Overcalculating, underestimating - everything went wrong for Bulls this season

Overcalculating, underestimating - everything went wrong for Bulls this season

When a team like the Chicago Bulls was dependent on the woebegone Brooklyn Nets to throw them a life preserver in order to keep slim playoff hopes alive earlier this week, it isn’t merely a failure at one level at the expense of another.

Not as simple as Tom Thibodeau’s departure and not as convenient as the crushing injuries that took a lot of steam from this team’s rhythm.

It’s been breakdowns at multiple levels, some overestimation and underestimation, which is leading to the franchise missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008. It’s been a season of change, with Jimmy Butler taking more reins while going through growing pains, Fred Hoiberg’s arrival and the built-in continuity wasn’t able to keep this team afloat in the meantime — in fact, it seemed the infrastructure crumbled before our eyes.

It’s easy to place blame on the coaching change, replacing Thibodeau with Hoiberg.

Hoiberg has struggled to connect with a team that was used to being coached a certain way, players who only knew Thibodeau’s way of sucking blood from a stone, of grinding and grinding until there was nothing left.

Hoiberg’s open-collared approach was hailed by many in the beginning, and players have praised the way his experience has led to knowing when to back off, physically and otherwise.

The free-flowing offense seemed great in application, but the players struggled to fully embrace it, often falling into old, comfortable habits from the previous regime.

But the results haven’t borne in Hoiberg’s favor, partly due to the way he was brought in, packaged and presented as the elixir to the unrelenting Thibodeau. In some ways, this was inevitable; If he wins games, it was him loosening the reins and allowing the grown men to be men and flourish, which he felt he gave them enough rope to do..

If he didn’t, it was because the players needed to be rode and driven like Thibodeau had done for so many years. Honestly, neither description fits to the letter, with shades of gray all around, but there was a prevailing feeling of Hoiberg failing to hold players accountable — which he must improve.

The players wanted the freedom, but didn’t realize it would come at the expense of winning. They didn’t miss Thibodeau per se, but they missed the structure at times, the way Thibodeau “thought for them” as opposed to Hoiberg wanting them to think for themselves.

Clearly, it was a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

Did Hoiberg miscalculate his transition to the pro game? Yes. He also had no inkling that he’d walk into a locker room so quiet, so unfamiliar with using its own voice because there was little room for air with Thibodeau leading the charge.

It’s natural to take the comparisons to Golden State coach Steve Kerr and Kerr’s transition from the front office to the broadcast booth to the bench — likely giving Hoiberg visions of grandeur, a natural optimistic feeling one has to have when leaving a home where he was treated like royalty.

But to no fault of his own were two factors: He isn’t as edgy as Kerr, who has a smooth veneer but was hardened by experiences due to his father’s untimely death in college and the verbal abuse he endured immediately thereafter.

Hoiberg’s heart scare a decade ago, while serious and life-changing, didn’t harden him. It made him grateful for life, made him appreciate the game and what it brought him and his family — but it didn’t produce an edge, although his career ending prematurely produced some regret.

In any event, the pressure Hoiberg has felt this season — completely different than being at Iowa State, different than being a dependable reserve at various stops as a player — is likely something he was a little unprepared for, in the nation’s third-largest media market and high expectations.

Hoiberg mishandled the Joakim Noah situation, when Hoiberg thought he was protecting Noah by saying Noah volunteered becoming a reserve for the first time in his career when Hoiberg came to the natural conclusion Noah and Pau Gasol couldn’t play in tandem — likely believing it could have the same effect Kerr had with Andre Iguodala going to the bench in favor or Harrison Barnes last season.

It had some bumps, but Iguodala has turned into one of the league’s most valuable cogs, helping the Warriors win 67 games last year and a title — followed by this year’s record-breaking, encore performance.

However Noah, prideful as he is, wouldn’t back up Hoiberg’s story, leading to a jumbled mess of a situation, and Hoiberg damaged a relationship with the one experienced vocal player many in the locker room followed — the closest thing Hoiberg could’ve had to a lieutenant to carry out his message.

With that said, one has to wonder if Hoiberg was properly vetted? One has to wonder if there was a miscalculation from those who hired him, perhaps scarred from the Thibodeau experience of finding a coach so hard to work with that the first box they checked off on the proverbial list was “can we work with him?”

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Because one thing appeared obvious once the muscle memory wore off and it was early December, as the puzzling losses started piling up against inferior opponents, this team being brought together en masse didn’t help Hoiberg.

Of the eight playoff teams, each of them have at least three impact players in their prime or at least giving “prime” production. These Bulls have just one, essentially in Jimmy Butler.

Derrick Rose was battling his eyesight then his body for parts of the season, although he came on strong after the All-Star break. Butler took another step before his season took a turn with his knee injury, the first in a max contract he signed last summer. But there’s still question as to how he and Butler fit in a backcourt, and how the hierarchy fits between the two on the floor.

It’s no secret Butler’s ascension in the locker room rubbed some the wrong way at times. He aired out Hoiberg publicly after a loss to the Knicks in December, and although some teammates wished he hadn’t taken it out of the sanctity of the locker room, they didn’t disagree with him.

Butler is adjusting to a situation where his voice holds the most weight in a locker room for the first time in his career — not just as a professional, given his back-road approach to stardom — as being a max player adds a responsibility on the court and off it, as far as connecting with his teammates.

He struggled with that at times this season, with his competitiveness and work ethic being the best weapon for leadership as opposed to inspiration, but he is self-aware of the growth he must achieve for the Bulls to return to contention.

His teammates, some who remember him coming into the league as everyone’s “little brother,” have had trouble adjusting to Butler becoming “big brother” in the blink of an eye.

Roster turnover could help Butler put his stamp on the locker room as he continues to evolve, and Butler has invited teammates to work out with him in Los Angeles this summer — and Rose will attend at some point, likely during a three-day period where the two could bond under the watchful eyes of Butler's trainers, Chris Johnson and Travelle Gaines.

More importantly, Butler wants everyone to see how hard he works but presumably he’ll walk away with a better understanding of his teammates and more of a natural connection.

Yes, the Bulls did inquire to a couple teams at the trade deadline about Butler and Rose, along with Pau Gasol, league sources tell CSNChicago.com. They had preliminary discussions with the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics, but when the Celtics wouldn’t put promising forward Jae Crowder in their package of picks and players, there was no realistic possibility of a trade.

Butler also has a five percent trade kicker, according to league sources, where the Bulls would have to pay him an additional $2.6 million to leave, essentially.

With Gasol, the Bulls were onboard for a deal with Sacramento at the deadline, according to league sources. It did involve Gasol, Tony Snell and Kirk Hinrich (later traded to Atlanta) for Kosta Koufos and Ben McLemore.

It’s widely believed the Bulls pulled out of the trade but league sources say the Kings pulled out first when the Philadelphia 76ers, a team helping facilitate the deal, wanted a second-round pick from the Bulls and Kings.

The Kings balked at that prospect, along with the Bulls wanting them to lower the Top 10 protection of the 1st round draft pick the Kings owe the Bulls from the Luol Deng trade in 2014.

Once that scenario was laid out, the Bulls declined to go further with the deal and rolled the dice with Gasol for the rest of the season, as he’ll opt out of his contract and hit free agency this summer.

They did pick up promising Justin Holiday with the Hinrich deal and Cristiano Felicio proved to be a find toward the end of the season, as he looks to be the most dependable of the young players they’ve acquired in the last two seasons — which could also be an indictment of who they’ve invested in, believing they were ready to take leading roles.

In some ways, it’s been a lost season for the players unless you count the underwhelming way Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Snell have performed, to varying degrees.

McDermott has improved in Year 2, making himself one of the league’s best shooters while adding flashes of creating shots off the bounce, although he goes through maddening stretches where he disappears while still being a target on the defensive end.

Mirotic is tougher to evaluate, as he didn’t turn into the dependable starter next to Gasol, a key to Hoiberg’s ball-movement offense working. The appendectomy he underwent before the All-Star break made things murky, and he has shot 43 percent from 3 since his return.

But is he a core piece? Is McDermott? And will management still hold one or both in such high regard as opposed to being willing to include their cherished pieces in offseason deals?

The Bulls likely had too many young pieces for an inexperienced coach who’s still growing into his job and his new voice. There’s no sure way out, even as the Bulls have cap space headed into the summer and will have a lottery pick — thanks to missing the playoffs.

For that to occur, everything had to go wrong.

And seemingly, it did.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future


Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.