NBA AM: Time to Panic in Chicago?


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Time to Panic in Chicago?

The thought of the Chicago Bulls being out of the playoff picture in March seemed very unlikely at the start of the season.

After all, this is a team filled with plenty of experienced veterans who have had their fair share of success in the league. The franchise is used to winning. They’ve made the playoffs in 11 out of the last 12 seasons and seemed poised for an eighth-straight trip to the postseason.

However, the last month of basketball for the Bulls has thrown a wrench into any postseason plans they might have had. The Bulls sat in third place in the Eastern Conference on January 28 at 26-19, but have gone just 4-11 since then and have now lost four games in a row.

Following last night’s 102-89 loss to the Orlando Magic, the Bulls are in 10th place and sit half of a game out of the last playoff spot. While it may not seem like all that much ground to make up over the final 22 games of the regular season, it does seem like a lot considering how the team has been playing lately.

During the team’s 4-11 stretch, the Bulls have the league’s third-lowest offensive rating and the sixth-worst defensive rating. To further add to the team’s troubles is the fact that it doesn’t seem like there are any obvious solutions to their problems.

With the team struggling to come up with wins, questions about first-time NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg are beginning to emerge. The team decided to let go of long-time head coach Tom Thibodeau over the summer after failing to make a deep run in the playoffs. They brought in Hoiberg from the college level to be a fresh voice after Thibodeau, and now his ability to coach the team is being scrutinized.

Defense was one of Thibodeau’s strengths during his time in Chicago, but now the Bulls’ defense is on the opposite end of the spectrum this season. Under Hoiberg, the team is giving up 102.8 points per game, which is down considerably compared to past seasons. Chicago ranked ninth in points allowed per game last season at 97.8 per game, while they ranked first two seasons ago at 91.8 points per game.

Things weren’t going smoothly when the team was playing well, either. Hoiberg was called out earlier this season by Jimmy Butler for being too laid back at times. Butler pointed to guys not doing their jobs during games and he believed that Hoiberg should have coached them harder during those times. Although Hoiberg has been regarded as a laid back coach, Butler believed it’s on Hoiberg to be more critical of his players.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Bulls right now is their chemistry looks to be non-existent. Players on the court look lost at times and the defense has notably slipped. The Bulls’ largest lead against the Magic last night was one point and lasted for all of about 10 seconds. The Magic were in complete control from start to finish.

The mood in the locker room following the loss was complete defeat. It was arguably as quiet as an NBA locker room can be. Hearing players attempt to offer up solutions on getting back on track didn’t sound encouraging.

“It’s frustrating, but at the same time it’s up to us,” Pau Gasol said. “Teams come in and they see us struggling. They know we’re struggling, so they see an opportunity. They come in confidently. … They smell blood and they go for it. That doesn’t make things any easier, but at the same time we got to step it up and try to set the tone earlier and make sure the games don’t start the way they have been.”

“It’s all about having goals as a team,” Derrick Rose added. “At the beginning of the year, we said we wanted to get into the playoffs and the question comes up, ‘Are we trying?’ If we are, we got to come out and play a lot different. Our actions should be everything.”

It obviously doesn’t help that the team is missing their leading scorer in Butler. Hoiberg said before last night’s game that Butler would be back in full practice tomorrow. He didn’t fully clear him to play on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, but it seems as though Butler will be back sooner than later. Getting Butler back will be a huge lift to this team, but they’re still going to have a lot of work to do over the rest of the season.

So, will getting Butler back fix the Bulls’ issues?

“I hope so,” Mike Dunleavy told Basketball Insiders. “If he can [get us back on track], then they better give him the MVP. He’s obviously a big part of what we do on both ends of the court. He’ll help us, but we got some stuff going on that we got to improve at that even he’s probably going to have a hard time fixing.”

Dunleavy’s candid answer shows that things aren’t quite right behind the scenes in Chicago. Each team goes through their own share of adversity during the course of the season and it feels like the Bulls might be near rock bottom at the moment.

The team has struggled recently at the beginning of games. They trailed the Magic by 10 points after the first quarter and seemed to already have admitted defeat by that point. By the time the Bulls overcame their slow start, the game was well out of reach.  

Tuesday night’s 129-111 loss against the Miami HEAT was perhaps the team’s worst outing on defense this season. They allowed Miami to shoot 67.5 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three-point range. In addition, they trailed by as many as 22 points in each of their last two games.

“To see yourself on the outside looking in, you have to be mentally tough,” Hoiberg said. “You have to fight through these times. You can’t put your head down and feel sorry for yourself; nobody else in this league is going to do that. You got to come out with great urgency and that’s got to be the constant.”

It seems as though that has been the message for quite some time now and it just hasn’t seemed to sink in yet. Teams in any sport rarely use injuries as an excuse, but that seems like that’s been a big part of the problem for the Bulls. While Butler looks to be nearing a return, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic have all missed time recently, with no real timetable for any of those players to return.

“There are no excuses,” Rose said. “Whoever steps onto the floor, they got to come in and do their job and try their hardest to come out here and compete every night.

“The season is not over with. We still got 20-something games left. We still got a shot of being in the playoffs. This is foreign ground. I know a lot of us in this locker room, including myself, got to find ways to make it up.”

Between the head coach and the players in the locker room, it just doesn’t seem like anyone has any kind of answers on how to turn the season around. Butler’s return will be a huge addition for the team, but can he get them over the hump and back into the playoffs? 

It’s clear Chicago will face an uphill battle for the remainder of the season. Positions five through 11 in the East are all separated by just five and a half games. The Bulls will be battling several teams in the standings the rest of the way, which will only further complicate things.

Out of their final 22 games, only nine of them are against teams at .500 or better. By comparison, teams like Atlanta, Detroit and Orlando all have at least 11 such games. At this point, the Bulls will take all of the help they can get, but in the end it may not be enough.


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About Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer entering his fourth season with Basketball Insiders. He covers the league out of Orlando and Miami, focusing on the Southeast Division.

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