Bulls

With the season at a crossroads, Bulls running out of time to find the right path

With the season at a crossroads, Bulls running out of time to find the right path

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?

Stories of Kobe Bryant share common themes, regardless of who tells them

Stories of Kobe Bryant share common themes, regardless of who tells them

On Monday, the world will bid the late Kobe and Gigi Bryant a final farewell in the form of a public memorial service. Bryant and Gigi’s specters have been omnipresent throughout the NBA and sports world at large since their passing, along with seven others, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 26.

But even gone from this earth, Bryant’s memory has and will continue to live on in the legacy he leaves behind. That legacy is sustained by memories and reminiscences from those who knew him and were impacted by him, whether it be as a basketball player, father or person.

Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau first encountered Bryant while serving as an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers in the mid-90s. At the time, Bryant was still enrolled at Lower Merion High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia. 

“Whenever they would have a day off from high school — we practiced at St. Joes — [Bryant] would come over and he’d be there the whole day, he'd be the first one there,” Thibodeau told Tom Haberstroh during a live taping of The Habershow podcast over All-Star weekend in Chicago. “And that's how I got to know him. He would ask, 'Can you work me out?' then he'd want to play against the players, then he'd watch practice, then he'd lift, then he'd want to play against more players.

“He'd watch guys work out, then he'd go and ask them questions, so you could see how his mind was working.”

Bryant eventually parlayed that experience and work ethic into a fruitful 20-year NBA career that saw him win five championships and stack countless other accolades, including an MVP award, 15 All-NBA selections and 12 All-Defense selections. Ask Thibodeau, and that’s no surprise.

“The thing about Kobe, the way his mind worked, he was a planner, he was so well-organized, every step of everything he did was well planned out,” Thibodeau said. “He developed a plan and then he would just work the plan. He had a plan for what he was gonna do in high school and what he was gonna do in the pros.”

That quality carried over after Bryant's retirement from basketball, as well.

“And even, we were texting a month ago about, he was coaching his daughter's team and he was asking questions about that,” Thibodeau said. “We maintained our relationship all the way through. And he was always talking about his daughters, he loved everything about his daughters. Everything with what he was doing with them.

“And it was amazing what he was accomplishing in his post-playing career: To win an Oscar, to have the book series he was doing, everything was planned out. I went to New York with him to do a promotion for his book and I was just amazed by how at peace he was with being done playing. And I think for him he knew there was nothing left to give. He gave all that he had, he was already on to the next phase of his life.”

Sarah Kustok of the YES Network didn’t first meet Bryant until well after his playing days had ended, but picked up on a number of the same traits Thibodeau enumerated. The date was Dec. 21 and the Hawks were in Brooklyn to face the Nets. Gigi’s favorite player was Trae Young, so naturally, Bryant and her were in attendance. 

In fact, the prospect of meeting Gigi (“she’s a stud,” Kustok said) is what drew Kustok to introduce herself to both in the first place.

“We went over, said hi, talked to [Gigi], talked to [Kobe], got to watch them during the game and I will say… There was so many times during the game that I couldn't even necessarily focus on the game because I'm watching their interactions,” Kustok said at a live taping of the Bulls Outsiders podcast over All-Star weekend. “And I know we've seen so many pictures, videos and — but I'm like, no, this was happening the entire game. And just the engagement between the two of them and the realness and the genuine, like, love and interest was something that was such a beautiful sight to see.”

 

Bryant still had much wisdom to impart and will be missed dearly. Whether you knew him from the beginning or caught a glimpse of him towards the end, that much is evident.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

How Coby White is putting it all together over most recent hot stretch

cob-1.jpg
USA Today

How Coby White is putting it all together over most recent hot stretch

The shots are starting to fall for Coby White. In seven February games, the Bulls freshly-turned 20-year-old is averaging 17.7 points, 4.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 35.7% from 3-point range (eight attempts per). That’s good news for the Bulls. 

And better is that’s not all that’s going right for White. Yes, consecutive career-high 33-point games — something no rookie reserve has ever done — on cumulative 55% field goal shooting (12-for-22 from deep) will grab eyes, especially on the heels of a frigid stretch between the beginning of February and the All-Star break. But after Sunday’s losing-streak-snapping 126-117 win over Washington, Bulls coach Jim Boylen peeled back the layers of White’s growth.

“I think he's been aggressive in transition, I think his finishing has been terrific, he's had the ball up and out, he's got it out of his stomach, something he's working on,” Boylen said. “I think his work pre-practice, post-practice is paying off.”

And of White’s defense: “We make a defensive (film) edit on Coby after every game. And him and I watch it together… (Early in the season) he had, of his 14 plays on the tape, you know, seven of them were good and seven of them were bad. Now it's like 10 are good and four are bad. He's climbing in that way.

“What he's finding out is: If you get into the game defensively and you follow your assignment and all that, good things happen for you at the other end. It just does. And I think he's locked in that way.”

White’s restricted area finishing has steadily improved over the season (59.3% in February) — he’s getting to the rim and finishing through contact better than ever before (White’s seven free throw attempts versus the Wizards ties a season-high). In transition, he’s a blur running off live rebounds and steals, which could prove a boon for a Bulls team that lives in the fastbreak. His decision-making and ability to change speeds in the halfcourt stand out. Defensively, though not yet perfect, he’s staying more and more connected off-ball, rotating sharply and hunting loose ball recoveries.

If the jumpers are falling, gravy. But the game slowing down for White, and his confidence growing as a result, should excite the Bulls and their fans the most. White, for his part, has learned over the course of a curious rookie campaign to control what he can control.

“It feels good,” White said of his recent red-hot shooting. “But I think now I look at the game differently than I did at the beginning of the year. Now, I just look at the games like I'm gonna go in and play hard on both ends of the court, that's all I'm gonna do. And then control what I can control — I can't control whether I miss or make shots, so. I'm just going out there and playing hard.”

That comes from Boylen, who White lauded for pushing him to continue improving, especially defensively.

“Coach Boylen was preaching to me, you gotta play defense you gotta play defense, so I took it as a challenge. And I feel like I'm continuing to get better at it. I still can get better at it,” White said. “But he pushes me, he pushes me to be a good player, so I can't knock him for that and that's the type of coach I want.”

None of the above (nor Boylen’s unconditional trust in White) has culminated in his first career start, despite clamoring from some media and fans. But perhaps that’s OK. Boylen has often preached White’s increasing comfortability leading the Bulls’ second unit — even injury-ravaged — and that comfort is starting to show up on the floor and in the stat sheet. It speaks to the labeless approach the Bulls have taken to White’s development.

“We got a second group that's playing pretty good again, and we're also melding Coby into that first group at times in the game,” Boylen said when asked if starting White could be a possibility. “So, coming off two 33-point games, I don't know if it makes sense to [start him].”

To that point: White is still getting his fair share of minutes — he played 34 tonight and is averaging 30.6 in February — and a healthy amount of time on the floor staggered alongside Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky. White has also played valuable minutes down the stretch of games recently and his usage rate is up to 24.1% over his last seven games. Opportunity comes in many forms.

“I feel like I'm in a good position,” White said. “This year for me wasn't about starting, it wasn't about being this being that, it was just about me getting better over the season. That's the main thing in this league, you just keep getting better. You don't want to be a guy that just stays the same the whole time.”

White certainly hasn't. The overarching point is that nights like tonight (and Saturday against Phoenix) further emphasize how crucial his continued progression will be down the 25-game stretch of this ill-fated Bulls season — whatever form it takes. Talk of a playoff push has noticeably tempered around the United and Advocate Centers, but White’s been the center of plenty of conversations.

“You see how explosive he is,” said LaVine, who’s been highly complimentary of White all year. “Trying to figure out some nicknames for him. Either like propane or gasoline or something like that. His scoring is special. He can do it in a variety of ways. He's finding his rhythm. Kid's good. He's real good.”

If we land on a pseudonym by mid-April, it’d be a welcome sign.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.