For all the steps the Bulls have taken in the attempt to keep drama down and to simplify things, they’ve somehow found themselves at a critical juncture in the season and it’s not even halfway through.
Rajon Rondo promised to be professional through his new situation, and if his cooperation with the media is any indication there’s little reason to believe he’ll be intentionally disruptive.
Rondo and the Bulls haven’t engaged in buyout talks or trying to trade Rondo, sources tell CSNChicago.com, but one wonders how long Rondo will stay on the pine and tolerate it before he wants out—a reasonable thought considering Rondo’s pedigree.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg is outwardly ignoring the talk about his seat being hot after an uneven slow start, but inwardly you have to wonder how responsible he feels for things compared to factors outside his control.
Hoiberg and Rondo, for their differing beliefs on expectations of one another and opinion of Rondo’s play, are almost at a perfect parallel.
Best of intentions, but intentions aren’t always enough in this NBA.
Rondo can’t shoot, but that’s been known since his days at Kentucky. His defense has slipped since his early years in Boston, but that wasn’t exactly a secret either.
Hoiberg, although well-intentioned, can’t make Nikola Mirotic more consistent. Nor can he make this roster less dependent on Mirotic. Hoiberg can’t make his players recognize when a guy like Doug McDermott has the hot hand and to keep feeding him—but he can’t blame the team if they decide McDermott’s defensive lapses means they have trouble seeing him on the other side of the floor.
Rondo, one can glean, feels misled from his early meeting with the Bulls in free agency, when he and Hoiberg commiserated over a film session and likely bonded over Rondo’s creativity for thinking on the run, not always needing to look over to the coach for direction.
But that was before Dwyane Wade was fully into the Bulls’ orbit, and his place on the pecking order changed upon Wade’s agreement with the Bulls to return home to Chicago as a triumphant Hall-of-Famer and de-facto big brother to Jimmy Butler, the franchise’s most important player.
“Fred and I talked in the beginning, said I would be able to call a lot of plays,” Rondo said. “(Then) the flow of the game and throughout the season things may change.”
Apparently things did change with the playcalling (otherwise Rondo wouldn’t have brought it up) leading to the change that started in Indianapolis when Rondo was benched at halftime by Hoiberg and associate coach Jim Boylen, according to Rondo’s.
“We are in constant communication, and you're always talking about the team,” said Hoiberg, in reference to consulting Wade and Butler about Rondo’s benching. “But in terms of the decision that was made, it was my decision. It's something that I decided to go with. It's something that's not always easy to make these types of decisions, but you've got to get buy-in from your group and go out and perform and compete.”
If Rondo’s benching was meant to cure an ill, it didn’t because the Milwaukee Bucks ran through and around the Bulls for a 20-point win on Saturday.
Clearly, Rondo isn’t the ideal fit for this roster, being tabbed with pushing the pace with players who aren’t the best at getting up and down the floor—hence his comment about the team’s athleticism being “bottom three” not too long ago. And it must be stated the setup of personnel was tailor-made for Mirotic to put a stranglehold on the starting power forward spot in training camp.
He didn’t have to beat Taj Gibson out, as anyone with eyes can see Gibson is the more savvy and consistent player. But Mirotic’s spacing makes life easier for Rondo, Wade and Butler while they believed they could figure out defense and rebounding on the fly.
But the gulf was so wide, Hoiberg had to go with the best performer as opposed to be the best fit.
After last season, Hoiberg couldn’t afford such an error, and to his credit he’s been more forceful this year—or as much as he can be given his nature—and things haven’t reached critical mass in the locker room.
He hasn’t lost Butler or Wade’s support, it seems. Wade isn’t a huge believer in assigning blame to coaching, even at its worst, because he’s believes in the talent on the floor making plays and players taking responsibility for the state of affairs.
That feeling has probably had an effect on Butler, too.
“I don’t know. I’m optimistic man,” Butler told CSNChicago.com Saturday night. “I think we can still turn it around, we just gotta figure it out. Everybody has to do their job better, stop making so many mistakes. We know what teams are come in here and try to do. We talk about it but we don’t do it. You can talk the talk but you don’t walk the walk, none of that s--- matters.”
Butler is controlling his frustrations, and hasn’t made any passive-aggressive statements in the media toward Hoiberg.
And with Hoiberg being owed such a sizeable amount of money on his deal, with three years at $5 million per year, along with the remaining amount for this season, it seems unlikely the Bulls would swallow that just for the sake of—especially when their stated goal was just to stay relevant for the next couple of years while the young players developed.
The Bulls haven’t fallen out of relevancy in the East, but the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening by the day as the dog days approach—along with a schedule that isn’t as kind on paper as December appeared to be.
Charlotte and Boston have appeared to establish themselves as the next tier in the East behind Cleveland and Toronto, leaving four playoff spots to be decided amongst eight teams, including the Bulls.
Charlotte is a rugged team that will defend and follow Kemba Walker’s lead, while Boston is well-coached and allowing Isaiah Thomas’s general disposition to shape their identity, while Hoiberg’s Bulls are still struggling at establishing something to hang their hat on, one year and 30-plus games into the his tenure.
Being 16-18 isn’t a death knell, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that things are moving in a definitive direction, particularly when Wade and Butler have been healthy, positive, and carrying a heavier load than one can reasonably expect—but how long can it last?
“Right now it’s who we are,” said Wade to CSNChicago.com about the team’s inconsistency after Friday’s loss to the Pacers. “You can make a change (to your patterns) but the record, a lot of times don't lie. We’re roughly a .500 team. You can see certain moments where you like certain things, you know certain things have to be a little better. Right now, our record is right about where our team is.”
“Certain moments” points to an inconsistency and an unreliability with some of the players the Bulls have expected something from this season. Neither Wade nor Butler feel the team is that far away from elevating itself to a definitive playoff team, or even one that reaches the second round with a chance to make some real noise with two prime-time perimeter players who can take over a game or series at a moment’s notice.
But with the Bulls at a crossroads, at it surely appears to be, they can’t afford to lose any more ground or that optimism can go right out the window with a four-game losing streak.
Wade and Butler have been queried multiple times, being asked if the Bulls have enough in the way of consistent personnel, to make this stopgap period worthwhile.
“I’ll leave that alone. We gotta make it enough. Whatever you have is what you have. I'm a player. My job is to play,” Wade said to CSNChicago.com.
“I very much said at the beginning of the year we’re not a championship team and everybody (got mad). We’re a playoff team, yeah. Whether we make it is on us. Your record just has to be better than (the lottery teams).”
Butler said to CSNChicago.com: “We better have enough. That’s why we’re here. You can’t feel sorry, make excuses and do this and that. We have mental lapses. That’s the stuff that hurts you.”
And if some of the players the front office believe in have decent enough value around the league despite underperforming in the present, are they ready to part with them to make the “now” more palatable while still keeping an eye toward the future as the conference will shift as LeBron James is expected (possibly) to age?
Depending on Wade and Butler to make every play in every game, particularly late, will only last so long before teams start to figure the Bulls out, if they haven't already, considering they've lost eight of eleven.
“Listen. I’m not arguing with you,” said Wade with a gleam in his eye when it was suggested the Bulls don’t have enough to keep themselves sustained in the East for 82 games.
He wasn’t suggesting anything, merely answering a question that appears quite obvious to those observing where this group could be headed.
“Noted,” he said with a laugh when it was suggested the Bulls could use one more consistent player to keep this afloat, not wanting to fully engage but not unable to deny what he sees.
But as the Bulls are firmly in the crosshairs and the crossroads, what are they willing to do—and can they pull it off?