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Are the Bulls Still Headed for a Meltdown?

The team is treading water, the star offseason acquisitions have busted, and the coach who was supposed to change their culture is on the hot seat. But there are changes that Chicago can make to prevent this from being a lost season.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Volcanoes usually provide warnings before eruptions begin, according to volcano experts. Those signs include detectable earthquakes, steam explosions, deformation of the ground surface, and changes to the temperature of the groundwater. In layman’s terms: Scary shit happens. Fortunately, scientists can usually detect warning signs quickly enough to evacuate cities and save lives. Basketball teams aren’t quite as volatile as volcanoes, but signs of a looming cataclysm are just as observable: disgruntled superstars, underachieving rosters, tenuous front-office relationships. The Chicago Bulls are boiling. They’re a drifting 18–18 team on the playoff bubble, coach Fred Hoiberg’s job is reportedly on the line, and Rajon Rondo will seek a trade if he remains benched.

Jimmy Butler can’t always channel Michael Jordan to save them from disaster. Butler scored 52 points on Monday to beat the Hornets and 14 points in the fourth quarter on Wednesday to defeat the depleted Cavaliers (who were without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love). Charges like these are what give Bulls fans hope, though it’s exactly the kind of hope that has let them down time and time again in recent years.

It wasn’t too long ago that things were looking up for the Bulls. Hoiberg was hired as head coach in June 2015, which signaled a change in style and system. Tom Thibodeau’s era was successful, but philosophical differences led the Bulls front office to find something new. Chicago never ranked higher than 21st in pace or higher than 17th in transition offense frequency during Thibs’s five-year run, via Synergy Sports. So they hired Hoiberg, who spent five years at Iowa State instilling tenets of fast pace and efficiency in his teams by racing the ball up into their flow offense with a heavy dose of pick-and-roll actions. “We really like to flow into an offense as opposed to coming down and getting set on every possession,” Hoiberg said at his introductory press conference. “It’s something that has always been my philosophy.”

It seemed like the perfect fit. “I see a guy who now has a track record of having success and a style of play that we think can be very effective with this basketball team,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said when Hoiberg was hired. The coach later described that style of play in depth to BullsTV: “A big thing we had a lot of success with is our pace of play. We got out and played fast. We led the nation in assists, second in assist-turnover ratio, we shot a lot of 3s, tried to get our shots at the rim and behind the 3-point line. We just tried to play with great spacing. Again, we’ve been a pretty good team as far as offensive efficiency is concerned. Hopefully we can bring some of the same qualities here to Chicago.”

That’s a perfect description of modern NBA basketball. No wonder the Bulls hired him. Here’s a progress report on how Chicago ranks in those categories this season, in Hoiberg’s second year, according to NBA.com:

  • Pace: 24th
  • Assist percentage: 19th
  • Assist-turnover ratio: 19th
  • At-rim attempts: 12th
  • 3-point attempts: 30th
  • 3-point percentage: 30th

Oh. … What happened?

This obviously isn’t going according to plan. Hoiberg has shown to be a subpar in-game tactician with inconsistent, head-scratching substitution patterns. His system has been more conventional than revolutionary, more primitive than progressive. Plus, the players just haven’t bought in. Maybe Butler was right when he said last season that Hoiberg needed to coach the players harder. There are many reasons coaches struggle with longevity across all sports leagues, and their voice not resonating in the locker room is a common one. Sometimes it’s just not a good match, even when it probably should be.

Firing the coach is the easy choice. But the front office hasn’t done Hoiberg any favors; in fact, it’s dealt him an impossible hand. Hoiberg didn’t assemble the roster, so it’s hard to blame him for the sins he didn’t commit.

The personnel he’s been given doesn’t fit his philosophy. The Bulls front office — led by Forman and John Paxson, known locally as “GarPax” — took a roster unfit for Hoiberg’s modern style and made it worse last summer. They signed Rondo, a washed-up point guard who pounds his dribble until the ball is as flat as a pancake. They added Dwyane Wade, a past-his-prime superstar whose production has been on a steady decline. They dealt Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, a solid two-way center, and Jerian Grant, a guard who can’t shoot well; it seemed like a solid return at the time, but neither player has been a significant difference-maker this season. They traded Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams, another point guard who, on a squad full of poor perimeter players, might be the worst shooter on the team.

Hoiberg likes his teams to space the floor and launch 3s, but the Bulls are one of the most 3-point-averse teams in NBA history: Only 23.2 percent of the Bulls’ shot attempts come from behind the arc, which is 7.8 percent less than the average rate leaguewide this season. Only 13 teams in history have ever had a lower 3-point attempt rate relative to the rest of the league in their respective seasons. Hoiberg wants to play Rocketball, but he’s forced to play like the Grit ’n’ Grind Grizzlies (who, by the way, have evolved to attempt 3s at a near-average rate this season).

We could play the blame game for sure, but neither Hoiberg nor GarPax has helped the issue. This isn’t an either-or problem. They both deserve blame. The lack of continuity speaks to a much larger issue: There’s no plan at any level of the organization.

The Bulls were at one point open to rebuilding — sort of. Chicago’s demand for Butler was two valuable draft picks and two starter-level players, according to multiple league front-office executives. For the Celtics, the request was likely Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, the no. 3 pick (which the Bulls likely would have used to draft Kris Dunn), and the no. 16 pick; from the Wolves, it was Zach LaVine and the no. 5 pick (Dunn), though it’s unclear who else was involved. The Celtics weren’t coughing up all that, and the Wolves were reportedly unwilling to part with LaVine, so no deal was completed.

Even if the Bulls had traded Butler, it wouldn’t have led to a rebuild as much as a retool. It’s never easy to agree to a trade, but any team looking to acquire an aggrieved star won’t cough up their primary contributors in return. The Bulls might’ve been able to get the 2017 Nets pick from the Celtics, but they weren’t getting contributors and picks. Based on what we know, it seems the goal was to sustain a competitive team with or without Butler. That became even more of a priority after they decided to retain Butler, since they made the decision to trade Rose (Butler said one of them had to go) and then they signed Rondo and Wade (Butler recruited Wade). The moves were half measures. It kept them floating in the middle and didn’t bring them any closer to contention. That was obvious from the jump. Maybe that was the goal for management: make moves to keep Butler happy in Chicago, even though they must’ve known they had no shot of building a winner through 2016 free agency.

What’s impossible to understand is this: The front office essentially committed to Butler by trading Rose, but chose not to add additional pieces that fit around their franchise player or fit Hoiberg’s system. The team’s decision to drag aging veterans into their starting lineup this season runs contrary to how they’ve bolstered their rotation since 2013, largely through the draft. Their picks have been hit-and-miss like any other team, but all of their choices — at least potentially — make sense in the context of Hoiberg’s offense and as pieces surrounding Butler.

Their solid young core is highlighted by Doug McDermott, who should be attempting far more than three triples per game. Rookie guard Denzel Valentine has struggled early, but he’s a sharpshooter (he hit 3-of-5 attempts from deep against Charlotte on Monday before leaving with an ankle injury) who makes smart plays in the pick-and-roll. There’s Bobby Portis, a 21-year-old live wire who idolizes Kevin Garnett. Portis is Bambi on defense, but if the Bulls were rebuilding, at least he’d have the security of knowing he’d be able to learn through his mistakes. Instead, he’s withering away on the bench, receiving DNP-CDs in 12 of his past 20 games. They also have two international talents: forward Paul Zipser, an athletic German combo forward who shoots well off the catch, and big man Cristiano Felicio, a Brazilian big who is skilled in the pick-and-roll on both sides of the court. The incongruities in Chicago’s decision-making were mind-boggling over the summer, and they’re even more so now.

The reality is the Bulls are trying to win, so these younger guys aren’t seeing the elevated roles they would in a rebuilding situation. That’s what makes Butler’s extraordinary 52-point performance on Monday all the more ironic. Butler and the Bulls played with more pace and space than they had all season, largely because Wade was sidelined by a knee injury and Rondo has been cemented to the bench. In the absence of two other ball-dominant guards, Butler had the green light to manage the flow of the game while playing in lineups that provided better spacing. Of course, Butler can’t put up those numbers every night, but the style he and the team played against the Hornets points in a direction more conducive to winning long term.

The real question is what the Bulls should do next. Whatever it is, it should start with Rondo. Trading him for anything valuable is probably impossible. Even the worst teams in the NBA don’t need a starting point guard, especially one with Rondo’s particular weaknesses. Unless he is willing to accept a bench role — in Chicago or somewhere else — and he sheds his prima donna attitude, there’s a very real possibility that his NBA career will be over if he gets released.

Maybe that’s all they need to do for now. Carter-Williams is a far superior defender to Rondo, and though he’s an even more inefficient scorer, he doesn’t need to hog the ball to make an impact. Carter-Williams doesn’t exactly become the “point guard,” though — that’s Butler. Since Rondo got benched, Butler has averaged 3.1 more assists per game, with more touches and more time possessing the ball; his 32.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and two steals over the past three games is looking very LeBron-like.

Signs still point to an implosion, though, unless Butler’s string of dominant performances holds up for the rest of the season. If they do, maybe the Bulls would consider exploring the trade market for Wade. But that’d be a bad look for the franchise after he bolted Miami for a homecoming in Chicago. Wade’s knees, age, and contract make him a tough player to deal anyway. Plus, even though it’s a pipe dream, the Bulls will likely have space for a max free agent this summer, and Wade still might have pull in free agency. The chance for a surprise splash likely outweighs the benefit of a return through a trade.

Maybe the answer to the Bulls’ problem is simply time. Come July, maybe Forman and Paxson get lucky and land a star, or, at least, can start assembling a roster around Butler that suits Hoiberg’s system. Losing seasons can naturally take a toll on a player, even one who hopes to stay in one place his entire career; should the Bulls suffer a late-season meltdown, there is a risk of agitating Butler to the point where he demands a trade, but his contract runs through 2019, so they have some leverage. For Chicago’s front office and coaching staff, the best approach might be to go with the lava flow and see what happens this offseason — assuming Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf keeps them all around that long.