Bulls

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.

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

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USA TODAY

Wichita State's Landry Shamet could give Bulls backcourt versatility they desperately need

The Bulls are in need of talent. That much is clear after a 27-win campaign in which they finished ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They’ll add a pair of prospects next month, with two selections in the first round, and presumably take the next step in their rebuild. Talent is important, that can’t be overstated. The Bulls should stick to their board and take the best player available nine out of 10 times.

But as much as the Bulls need an influx of talent, versatility in the backcourt might be a close second. And while there isn’t really any player at No. 7 that would fit that bill – they could reach for Collin Sexton – there are a number of versatile guards, in a class dominated at the top by bigs, who could be there when the Bulls are on the clock at No. 22.

Meet Wichita State guard Landry Shamet. That classic NBA buzzword “versatile” is thrown around more often than ever before. The idea that a player can play multiple positions, can defend 1-3 or has the potential to learn two spots at the next level. Then there’s Shamet. He’s actually done it.

He arrived in Wichita as a shooting guard, the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine years. A broken foot cost him all but three games of his freshman season, but he returned in 2016 and made an immediate impact, including a shift to point guard midway through the season; the move went seamlessly, as he led the Shockers in assists (3.3) and was 14th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00). He matched Kentucky freshman point guard DeAaron Fox in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 20 points on 7 of 14 shooting in a loss.

He remained at point guard in his sophomore season and dominated, earning an honorable mention All-American nod while leading the team in points (14.9) assists (5.2), and 3-pointers (2.6) per game for a Shockers team ranked in the top 25 all year, and as high as No. 3 in December.

He had the ball in his hands plenty at Wichita State, but his shooting hardly suffered. A point guard in name, his shooting may be his best attribute. In his final two seasons Shamet shot 44.1 percent from deep on 354 attempts. He was the nation’s best spot-up shooter when Greg Marshall used him off the ball, and made multiple 3-pointers in 23 of 32 games.

His versatility can best be explained as such: He was the only player in the country – and just the 13th since 1992 – to average at least five assists, 2.5 3-pointers per game and shoot 44 percent from deep. The 6-foot-5 guard brings shooting, facilitating and length defensively to the table. It’s no cliché.

“I feel like I can step in and do whatever a coach needs me to do, whether it’s playing on the ball being a facilitator/playmaker/initiating offense, or a guy you’ve got to honor off the ball (as) a spot-up shooter,” Shamet said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine.

He struggled shooting in the 5-on-5 scrimmages over the two-day span, but also noted that he accomplished his main goal of defending well. His 6-foot-7 wingspan will be looked down upon in an era where measurements mean more than ever, but he also had a 39-inch max vertical (12th best) and a 3.11 three-quarters court sprint (10th best).

He admitted he’s more athletic than some give him credit for – as his vertical would suggest – but that his game is more “cerebral” and making the right decisions.

“I feel like I have a high IQ, a cerebral player,” he said. “I’m not going to wow you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. I feel like I’m a solid player, pretty steady across the board.”

It’s a skill set the Bulls could use. His numbers and measurements look similar to Denzel Valentine, who has drawn mixed reviews in two NBA seasons and is really the closest thing the Bulls have to a “versatile” guard; Valentine was one of 21 players with 140+ 3-pointers and 240+ assists, 12 of whom were All-Stars.

Shamet also has seven inches of vertical leap and a quicker sprint as far as Combine times are concerned, and he’s a more natural fit as a point guard than Valentine. Shamet said two players whose games he studies include Malcolm Brogdon, a less-than-flashy guard who won 2017 Rookie of the Year making just about every correct play. Brogdon possesses the same sneaky athleticism – ask LeBron James – has shot 40 percent from deep in two NBA seasons and has a 2.62 A/TO ratio.

“You don’t want to step out of your comfort zone and be somebody you’re not, so out here I’m trying to be me, be solid, (and) make the right play all the time,” he said. “I don’t rely on my athleticism, I like to think the game. So I try to just be myself.”

Kris Dunn is cemented as a point guard for the Bulls’ future, and the front office sang Cameron Payne’s praises at season’s end, though he’ll be a free agent after next season. But Dunn, Payne and Jerian Grant combined to shoot 33.6 percent from deep, and even Payne’s 38.5 percent shooting came in a limited, 25-game span.

Shamet wouldn’t be a home-run pick, and certainly not a sexy one. Those picks have burned the Bulls in the past with players like Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and even Valentine. Shamet is 21 years old and has had two major foot surgeries. But the skill set is one the Bulls have needed for some time. And in a draft where the Bulls will be searching for talent, adding a player who fits the bill as a team need as well makes sense.

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Versatility is Wendell Carter Jr's calling card

Wendell Carter Jr. didn’t come to the NBA Draft Combine with the boastful statements made by his peers, refusing to declare himself the best player in a loaded draft.

But it doesn’t mean he lacks for confidence.

Carter Jr. is one of the more intriguing prospects in next month’s draft, even though he doesn’t come with the heavy fanfare of what many expect to be the top three picks.

One of those top three players was Carter Jr’s teammate at Duke, Marvin Bagley III, relegating Carter Jr. to a supporting role of sorts in his lone collegiate season. He couldn’t turn college basketball upside down as a freshman; He didn’t have the opportunity to, still averaging 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 29.1 minutes last season.

“Bagley's a phenomenal player. He came into college basketball, did what he was supposed to do,” Carter Jr. said. “My role changed a little bit but like I said, I'm a winner and I'll do what it takes to win.”

Like he said, considering it was the fifth time he patted himself on the back, describing his positive attributes. It didn’t come across as obnoxious, but more an affirmation, a reminder that his willingness to sacrifice personal glory shouldn’t overshadow his ability.

“I'm pretty versatile as a player,” Carter Jr. said. “I'd just find a way to fit into the team, buy into the system. I'm a winner. Do whatever it takes to win.”

When asked about his strengths, he didn’t hesitate to say he’s “exceptional” at rebounding and defending, certainly things teams would love to see come to fruition if he’s in their uniform next season.

Playing next to Bagley and not being the first option—or even the second when one considers Grayson Allen being on the perimeter—forced him to mature more in the little things.

“It was (an adjustment) at first,” Carter Jr. said. “I knew what I could do without scoring the ball. I did those things. I did them very exceptional. I found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”

“I think it did do wonders for me. It definitely helped me out, allowed me to show I can play with great players but still maintain my own.”

If he’s around at the seventh slot, the Bulls will likely take a hard look at how he could potentially fit next to Lauri Markkanen and in the Bulls’ meeting with Carter Jr., the subject was broached.

“Great process. I was just thinking, me and him together playing on the court together would be a killer,” he said with a smile.

“I know they wanna get up and down the court more. The NBA game is changing, there's no more true centers anymore. They wanna have people who can shoot from the outside, it's something I'll have to work on through this draft process.”

An executive from a franchise in the lottery said Carter Jr’s game is more complete than Bagley’s, and that Carter Jr. could be the safer pick even if he isn’t more talented than his teammate.

It’s no surprise Carter Jr. has been told his game reminds them of Celtics big man Al Horford. Horford has helped the Celtics to a commanding 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in no small part due to his inside-outside game and ability to ably defend guards and wings on the perimeter.

Horford doesn’t jump off the screen, but he’s matured into a star in his role after coming into the NBA with a pretty grown game as is. Carter Jr. has shown flashes to validate those comparisons.

“Whatever system I come to, I buy in,” Carter Jr. said. “Coaches just want to win. I want to win too. Whatever they ask me to do. If it's rebounding, blocking shots, setting picks, I'm willing to do that just to win.”

He was also told he compares to Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge, two disparate players but players the Bulls have had a history with in the draft. The Bulls passed on Green in the first round of the 2012 draft to take Marquis Teague, and in Aldridge’s case, picked him second in 2007 before trading him to Portland for Tyrus Thomas.

As one can imagine, neither scenario has been suitable for framing in the Bulls’ front office, but whether they see Carter Jr. as a the next versatile big in an increasingly positionless NBA remains to be seen.

“I definitely buy into that (positionless basketball). I'm a competitor,” Carter Jr. said. “Especially on the defensive end. Working on my lateral quickness, just so I could guard guards on pick and roll actions. Offensively I didn't show much of it at Duke but I'm pretty versatile. I can bring it up the court. Can shoot it from deep, all three levels.”

His versatility has come into play off the floor as well, deftly answering questions about his mother comparing the NCAA’s lack of compensation for athletes to slavery.

Carter Jr’s mother, Kylia Carter, spoke at the Knight Comission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently and made the claim.

“The only system I have ever seen where the laborers are the only people that are not being compensated for the work that they do, while those in charge receive mighty compensation … The only two systems where I’ve known that to be in place is slavery and the prison system, and now I see the NCAA as overseers of a system that is identical to that.”

As if he needed to add context to the statement, Carter Jr. indulged the media members who asked his opinion on the matter—or at least, his opinion of his mother’s opinion.

“A lot of people thought she was saying players were slaves and coaches were slave owners,” Carter Jr. said. “Just the fact, we do go to college, we're not paid for working for someone above us and the person above us is making all the money.”

As sensible as his comment was, as direct as his mother’s statements were, he still finds himself in a position where he has to defend his mother. In some cases, teams asked him about her—but that’s not to say they disagreed with her premise.

“My mom is my mom,” Carter Jr. said. “She has her opinions and doesn't mind sharing them. In some aspects I do agree with her. In others...you'll have to ask her if you want to know more information.”

“I never thought my mom is ever wrong. But I think people do perceive her in the wrong way. Some things she does say...that's my mom. You have to ask her.”

The versatility to handle things out of his control, as well as understanding how his season at Duke prepared him for walking into an NBA locker room should be noted.

There’s no delusions of grandeur, despite his unwavering confidence.

“I'd come in and try to outwork whoever's in front of me,” Carter Jr. said. “That's the beauty of the beast. You come into a system, There's players in front of you 3-4-5 years and know what it takes.”

“I would learn those things and let the best man win.”