. The only question is, will they collapse again first?