Bulls

Do-or-die time for Bulls' revamped offense to show up

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Do-or-die time for Bulls' revamped offense to show up

One year and two weeks ago the Bulls took the United Center floor facing elimination. Squaring off against an upbeat Washington Wizards team led by a pair of blossoming guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal, Tom Thibodeau's group proceeded to shoot 33 percent from the field and tied a franchise playoff-low with 69 points in a Game 5 loss, a disappointing end to a season in which they admittedly overachieved yet still fell short of the championship aspirations they had when the season began.

With that infamous performance in mind, GM Gar Forman and the Bulls used that offseason to re-tool their offensive arsenal. A healthy Derrick Rose returned after essentially two years away from the game. The front office agreed to a deal with overseas rookie Nikola Mirotic. Jimmy Butler locked himself in a Houston house with no internet or cable, focusing on nothing but basketball. The team signed veteran Pau Gasol two weeks after trading up for and drafting sharpshooter Doug McDermott. They also added shoot-first point guard Aaron Brooks to complement a second unit that touted Taj Gibson and Tony Snell.

The massive overhaul was indeed a required one. The Bulls had ranked dead last in points per game the previous two seasons, and even under a defensive genius in Thibodeau realized the current group simply wasn't going to cut it in the playoffs, when every team has the ability to tally 100 points on a given night.

[MORE: Gibson's controversial ejection proves costly in Game 5 loss]

The results were telling. Despite a myriad of injuries to key players over the course of the season, the Bulls finished the regular season ranked 10th in offensive efficiency, showed off terrific balance as one of three teams (OKC, ORL) with three players averaging 17 or more points per game (Butler/Gasol/Rose) and went 35-10 when scoring 100 or more points. Their defensive prowess continued, finishing 11th in defensive efficiency, and they also proved they could win games by outscoring teams rather than simply out-uglying their opponent in a 12-round boxing tilt.

And still, 54 weeks later, the Bulls find themselves in the same predicament, facing elimination at home without any idea of which offensive group will show up Thursday night against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Rose has lost his hot shooting touch from earlier in the series. Gasol is banged up and will give all he can with a bum hamstring. The bench, which was supposed to be a major advantage against Cleveland, has done nothing but fire blanks. Joakim Noah has become a shell of himself that the Cavaliers defense isn't honoring in the slightest, switching any ball screen he sets and not worrying about what may happen on a mismatch in the post.

The Cavaliers defense has been superb in the series. Though they were better defensively in the regular season with Kevin Love off the court, they're still down one of their superstars while trying to hide a hobbled Kyrie Irving on defensive sets whenever possible. Even LeBron James has been matched up with Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy a considerable amount in an attempt to keep him fresh for offensive sets, where his playoff usage is at a career-high without Love and a 100 percent Irving.

[WATCH: Friedell previews Game 6 between the Bulls and Cavs]

And how have the Bulls responded? By shooting less than 41 percent from the field - less than 39 percent since their offensive barrage in Game 1 - including 39.5 percent combined shooting form their backcourt duo of Rose and Butler, which also was supposed to be an advantage and their main key to success. Chicago's effective field goal percentage - which weighs 3-pointers more heavily - in the series is 45.6 percent, a number that would have tied Charlotte for worst in the NBA in the regular season.

The maddening part of it all is that the offense has been crisp everywhere else. They've turned the ball over on 12 percent of possessions, the best mark in the second round of the eight teams remaining, and their 28.6 percent offensive rebounding rate is also the NBA's best mark this round - they have 83 second-chance points in five games. They haven't earned as many trips to the free throw line against a stout Cavaliers defense that has defended to near-perfection at the rim (Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson should teach verticality classes in the offseason) and received stellar contributions from Iman Shumpert on the perimeter. Still, their offensive execution has been there, minus that little part about putting the ball in the hoop.

Thibodeau, ever a perfectionist on the defensive end, noted after Game 5 that offense wasn't the problem, citing the Bulls' 101 points in a losing effort. But to get to the century mark the Bulls needed a frantic fourth quarter in which they shot 7-for-13 in a 7-minute span that cut the Cavs' lead from 17 to two. And even then, the Bulls still shot just 40 percent from the field and needed 41 shots in the paint to score 38 points (in contrast, Cleveland took 32 shot in the paint to score 40 points).

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

It would be easy to point to Gasol's absence as a factor in the low offensive output. But the Spaniard shot a combined 6-for-15 in Games 2 and 3 and can't be expected to carry a load playing in Game 6 on a hamstring he admitted was at 40 percent two days ago.

The onus must be put on Rose and Butler, the team's two volume shooters and healthy stars, to find the right shots and knock them down with confidence like they did in Game 1, when they combined for 45 points. Of course, it goes deeper than that. The Bulls need to find ways to free up Dunleavy, Noah must face the basket and find open cutters (and not take any more lefty layups) and a bench which has combined to shoot under 39 percent has to give some kind of spark when Butler and Rose get their few minutes of rest.

Slowing down James and a Cavaliers offense that's hitting their stride late in the series would be the optimal solution for the Bulls. It just isn't feasible. At some point - with that "point" being a do-or-die Game 6 occurring later tonight - the Bulls must make good on what their entire offseason plan of attack was predicated on: finding the scoring to compete in the postseason.

They'll score more than 69 points. But if they can't start making shots, the end result will feel just the same.

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

In the first round of testing announced since the NBA began playing official restart games on July 30, there's more good news.

Of the 343 players tested for COVID-19 since the last results were announced on July 29, there remains zero positive tests. This is the third round of testing results made public in a joint statement from the NBA and NBPA, whose strict safety protocols appear to be working. Teams have now been in the so-called "bubble" on the Disney World campus outside Florida for close to a month.

Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest Bulls news and analysis.

The statement reiterated that if one positive test occurs, that player will be isolated until he meets all rules established by the two parties to resume play. The 22 teams on the Disney campus traveled with limited parties of 35 people. Players undergo daily testing.

The season is scheduled to conclude in October with the NBA Finals. Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, long made it clear they badly wanted to crown a 2019-20 champion, even when Silver paused the league in mid-March after Rudy Gobert posted the first positive test. The league and NBPA have drawn rave reviews from around the sporting world for the execution of their plan to this point.

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Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

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So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Then: “I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:

 

Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:

  

All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:

 

“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.

 

Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.


How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play

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