There is an NBA team that started this season with a roster that included an MVP winner from this decade; a recent Defensive Player of the Year; the runner-up in the most recent Rookie of the Year voting; and two All-Stars, including one deemed the league’s Most Improved Player.
The roster also included some highly promising youngsters and a handful of savvy, playoff-tested veterans. The team seemed to be a lock for the postseason, having made the playoffs every year but one since 2005. And with some good fortune regarding health, it had a chance to contend for an NBA championship.
And if that team doesn’t snap out of it right now, the offseason will start in a little more than two weeks without them.
There have been a handful of disappointing teams in the NBA this season – the Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets immediately come to mind – but no team has been more disappointing than the Chicago Bulls, whose total doesn’t come close to equaling the sum of their parts.
“Obviously, we’re really struggling right now,” said forward Mike Dunleavy, one of the savvy veterans. “We look like a team that’s lost in terms of doing the things you need to do. It’s a lot of stuff. We have to find our way. We’ve had success in the past, but it’s going to be tough right now.”
“I don’t think anybody’s quit,” said guard Jimmy Butler, the reigning Most Improved Player and an All-Star the last two years. “We’ve just hit adversity at the wrong time and we’ve got to fix it. It better carry over from in this locker room out to the court. That’s the only way to get this thing fixed. Nobody else can play basketball for us.”
If the playoffs started today, nobody on the Bulls would be playing basketball. They are 36-36, two games behind Detroit (one in the loss column) for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. For most teams with their pedigree, there would be an obvious sense of urgency. For the Bulls, there is an impending sense of panic.
Once 10 games over .500 in early January, Chicago has lost 15 of its last 24 games. This week was an unmitigated disaster, with consecutive losses to the New York Knicks before getting run out of the gym by the Orlando Magic on Saturday.
“We’re playing against teams that are not playing for anything and we’re just laying down,” said forward Taj Gibson, another savvy veteran and the closest thing the Bulls have to a leader right now.
Consider that the Bulls have beaten one team currently with a winning record – Toronto – since late January. Consider that Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis hadn’t had a double-double since the All-Star break, then racked up two this week vs. Chicago. Or consider that the Bulls never led against the Magic while allowing the immortal DeWayne Dedmon to rough them up for a career-high 18 points and 13 rebounds.
Asked what is wrong with his underachieving team, first-year coach Fred Hoiberg admitted, “It’s hard to say. They’re locked in at shootaround. They’re getting after it. They’re paying attention to what we’re doing. Then we go out there and get slapped in the face. It just spirals downhill.”
So have the Bulls – with a roster full of players who spent the last five years under Tom Thibodeau showing more grit and determination than perhaps any other NBA team – decided to pack it in?
“I sure hope not,” Hoiberg said after Saturday’s loss. “Obviously, what I’m saying right now, my message isn’t getting across. We’re going to sit in a room and hopefully get it figured out.”
The Bulls did that Sunday, with the sense that such a meeting was long overdue. Although Hoiberg didn’t reveal specifics, he characterized the team meeting as “productive” with “honest communication.”
There’s no denying that the Bulls haven’t had the good fortune of health they needed to contend this season. Former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah has been done since Christmas with a shoulder injury. Second-year stud Nikola Mirotic missed a month with an appendectomy. Dunleavy missed the first three months recovering from back surgery. All-Stars Butler and Pau Gasol are playing through sore knees.
But the Bulls also have gotten nearly 10 points per game from second-year forward Doug McDermott. Injuries to Noah and Mirotic unveiled rookie Bobby Portis, who has played well in spurts. Gasol has only missed eight games in all. Heck, even Derrick Rose has played 60 games, his most since his 2010-11 MVP season.
Yes, the Bulls have had some injuries. But not appreciably more than Toronto, Charlotte, Memphis or Utah. Those teams don’t have nearly the depth Chicago enjoys, yet remain on track to play in the postseason.
Dunleavy called this a “do or die week” for the Bulls. Starting with Monday’s home game vs. red-hot Atlanta, Chicago plays five times in seven nights, not exactly the sort of schedule for a team that has had a hard time sustaining energy and effort. The Bulls visit Indiana on Tuesday and Houston on Thursday before Saturday’s crucial home matchup with Detroit.
And just in case you’re the type of person who slows down to look at auto wrecks, six of Chicago’s remaining 10 games are on national TV.
“We give off that impression of being beaten down,” Dunleavy said. “I don’t think anybody’s giving in. I just don’t think we’re good enough.”
TRIVIA: After reaching the conference finals last year, the Houston Rockets are in danger of missing the playoffs. Which was the last team to do that? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Former NBA player Adam Morrison reportedly is taking this section literally, having built himself a bunker stocked with food and guns in preparation for an apocalypse he believes will be politically driven.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, after his team fell behind San Antonio by 23 points in the first half Monday before rallying to win:
“I told them please try harder. I’m begging you. I know y’all make more money than me. I know most of you could get me fired. I’m just saying, please.”
TANKS A LOT!: The Sixers have lost nine in a row and 22 of 23. They are 46-192 (.193) since Sam Hinkie became general manager three years ago and have gotten progressively worse each season. But coach Brett Brown said this week that the tank in Philadelphia may finally stop rolling. “I feel like the rebuild as people know it, the severe rebuild as we have known it, those days are over,” Brown said. “We feel like we have a chance to go into a different place now. What that means in terms of wins, we don’t know yet.”
LINE OF THE WEEK: LeBron James, Cleveland vs. Denver, March 21: 33 minutes, 12-19 FGs, 1-2 3-pointers, 8-11 FTs, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three turnovers, 33 points in a 124-91 win. On the day he dropped his team from his Twitter and Instagram accounts, James notched his 41st career triple-double, most among active players.
LINE OF THE WEEK BY A PLAYER NOT IN THE NBA: Russ Smith, Delaware at Canton, March 23: 45 minutes, 24-42 FGs, 1-5 3-pointers, 16-20 FTs, six rebounds, four assists, two steals, three turnovers, 65 points in a 140-129 loss. A 2014 second-round pick of Philadelphia, Smith was waived by Memphis in December after scoring 53 points in 27 career NBA games. He surpassed that total in one night, setting a D-League record. Of course, because he plays for Philadelphia’s affiliate, it came in a loss.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver at LA Clippers, March 27: 22 minutes, 2-15 FGs, 0-5 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, two rebounds, one assist, one steal, two turnovers, one block, four points in a 105-90 loss. Perhaps the 12:30 local time start was a bit too early for the rookie, who also had a 1-of-11 showing earlier in the week and was simply awful again.
TRILLION WATCH: Not much of an effort from those who give no effort. There were 2 trillions from Milwaukee’s Johnny O’Bryant on Wednesday, San Antonio’s Boban Marjanovic on Friday and the Clippers’ Jeff Ayres on Sunday. The weekly winner was Indiana’s Solomon Hill, who had a 3 trillion Monday vs. Philadelphia. Milwaukee rookie Rashad Vaughn and his 12 trillion look very safe as the season leader.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Detroit at Chicago, April 2. The Pistons, eighth in the Eastern Conference, haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 and are two games in front of the Bulls, ninth in the East, who haven’t missed the playoffs since 2008. As mentioned above, this is a huge week for Chicago. Meanwhile, Detroit will be playing its first road game since March 14 following a league season-high nine-game homestand.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Brooklyn at Orlando, March 29. The Nets are the only team league-worst Philadelphia has beaten since mid-January and currently have eight players in their rotation who have played less than 200 career games. The Magic are without top two scorers Nik Vucevic and Victor Oladipo and have lost 30 of their last 41 games.
TWO MINUTES: Suns rookie Devin Booker was born Oct. 30, 1996. Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant made his NBA debut four days later, and on April 8, 1997, he scored 24 points in a 109-85 road win over Golden State and Melvin Booker – Devin’s father. Bryant played against Devin Booker for the first and only time Wednesday, when Booker had 28 points and seven assists in Phoenix’s 119-107 home win. “That is the memory that I get to tell everybody and there is going to be proof of it,” the younger Booker said. “Thank God it wasn’t an off night and I would have had to remember it as one of my worst games. Luckily I played pretty well and we came out with a win.” Like Bryant, Devin Booker played his first NBA game at 18 years old. … Including the playoffs, the Cavs are 18-9 without Kevin Love, 23-17 without Kyrie Irving and 4-12 without LeBron James since putting together the “Big Three.” … The Warriors are Shaun Livingston’s ninth team – and now the team he has played for the most. Sunday was his 147th game for Golden State. Livingston played 145 games for the LA Clippers, 76 for Brooklyn, 73 for Charlotte, 58 for Milwaukee, 49 for Cleveland, 43 for Washington, 18 for Oklahoma City and four for Miami. … When San Antonio blew a 23-point lead in Monday’s loss at Charlotte, it was the biggest giveaway by the Spurs in the Tim Duncan Era, according to Elias. … New Nets GM Sean Marks has been quite up front about the team’s inability to improve through the draft (they don’t have full control of their own first-round pick until 2019) or free agency (their anticipated cap room is no different than 25 other teams). He has talked about scouring Europe and the D-League for upgrades and may have found one in late-season signee Sean Kilpatrick. The shooting guard has scored in double figures off the bench in his last eight games, the longest streak by any Brooklyn reserve this season. … The fast-break points Friday at Oracle Arena were Golden State 47, Dallas 1. … If the Rockets make the playoffs this season, they had better vote Michael Beasley a full share. Signed earlier this month after his season in China came to an end, Beasley scored in double figures in nine straight games before managing nine in Sunday’s narrow loss at Indiana. He is averaging 15.8 points on 55 percent shooting with 5.9 rebounds in his last 10 games, production that Terrence Jones and Josh Smith came nowhere near close to providing. Houston has a $1.4 million team option for next season.
Trivia Answer: Miami in 2014-15. … Happy 72nd Birthday, Rick Barry. … Sheridan says he plans on resting Hubbard and me before the postseason.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.