If you are like many Americans – middle-class, middle-aged males not unlike myself – and watched your first NBA games this season on Christmas, then you probably think the Chicago Bulls are just fine.
If you have watched at any other time this season, then you know otherwise.
On Christmas, the Bulls played perhaps their best game of the season. They went into Loud City without injured emotional leader Joakim Noah and never trailed against the Thunder, leaving with a convincing 105-96 victory.
But that sort of game has been the exception rather than the rule. The following night in Dallas was far more representative of what the Bulls have been this season – a talented but inconsistent team largely incapable of sustained solid play. On the second night of a back-to-back, Chicago allowed career backup J.J. Barea to run wild and made a handful of mistakes down the stretch in a 118-111 loss at Dallas, their fourth setback in five games.
The win at Oklahoma City followed a three-game slide that included a home loss to Brooklyn. That slide followed a four-game winning streak that included a win over the LA Clippers. And that run followed a three-game skid that included a home loss to Phoenix. The Bulls have been maddeningly inconsistent, despite a roster filled with veterans and toughness that should be somewhat immune to that sort of thing.
“When we have good teams coming in, everybody is ready, everybody competes,” forward Pau Gasol said after the loss to Brooklyn. “When we have OK or not-so-good teams come in, the energy, attitude and approach is totally different.”
Last season, no team was closer to knocking LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers off the Eastern Conference pedestal than the Bulls, who won 50 games and held a 2-1 lead over the Cavs in the conference semifinals. They were one stop away from an overtime on their home floor in Game 4 and the chance for a 3-1 series lead.
But James drew up a play for himself, knocked down a game-winning jumper, and the Bulls didn’t win another game. That led to the dismissal of defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau in favor of Fred Hoiberg, who was supposed to bring a softer voice and a more fluid offense.
The other pieces were in place. The three-man big rotation of Gasol, Noah and Taj Gibson was among the best in the league and augmented by the strong rookie season of Nikola Mirotic, a stretch forward with tantalizing skills. Guard Jimmy Butler was named Most Improved Player for elevating his game from solid two-way player to All-Star. Derrick Rose played in a full postseason for the first time since his 2010-11 MVP campaign. The bench was filled with savvy veterans such as Mike Dunleavy, Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich. And there was promise – if not playing time – among young forwards Doug McDermott and Bobby Portis.
The belief was that the Bulls could still put the defensive screws to James and the Cavs and – with Hoiberg’s creativity – score enough to get past them in a seven-game series. The optimism wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
But Dunleavy needed back surgery and still hasn’t taken the court. Rose got hurt again, taking a blow to the face early in training camp that gave him double vision and forced him to wear a mask. In tweaking the offense, Hoiberg benched Noah in favor of pace-and-space lineup that included Mirotic.
The results have been less than encouraging. The Bulls are averaging 100.9 points – a tenth of a point more than last season – while giving up 100.1 points, an increase of nearly 3 ppg. Rose has made half his shots in just three games this season and is shooting 38 percent overall. Noah, who was First Team All-NBA in 2014, was averaging a career-low 4.5 points before suffering a shoulder sprain last week. Mirotic and wing Tony Snell have not met the responsibilities that come with starting assignments. McDermott has had some moments but also has been inconsistent.
Rose’s continuing struggles are only matched by his continuing whistling in the dark; on Sunday, he told ESPN’s Chris Broussard that he was “happy” with his season so far, which is rife with career-low numbers. Coupled with Thibodeau’s firing and Noah’s new bench role, that has created a leadership void that Butler – armed with a work ethic and a new max contract – has admirably tried to fill.
But leading with deeds and words are two different things, as Butler has learned. After last week’s loss to the New York Knicks, he said, “I believe in the guys in this locker room, yeah. But I also believe that we probably have to be coached a lot harder at times. I’m sorry. I know Fred’s a laid-back guy and I really respect him for that, but when guys aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, you got to get on guys, myself included.”
Max players calling out rookie coaches usually isn’t a formula for cohesion and caught the organization off guard. The Chicago Sun-Times cited a source that said other players dismissed Butler’s tough talk, which also annoys folks around Rose, the former face of the franchise.
But what was Butler supposed to do? He has gotten to where he is by listening to coaches, working hard, setting an example and holding teammates accountable to that standard. When he looks around his team – and make no mistake, the Bulls are now his team – he sees an obvious leadership void. Then he looks in the mirror and sees an All-Star with an unimpeachable work ethic and a max contract. What he said may have been heavy-handed, but it needed to be said.
And who else was going to say it? Hoiberg? He has always been somewhat mild-mannered – which was seen as a pleasing attribute compared to the exhortive, hoarse Thibodeau – and also is saddled by the notion of being a rookie coach who came from college, where there isn’t a long track record of success.
Rose? Come on. Even in his MVP days, he wasn’t a vocal leader, and his perennial rehab has displaced him as face of the franchise, regardless of what his disillusioned camp may think. Gasol? While thoughtful and committed, he has not been an alpha dog since his days in Memphis and is better suited as a second banana.
This is not to say that Butler’s finger-pointing is a good thing. But perhaps strong personalities such as Noah and Gibson can offer some guidance. Butler is right when he points out that the Bulls are not as focused and mentally tough as they have been in the past and need to be more professional in their approach. That is easily evident in looking at their schedule, which includes wins over San Antonio and Cleveland and losses to Minnesota and Brooklyn.
Gasol saw some truth in Butler’s harsh words.
“Regardless of anything else, we need to bring a certain level of competitiveness, attitude, energy, desire and determination to games against teams that have only won one – now two – games on the road,” he said after the Brooklyn loss. “Even though we’re tired after back-to-back games, we have to do a better job, especially at home. And if we don’t do that, we’ll have become just an average team.”
Even with the dysfunction, the Bulls aren’t exactly falling into the abyss. Their recent slide has them at 16-12, which projects to 47 wins. But that is good enough for just seventh place in the recently rejuvenated East as they begin what could be a telltake week.
The Bulls host the Raptors tonight and visit Toronto on Sunday. In between, Chicago hosts Indiana and has a revenge game vs. New York. By this time next week, the Bulls could be right back in conference contention – or on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, and looking to point the finger at each other again.
TRIVIA: Which player has played for four different teams on the last four Christmas days? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: In case you were all hooped out around 11 p.m. ET on Christmas night, Lakers rookie Larry Nance Jr. had a special gift for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan.
“Listen, you have to be realistic about what we’re facing and where we are right now as a team and as an organization. I mean, you can train a cat to bark all you want, but the damn cat’s not going to bark. So there’s no sense in yelling at it.”
TANKS A LOT!: The 76ers had lost 40 of 41 overall and 39 of 40 on the road before Saturday’s win at Phoenix, which came in the same week that they named former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni as associate head coach and traded for point guard Ish Smith, once a member of the Suns, now on his second stint with the Sixers, and elbowing his way, comically, into someone’s MVP rankings.
LINE OF THE WEEK: J.J. Barea, Dallas at Brooklyn, Dec. 23: 41 minutes, 13-20 FGs, 5-7 3-pointers, 1-1 FTs, one rebound, 11 assists, one steal, five turnovers, 32 points in a 119-118 overtime win. Pressed into an emergency start when Deron Williams suffered a hamstring injury, Barea posted a career high in points and a season high in assists in perhaps the best game of his 10-year career. He showed it was no fluke by going for 26 with seven threes in his next game.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Paul George, Indiana at San Antonio, Dec. 21: 35 minutes, 1-14 FGs, 1-5 3-pointers, 4-5 FTs, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, six turnovers, seven points in a 106-92 loss. George had been struggling with his shot since early December, and this was the bottom of the barrel. His points were a season low, and his turnovers were one off a season high. Hew dropped out of Sheridan’s Top 5 in the MVP rankings published on this site Saturday.
TRILLION WATCH: For the second straight week, Timberwolves forward Damjan Rudez ruined a huge trillion with a foul, this time wrecking a 10 trillion Monday at Boston. There were 2 trillions from Pacers guard Glenn Robinson III on Monday and Knicks guard Sasha Vujacic, Bulls center Cameron Bairstow and Sixers guard T.J. McConnell on Saturday. Nets forward Thomas Robinson had a 3 trillion on Saturday and Spurs forward Rasual Butler had a 4 trillion on Wednesday. But the weekly winner was Cavs forward James Jones, who crashed the season leaderboard with a 5 trillion Wednesday vs. New York.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Golden State at Dallas, Dec. 30. This is the first meeting of the season between the league-leading Warriors and the Mavericks, who have stayed afloat in the West while their roster has gotten healthy but really have just one statement win this season – a victory over the Clippers in DeAndre Jordan’s “return” to Dallas on Nov. 11. Staying attached to the small-ball Warriors will be a real test.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Philadelphia at LA Lakers, Jan. 1. What a great way to start 2016, with a matchup of the two worst teams in the NBA. The 76ers got their first win of the season over the Lakers exactly one month earlier and come in “hot,” collecting their second win at Phoenix on Saturday. The Lakers will be returning from their third Eastern swing in the first two months.
TWO MINUTES: Last week, we made the case that Anthony Davis is not a top-five player. However, being merely a top-10 player or a top-15 player is more impactful to Davis’ future finances. Over the summer, Davis signed a maximum five-year, $120 million extension with the Pelicans that could be worth $145 million if he is voted as a starter to the All-Star Game or named to one of the three All-NBA teams this season. This is the Derrick Rose Rule, which allows a player to receive roughly 30 percent of the salary cap rather than 25 percent if he is named MVP or twice is voted an All-Star starter or All-NBA before the extension begins. In the first returns of All-Star fan balloting released on Christmas, Davis was 26,000 votes behind Blake Griffin for the third starting frontcourt spot in the West. If Davis is not voted as a starter (he was last year), the only way he can collect the extra $25 million is if he is voted by the media to one of the All-NBA teams. … When the Celtics gave Jae Crowder $35 million over five years last summer, it raised some eyebrows. Crowder had only been a spot starter through his first three seasons with Dallas and Boston; he never averaged more than 7.7 points or shot better than .331 on threes. But Crowder has started every game this season for the Celtics and is averaging 13.2 points while shooting nearly 35 percent from the arc. In his last five games, Crowder is averaging 18.0 points and 9.0 boards. … Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas is expected to return Monday at Chicago after missing 17 games with a broken hand. Toronto went 11-6 in his absence with the help of Bismack Biyombo, who was inserted as starting center and averaged 11.6 rebounds and 1.88 blocks in 28.7 minutes and contributed 6.7 points despite his Parks and Rec offense. … Even though Philadelphia won at Phoenix on Saturday for just its second win of the season, the night’s most surprising score was in Portland, where the Trail Blazers blasted the Cleveland Cavaliers, 105-76. Portland had lost five straight and was without top scorer Damian Lillard, who missed games this week for the first time in his career. But Allen Crabbe scored a career-high 26 points and the Blazers held both LeBron James (12 points) and the East-leading Cavs to season lows. Even Portland center Chris Kaman played for the first time since Nov. 16. “Anybody see that coming?” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. … In his first three starts in place of injured Bradley Beal, Wizards guard Garrett Temple scored 21, 23 and 20 points. According to Elias, he is the first NBA player to score at least 20 in three consecutive games after not doing so in his first 250 contests. … The Clippers may be fourth in the West with an 18-13 mark, but only five of their wins have come against teams currently above .500. Furthermore, they are 0-4 vs. Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the three teams ahead of them. With All-Star forward Blake Griffin out at least two weeks with a quadriceps injury, it could be rough sailing for the Clippers. In Saturday’s win at Utah, Josh Smith started in place of Griffin – and played just five scoreless minutes. Paul Pierce started the second half and finished with a season high of 20 points in 27 minutes. Pierce, 38, hadn’t played that many minutes since Nov. 19 and had scored just 32 points in 11 December games.
Trivia Answer: Paul Pierce (Boston, Brooklyn, Washington, LA Clippers). … Happy 55th Birthday, Mel “Dipper” Turpin. … Latrell Sprewell demands to know why Matt Barnes was only suspended for two games for attacking a coach.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.