Bulls

Rose puts the Bulls on his back

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Rose puts the Bulls on his back

No, Tuesday nights 76-74 Bulls (5-1) win was not a flashback to last season. Yes, many of the same elementsa slow start, poor shooting, never refusing to quit, a comeback sparked by stout defense, dramatic twists and turns up until the final buzzer existed and even a familiar foe in the Hawks (4-2)but until Luol Dengs game-winning layup fell through the net, the raucous United Center crowd couldnt be completely sure their beloved home team had its mojo back.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, the architect of the masterfully-executed out-of-bounds play that produced the winning basket argued, We caught a break that thats a second night for them, back-to-back, but anybody who watched the Bulls grind out a significant portion of their 62 regular-season victories in a similarly ugly fashion knows otherwise.

Although the visitors were coming off a night in which they came from behind to win in Miami, they still attempted to push the tempo in the games early going and had successful results, getting out to a 13-4 lead.

That was our first thought from the beginning to tire out the Hawks, but they came out, we couldnt hit a shot, we werent playing defense, said Derrick Rose. Thats how they got the big lead.

Versatile forwards Marvin Williams (14 points, eight rebounds) and Josh Smith (15 points, 14 rebounds) were both very active and go-to scorer Joe Johnson (10 points on 3-for-17 shooting), last seen by Chicago fans getting hounded into a dreadful playoff showing, was also effective.

The home team failed to take care of the basketball and fell into sloppy habits, though the up-and-down pace suited Rose (30 points, seven assists, 11-for-13 from the foul line) well, as he abandoned the distributor role he claimed at the games outset in favor of attacking the rim as a scorer. Still, after a quarter of play, the Hawks had a 23-15 advantage.

It was disappointing, the way we started the game. I thought we were playing a low-energy game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. I give them a lot of credit. I thought that they played great. They were more aggressive to start the game. When we play without pace, we struggle.

Even the insertion of the typically-energetic Bench Mobminus swingman Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who missed his second consecutive game with a groin injury, while C.J. Watson was also absent due to a sprained left elbow and was replaced in the rotation by third-string point guard John Lucas IIIdidnt help matters for the Bulls, as Atlanta maintained its double-digit cushion. There was a lid on the rim for the listless hosts, who mishandled the ball even when left alone, missed an assortment of open shots and blew defensive assignments.

Thibodeau tried different combinations and offensive setsas promised, Brewer occasionally initiated the offense, with Rose playing off the ballbut with the starting frontcourt of Deng (21 points, eight rebounds), Carlos Boozer (11 points, nine rebounds) and Joakim Noah combining to make just four of 19 attempts from the field and the team shooting 24.3 percent overall, it was too much to overcome. At the halftime break, the home team trailed, 38-26, partially as a result of the Hawks zone defense and somewhat due to their own uninspired play.

Explained Thibodeau: For whatever reason, I just thought, in the first half as a team, we were just backwards. We were shooting when we should have been passing, we were passing when we should have been shooting and we couldnt get anything easy, and I think thats important for us, to get some easy baskets and get a flow to the game.

Added Deng, who said that the fiery head coach was unexpectedly really positive at halftime: We had good looks. We just didnt make them. But their zone did bother us. Its the most zone weve seen this year, so Im sure the next practice that we have or even the next tape session, well be talking about zone offense a lot.

The tide began to turn early in the third quarter, as the Bulls used much-improved defenseafter Noah picked up a pair of quick fouls to give him four for the game, backup center Omer Asik (nine rebounds, three blocked shots) impacted the game with his shot-blocking acumen and overall defensive presence, not to mention a surprisingly fluid reverse layup in transitionand more efficient offense, sparked by Roses playmaking, to get a rise out of the discontent United Center crowd. However, as Atlanta settled down and was more patient with its offense and shot selection, the suddenly scoring-deficient Bulls gradually fell into an even deeper hole, trailing by as many as 19 points.

Boozer, the target of many fans dismay, started the period slowly and picked up his play as the frame waned on, but his lack of intensity on the defensive end forced Thibodeau to pull him from the game for the more active Taj Gibson. But the much-maligned power forward cant possibly shoulder all the blame for the lackluster effortdesignated sharpshooter Kyle Korver (eight rebounds) missed a wide-open three-pointer and a technical foul free throw, Brewer struggled to hit a variety of shots and the normally-reliable duo of Rose and Deng also struggledwhich left the Bulls down, 56-42, heading into the final stanza.

It was just one of those nights, but the way that we play on the offensive end cant affect the way we play defensively, said a dour Rose afterwards. Our defense always has to be there.

As if they finally realized how lousy they were playing, the Bulls came out like they were shot out of a cannon in the fourth quarter, with the slumping Korver knocking down a triple to open the periods scoring. Rose followed with a pair of shots from long range, sandwiched around two free throws and an Atlanta three-pointer, but after Deng turned a Hawks turnover into a fast-break layup, Chicago cut the deficit to five points with under 10 minutes to play.

It was officially a ballgame again and the Bulls suddenly morphed into the lovable, scrappy squad of last season, as Rose switched into takeover modebreaking ankles and slashing to the basket when he wasnt draining long bombs or calmly sinking foul shotsand a frenetic, trapping defense (even Korver, back on the floor after Thibodeau briefly took him out at the end of the previous period, was hustling all over the court to make plays, something unexpected for a player considered a defensive liability by many) rushed Atlanta into hurried possessions.

Ive been focusing on my rebounding a lot, trying to get more of those. Were a good rebounding teamsometimes theres not many rebounds to getbut thats something Thibs talked to me about and something Ive been focusing around lately, and just trying to be an all-around player, said Korver. No one wants to be labeled a one-dimensional person.

Deng, who turned up his aggressiveness as a scorer, hit a corner three-pointer just prior to the quarters midway point that knotted up the score at 62 apiece, setting the stage for a tense stretch run.

As he did in last years playoffs, Thibodeau rode the athletic, defensive-minded combination of Gibson and Asikalong with fellow reserve Korver, they were paired with starters Rose and Dengfor the final period of the low-scoring, close-knit affair, counting on their heart to make up for whatever the unit lacked in scoring balance.

We were very flat. We were searching. That group got some momentum going, so we were staying with them. We felt like they got them out of the hole, so they deserved the chance to finish it, reasoned Thibodeau. There was a stretch where I was going to come back with the starters, but that group was making their run and it was a lot of ground to make up, and I felt at that point, you couldnt afford to have another lull. They looked like they were fine and we looked like we were picking up our energy, and Derrick and Luol are accustomed to playing big minutes.

I thought Taj and Omer came in and gave us a lot of energy, he continued. The bench was very good. Of course, Derrick was sensational down the stretch, just made big play after big play. You cant say enough about Luol. He does everything. He rebounds, he defends, cuts, active, tough, smart.

Following a Deng layup and an Atlanta turnover, a Rose layup with 57.9 seconds on the clock gave the Bulls a 72-71 lead, their first of the game, but a subsequent thunderous alley-oop finish quickly changed the atmosphere of the arena.

Rose missed a leaning floater on the next possession, then Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was fouled and missed a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 16.3 seconds to go, setting up Rose making a tough, driving layup in traffic with 9.9 seconds left, giving the Bulls back the lead. The game appeared to be signed, sealed and delivered, but an inexplicable off-the-ball foul called on Deng sent Horford to the line and the All-Star split a pair of free throws, tying the game at 74 with 7.7 seconds remaining.

But Deng refused to be the goat, cutting backdoor to receive a perfectly-timed pass from Noahback in the game for his passing in place of Asik, the center knew the Hawks would focus on denying Rose the ballfor a layup with 3.7 seconds to go.

We run it every day after practiceevery single dayand it works. We see it works now. Lu got an easy basket. The guy that was sticking him turned his back and Joakim threw a great pass to Lu, and Lu had a layup, Rose broke down the play to reporters. I set the back pick for Kyle and then I go off a screen, Kyle goes off, then Joakim gets me, I act like Im going to the hole, set a back pick for Lu, Lu flies off. If Lu isnt open, dribble handoff.

Summarized Thibodeau: Theres multiple options on the playobviously were trying to get it to Derrickand they did a good job taking the first and second options away, and then Derrick made a great screen and Jo made a terrific pass, Lu made a great cut.

Atlantas final attempt, a Johnson jumper at the buzzer, was off, but the crowd was already breathing easy, knowing the ending to a familiar story.

With 2021 NBA Free Agency looming, Bulls fired Jim Boylen in the nick of time

With 2021 NBA Free Agency looming, Bulls fired Jim Boylen in the nick of time

In retrospect, we should have all seen it coming. On the final day of the NBA regular season, Arturas Karnisovas fired Bulls head coach Jim Boylen, ending a nearly two-year tenure that saw the team play to a 39-84 record.

“I thought the timing was right right now, going into the lottery and the draft process. It’s an official offseason for us. So we thought it was good timing,” Karnisovas said in a conference call Friday.

The seeding phase of the league’s restart ending Friday and the draft lottery six days ahead does provide a nice bit of symmetry. But was Aug. 14 too long to wait? Karnisovas officially accepted his position as executive vice president of basketball operations on April 13. He brought in new front office hires in Marc Eversley, J.J. Polk and Pat Connelly in early May. Yet Boylen’s tenure dragged into the dog days of summer.

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Why? Karnisovas addressed that on said conference call.

“I took my time for a reason. It was a process to make that decision. Over the last few months, since I was hired in April, I had no timeline,” he said. “This was the right time to make this change.”

“Since it was a very unique situation to be hired in April, we took our time. The restrictions were lifted a little bit more. Interaction was involved.”

That answer echoes Karnisovas’ reputation as a thoughtful and deliberate decision-maker. He’s also said in the past that, in his eyes, forming personal relationships is requisite to holding employees accountable — player or coach. Some will appreciate that approach applied in this context, especially given that he’s inheriting a franchise that has twice in the past has parted ways with coaches on Christmas Eve. Some may not.

But bottom line: The end result is the one the Bulls badly needed to reach, and just in the nick of time.

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The cruciality of moving on from Boylen now is multi-layered. For one, there appears to be burbling optimism that the eight teams excluded from the NBA’s Disney World restart will find a way to resume basketball activities in some capacity soon. It may not be in a second bubble, but even organized OTAs with group activities would be a step up for a Bulls team that has been constrained to voluntary individual workouts with stringent protocols thus far. 

“The players now can work out individually in our practice facility, and our gym is pretty,” Karnisovas said on the call. “So while we’re waiting, if we can get any additional support from the league — again, overall the league regrets that we couldn’t get anything done until now. But I’m hopeful to get something soon.”

Starting the search “immediately” (in Karnisovas’ words) could have a new coach in the Advocate Center doors for all or some of those activities, should they come to fruition. Even if it doesn’t, the Bulls still have plenty of runway before the start of the 2020-21 campaign, which has yet to be finalized.

And in a big picture sense, getting fresh blood in the building has the potential to further a much-needed shift in the Bulls’ league wide perception that was catalyzed by its front office facelift months ago. 

Because this decision makes the organizational message clear: No half-measures. With a new executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager, burgeoning player development personnel, and soon a new coach — particularly, one that will replace a coach that lost games at a historic clip and often prompted questions about his player relationships — there are no caveats required to call this a new era of Bulls basketball; an era in which player development appears to be king, and mediocrity isn’t tolerated.

“The signal is that we’re changing things. It signals that we’re looking forward to what comes next,” Karnisovas said. “We just felt this program needed a change and needed a change now. And I can’t wait to find the next coach for this group.”

The looming free agency period of 2021 makes sending that signal now all the more important. Of course, firing Boylen doesn’t guarantee the Bulls Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo. It might not even get them a meeting. 

For the time being, the Bulls are pretty much locked in place from a roster standpoint. Otto Porter Jr. opting in to his $28.5 million player option — which still qualifies as a near-certainty — and the cap hits the team’s first- and second-round draft choices will eventually invoke will cinch the Bulls in as an over-the-cap club for the 2020-21 season. 

So, the ship likely isn’t getting entirely righted overnight. Whatever your opinion of Boylen, some share of the blame for a 22-win season falls on the roster, as well. However talented you deem the Bulls’ core pieces, new leadership won’t vault them straight to title contention. 

But they don’t necessarily need to, at least not next season. The foundation has to start somewhere, and that summer of 2021 is where things get interesting. To steal a chart from myself, here’s what the Bulls books roughly look heading into that summer, as matters stand right now (via Spotrac): 

  2020-21 2021-22 2022-23 2023-24
Total Cap Allocations $106,027,707 $65,249,867 $9,344,636 $0
Signed Players 13 8 2 0

A possible Lauri Markkanen’s extension is pending, but partial guarantees on the third years of Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young’s contracts, as well as a team option on the third year of Ryan Arcidiacono’s, provides flexibility. Bottom line: They’ll be in a position to make major changes, possibly a splash — assuming the salary cap holds in the vicinity of its current $109.1 million status.

Which makes it all the more imperative that the 2020-21 season not play out as 2019-20 did. The Bulls are an attractive coaching job for the same reasons they were an attractive front office gig — young talent on the roster (albeit largely unproven), own all their own draft capital, cap space coming, big market, rabid fanbase — but to leverage all of that into being a desirable player destination, the soggy hunk of clay that is this rebuild needs to take shape. 

To follow in the footsteps of recent successful rebuilds — think Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers; big-market teams that parlayed modica of promising talent into scrappy overperformance on the court, and, in turn, big moves on the trade and free agent markets — the Bulls need to transform themselves into a team on the rise. 

That doesn’t have to mean a top-four seed or a first-round playoff victory from the jump. But it starts with maximizing the pieces on the team now and improving next season, so that, in the age or perpetual player movement, when opportunity comes knocking, they’ll be prepared to seize it. It’s evident by the results that Boylen wasn’t the person to foster such progression.

A coach with a specialization in player development and relationships — which Karnisvoas said will be a focal point in the search — will be a foundational step. What the changes necessary will look like specifically may have to wait until Karnisovas and Co. have a precise candidate in their sights. Fortunately, there’s just about nowhere to go but up.

For now, it’s at least refreshing to know the Bulls are on the right track.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Jim Boylen is out as Bulls head coach

Bulls Talk Podcast: Jim Boylen is out as Bulls head coach

Once the regular season ended, the official start of the offseason began and the Bulls' first move was to let Jim Boylen go. In an emergency edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, host Jason Goff is joined by Bulls insider K.C. Johnson and Bulls beat writer Rob Schaefer as they discuss the decision.

(1:30) - What led Arturas Karnisovas to the decision to let go, Jim Boylen

(6:00) - Arturas Karnisovas on having full power to make decisions

(16:30) - Potential candidates to replace Jim Boylen

(25:20) - How can a coach get the best out of the current Bulls roster

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Talk Podcast

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