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?”
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.