Goodwill: Bulls roster at a crossroads, in need of real change


Goodwill: Bulls roster at a crossroads, in need of real change

On paper, it appears the Bulls are in the midst of a somewhat usual three-game losing streak that occurs in the throes of an 82-game season.

But things could be much more critical, and the front office must consider the crossroads the franchise is in.

Last year is over, and when the Bulls failed to show up for the second half of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference semifinals at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers, their best chance with the core being constructed as such likely went up in smoke with it.

The theories and finger-pointing has been entertaining, if not fruitless in the time since, as the same participants have deflected attention or tacitly stated the issue lies in other directions.

But none of that matters now, as the Bulls are in the one space teams aspire to get to, but hate staying in beyond a short period of time: the no-man’s land of contention.

Good enough to be better than the also-rans, talented enough to be ensured of a playoff spot in an improved Eastern Conference but not good enough to be feared by the true championship contenders.

Many have asked if the Bulls are the scintillating bunch that can win six straight, showing offensive efficiency to Fred Hoiberg’s intended desire or if they’re the seemingly lifeless bunch that doesn’t look very happy to play with each other consistently, and can’t sustain the proper mental concentration over a 48-minute game.

The uncomfortable answer: They’re both, which makes things that much more difficult for Gar Forman and John Paxson leading to the trade deadline a little over a month away.

When you’re good enough to pull off wins against the best of the best, it’s seduces many into believing this momentum can be carried into June because when called upon, championship-style teams have fallen to your talent and continuity.

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But there’s fewer games against the Spurs or the Cavaliers in the regular season and more against the likes of the Wizards or the Pistons or Bucks or Hawks, where consistency is formed.

Where a championship is forged, along with championship habits, which the Bulls don’t appear to have 37 games into the season.

Aside from Jimmy Butler and on occasion, a healthy Derrick Rose, there aren’t any other impact players on the roster, someone who can have a tangible effect on games consistently from a ball-handling position.

And how comfortable will the Bulls be with their swingmen headed into the playoffs being Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and presumably, Mike Dunleavy coming back off a back injury at his age, after the all-star break, which by proxy is after the trade deadline.

The team is built around Rose and Butler being stars for the Bulls to have a chance to overtake Cleveland, as long as LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving don’t get hurt.

James, Love and Irving are three impact players, with Tristan Thompson capable of winning a playoff game of his own with his offensive rebounding, and J.R. Smith capable of doing the same with a hot streak of shooting (although he can give one away, too).

By this count, that’s five potential impact players with your biggest rival, to one and a possible for the Bulls, assuming the two parties actually meet in the conference finals as-is.

And if you’ve played a game of spades, a guarantee of one book doesn’t leave you feeling very confident.

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Which leaves the Bulls in a spot where change is necessary and seems likely to happen, deemed by the contract situations of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and even Taj Gibson.

Noah will be an unrestricted free agent and Gasol has already told CSNChicago.com a few weeks ago that opting out is likely, even though one would say it’s a near certainty Gasol goes for his last payday approaching at age 36 come July.

Their contracts just so happened to be up at the same time, so it wasn’t some oversight from the front office that the two centers could very well leave Chicago for another city after the season.

And they have acquired a surplus of bigs, particularly with Bobby Portis having earned more minutes with his play—except there aren’t any minutes to have, and one can see him rushing to produce because he knows there’s likely one stint in the game plan for him with things laid out as such.

If they can acquire a decent swingman or at worst a shot creator, maybe Trevor Ariza away from Houston, or even take a chance on the likes of Phoenix's Markieff Morris or even Memphis' Jeff Green, maybe things can tilt a bit toward the Bulls’ favor.

Identifying the need for change is the easy part. Knowing what parts to change is where the curiosity about the remainder of this Bulls season begins.

Winning is fragile, so for all the Bulls’ inconsistencies, there’s a belief the players will get it together and continuity and familiarity will win the day, especially over the course of an 82-game season.

Making personnel changes requires the acknowledgement that the assembled roster isn’t good enough for compete for a title, and that taking a temporary step backward for the greater good is best.

Anybody with a set of eyes can tell this roster isn’t tailor fit to Hoiberg’s preferences, but it likely will be over the next couple of years where the front office brings in players to switch gears of a different kind of roster, and a different kind of philosophy.

The change will likely happen sooner than later, but to what extent?

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”