It’s been a rough season so far for the Chicago Bulls. The roller coaster bottomed out last week with the indefinite benching of Rajon Rondo; he’s since met with Bulls management and has threatened to demand a trade. His woes, though, are just a small piece of this disturbing puzzle in the Midway.
The Busted Bulls
After missing the playoffs last year, the retooled Bulls aren’t faring much better in 2016–17. They sit at 18–18 and on the fringe of the playoff picture. The addition of Dwyane Wade has been met with fanfare, but any positives brought on by his veteran presence have been neutralized by Rondo’s.
A poison on every roster he’s joined since his Boston days, Rondo’s 37 percent shooting and stat-hunting play have made him hard to watch. His defensive effort has made him unplayable.
Any skeptic worth his weight in keyboards could see Chicago’s struggles coming a mile off. A team already lacking in shooting doubled down in the off-season, signing Wade—who only recently discovered the three-point line—and Rondo, who has refused to develop a jump shot through 11 NBA seasons.
The result? Chicago’s effective field goal percentage, which factors in that threes are worth more than twos, is the worst in the league at 47.3 percent. Hilariously, Rondo has been replaced in the starting lineup by Michael Carter-Williams, who might be the only other NBA point guard without a jump shot.
Even with these flaws, though, the Bulls had a nice start to the season. They have good wins on TNT against Boston and San Antonio, and were 8–4 midway through November.
Jimmy Butler, to his credit, has played to an All-Star level through all the commotion. His 25.2 points per game is four points better than his average last season, culminating in a 52-point outing against Milwaukee on Monday.
His true shooting percentage—a measure of efficiency that includes twos, threes, and free throws—is a career-best 59 percent, even as his usage has gone up (24.4 percent last year to 27.6 percent this year). He’ll be in New Orleans in February, no questions asked.
The problem isn’t Butler, it’s everyone else. The Bulls are cratering, and it seems like nobody knows how to right the ship.
Does management have a clue?
Dating back to Jerry Krause’s roster explosion in 1998, Chicago’s management team has never been a league darling. General Manager Gar Forman and Vice-President of Basketball Operations John Paxson have been in their current structure since 2009, and in recent years, they’ve done more harm than good.
In 2015, after the contentious firing of Tom Thibodeau—who was more or less blamed for the broken bodies of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah—the Bulls hired Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg to inject offense. Chicago’s players rejected his mantra. They played last season halfway between Thibodeau’s slow, defense-first play and Hoiberg’s speedier ideal. The Bulls missed the playoffs.
To refresh the page, Forman and Paxson let Rose, Noah, and Pau Gasol walk. The guys they brought in to play Hoiberg’s faster offense? Rondo and Wade, two players on the wrong side of 30 who’ve never played at a high pace.
After all this, Paxson is still saying that they need to improve athleticism. I mean, he does realize who they have on the roster right? Some of the quotes from Paxson’s state of the franchise address in December have the air of infallibility:
“We’ve wanted to play with a little more pace, a little quicker. In this day and age, if you’re not advancing the ball quickly and you’re allowing defenses to set up and you’re fighting clock, that becomes an issue.”
Yes, that was a quote from the man who signed Rondo. There’s more:
“The area we really do need to improve is with our athleticism. That’s been evident this year as well. We’ve got some vets that know how to play, can score, but you know when you look around the league and how the game is now, that’s an area we have to address.”
I applaud the transparency, but the insane part of all this is that it’s Hoiberg—not Paxson or Forman—that’s carrying the tab for this entirely new, deeply flawed roster. Despite being given a useless hand, Hoiberg is nonetheless the only NBA coach talked about as a possible mid-season firing. It’s enough to make your head spin.
What adjustments can be made?
That’s the bad news. The good news? The Bulls play in the Eastern Conference, where a couple good weeks can have you hosting a playoff series, and a couple bad ones have you spending May by the pool.
Save a possible tweak or two, Chicago is stuck with the roster they’ve got. Assuming they get appreciably better when Rondo walks/is traded/is benched indefinitely, here are two ideas for Bulls coaching and management to get better this year.
Maximize Jimmy Butler
As the team’s best player by far, Fred Hoiberg needs to get the most possible out of Jimmy Butler. A wing in the classic sense, Butler is adept at smoothly getting into the lane and creating mid-range jump shots. His favoured areas are just outside the paint, where he has an array of moves to get shots off.
Hoiberg, though, bogs down Butler’s ability to drive by pairing him with a similarly-minded player in Wade and non-shooters in Michael Carter-Williams (or Rondo) and range-limited bigs in Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez.
The Bulls’ starting lineup looks stone age compared to the rest of the league, and it hurts Jimmy Butler most. Here’s a novel concept for Hoiberg: surround your superstar with players that make him better.
Here’s a look at Butler in his 52-point game against Charlotte, going bananas in a lineup with more shooting.
Next to Doug McDermott at shooting guard and Nikola Mirotic at power forward, Butler buried the Hornets and prompted CSN to follow his highlight package with a shot of Jordan’s retirement banner. He earned the comparison.
In fact, the Bulls best three-man lineup by net rating is Butler, McDermott, and Mirotic. No other triplet really comes close. When those three are on the floor together, the Bulls effective field goal percentage shoots up to 51.4 percent, a mark that’d be 12th best in the NBA.
In a lot of ways, this makes sense. McDermott and Mirotic aren’t exceptional shooters when compared to the rest of the league, but they don’t have to be when playing next to Butler. Opposing defenses observe the threat of shooters more than players like Carter-Williams, who they can forget entirely. Even the idea that McDermott can make a three (37.1 percent on the year) or Mirotic (31 percent) benefits the Bulls. When defenses stay at home, Butler has more room to operate. His pick and rolls with Gibson and Lopez become more potent and he can worry less about double-teams. He can be a superstar.
The solution, of course, is not to bench Dwyane Wade. He has value the same way Butler does, in drawing defenses to create shots for himself and others. The solution is for Hoiberg to find effective ways of staggering Butler and Wade throughout the game.
In Toronto, Kyle Lowry leads a bench unit that’s become one of the league’s most potent offensive units. This is no accident—Lowry, a drive-first guard who demands attention, is better when he’s surrounded by shooters. Hoiberg needs to do the same for Butler, and bring the Bulls into today’s NBA.
Trade Gibson for a point guard
The Toronto Raptors are in the Paul Millsap sweepstakes, but if they fail, the Bulls may want to engage them in discussions around Taj Gibson—who will be a free agent at the end of the season.
The 31-year-old Gibson is quietly having a career year, with 12 points per game coming on a career-high 53.2 percent shooting and 6.9 rebounds. He’s a physical presence the Raptors simply don’t have at the power forward spot, giving them rebounding, defense and rim protection, something the Raptors’ current frontcourt has to do by committee.
In exchange, the Bulls could ask for Cory Joseph. The human opposite of Rondo, Joseph is a team-first point guard who won’t hunt for stats. He’s still developing his outside shot, which can be a bit stiff, but can knock it down with time and space. That makes him a nice off-ball fit for Butler and Wade for the reasons mentioned earlier.
The Joseph-Gibson swap could happen straight up, and benefits both teams. In the famous words of Twitter dot com: who says no?
What happens next?
We’ve established that the Bulls are a hot mess. We’ve prescribed some fixes for improvement. The end game for Chicago, though, is anyone’s guess.
The Wade-Butler duo has been a net positive for the team, and perhaps provides a foundation to build on with some subtle tweaks. The Bulls may be struggling now, but they still have All-Star talent. They need to find a way to translate that into wins—whether it’s through coaching adjustments or front office moves.