With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Chicago Bulls are 36-35 and two games back of the eighth seed Detroit Pistons. While the Bulls had some skeptics entering this season, few people, if any, would have predicted that they would be at risk of missing the playoffs with 11 games left in the regular season. After losing back-to-back games to the 30-43 New York Knicks, some of Chicago’s players vented their frustration.
“Hell yeah, I’m embarrassed,” Taj Gibson said after losing to the Knicks on Thursday night. “I take pride in wearing this jersey. I love wearing the Bulls jersey. Especially what we’ve been through, I take pride in playing for Chicago. When I wear that jersey, I try to go out there and play my heart out. And it’s frustrating when we come up short, and we look at ourselves, we’re losing to … I don’t want to criticize any[body], [but] trash teams. Everybody’s in the NBA for a reason, but we’re playing against teams that are not playing for anything, and we’re just laying down. It feels like now we’re a target. It feels like teams are not taking us serious.
“Teams are more eager to play us. [In years prior,] it was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It’s just, it’s hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It’s really hard to sleep at night knowing it’s coming down to the wire, and our effort isn’t there. It’s really frustrating.”
Gibson, one of the few Chicago players whose effort and focus isn’t in question, is spot on. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls were consistently one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. This season, the Bulls are 13th in defensive rating, according to NBA.com, and are 22nd since All-Star weekend.
To be fair, the defensive decline started last season under Thibodeau, but things have only gotten worse this season. Under rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls have looked out of sorts all season and rarely resemble the gritty team that overachieved for years under Thibodeau. Chicago was never really the class of the East over the last few years, but they were consistently near the top of the conference. Like the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies of years past, no one wanted to see the Bulls in the playoffs.
Now, as Gibson said, no one fears seeing this team in the playoffs. In fact, the Cleveland Cavaliers probably prefer to see the Bulls climb back into the eighth seed so they don’t have to face Stan Van Gundy’s feisty Detroit Pistons, who have won seven of their last 10 games, have a stud at center in Andre Drummond and have beaten the Cavaliers two out of three match-ups this season.
The Bulls certainly have some factors to point to as partial explanations for their substandard play this season, such as injuries. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. missed the first 49 games of the season. Dunleavy, Jr. may not be a top-tier player, but his shooting and defensive impact are important assets for the Bulls. Derrick Rose looked physically out of sorts to start the season and only recently is showing a few signs of his former athletic abilities. In addition, Joakim Noah went down for the season with a shoulder injury in mid-January. Noah may not be the tenacious player he once was, but even on a bad day he is still a viable defensive center and serves as the team’s emotional leader. And now Jimmy Butler is struggling with a knee injury that reportedly could require offseason surgery.
“Is my knee the same as it was before the injury? No,” Butler told the Sun-Times.
“But I want to play, man. And at times I feel like I’m hurting this team. That’s the most disappointing part because I’m not the player I was. I don’t know if there’s something really wrong in there, but it’s not really right, either. But I’ll be fine. I have to figure out a way to help us win playing with this. That’s all I’m worried about.’’
The Bulls clearly haven’t been the luckiest team when it comes to injuries this season. However, every team deals with injuries to a certain extent and several teams this season have endured much better than the Bulls have.
Teams like the Toronto Raptors, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, among others, have lost key players for extended periods, but have managed to adjust. Losing players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Chris Bosh or Blake Griffin are the types of setbacks that can knock a team from playoff contention to the lottery. But these teams have adjusted and found ways to fill the voids left by their injured players. For the Chicago Bulls, injuries can only explain their issues to a certain extent.
As Kelly Scaletta of Bleacher Report pointed out earlier this week, despite ranking second in rebounds per game, the Bulls are ranked 22nd in adjusted rebound chance percentage (the percentage of rebounds collected when a player is within 3 ½ feet of the ball) and 25th in adjusted defensive rebound change percentage. The result is that the Bulls are surrendering the second-most second-chance points per game, which is sinking their defense.
As Scaletta points out, the issue isn’t so much getting stops, but it’s securing the loose ball afterwards. That second-effort to secure the ball could go a long way towards shoring up the Bulls’ defense, but it’s the sort of required effort that we haven’t seen from this team consistently this season.
The players obviously carry a lot of blame for all of Chicago’s struggles this season, but there is plenty of blame to spread around the organization. The front office issues that led to the ouster of Tom Thibodeau is an easy example. Thibodeau is stubborn and demanding, and it can be argued that he had simply run his course in Chicago. But he is also one of the best defensive coaches in the league, surprisingly creative with his offense and continually managed to get his banged up Chicago teams to overachieve.
The Bulls replaced Thibodeau with Hoiberg, a rookie NBA head coach who showed promise in his time as the head coach at Iowa State. But not every rookie head coach is going to come into the league and find instant success like Steve Kerr did last season. Rather, Hoiberg has dealt with a divided locker room, players reportedly demanding that he reincorporate some of Thibodeau’s schemes and Butler questioning his coaching in the media. None of these things are necessarily Hoiberg’s fault and he still could become a solid coach moving forward, but a veteran coach may have been able to remedy this unstable situation earlier in the season. Whether Thibodeau could have been that person is something we will never know. However, running Thibodeau out of Chicago is just one of many issues the Chicago front office has made for itself and the franchise.
Failing to capitalize on the trade value of guys like Noah and Gasol before the trade deadline may be decisions that come back to the haunt the Bulls. Yes, Noah got hurt before the deadline, tanking his value. But failing to move Gasol, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and will command a significant annual salary, was, at best, a shortsighted decision. Gasol certainly helps the Bulls compete this season, but if there was ever a year to be forward-thinking, this would be it with the Warriors and Spurs playing historically well and the Cavaliers and Raptors overshadowing the East. Now, both Noah and Gasol very well could walk away after this season for nothing, or will likely be overpaid to stay in Chicago.
At some point, every good or great team runs its course and the window of contention closes. The Bulls’ window may finally be coming to a close, especially if key players like Noah and Gasol leave this offseason. But there is still time to make a push and see what kind of damage this team can do in the playoffs. But with all that we’ve seen from this team, especially since the All-Star break, there isn’t much reason to believe in that sort of late-season resurgence.
On Thursday night, Gibson summed up the Bulls’ performance against New York and by extension their performance over the season rather astutely.
“Tonight, I’ve never been so frustrated and mad before,” Gibson said. “It was disappointing, man, just real disappointing. I’m just tired of having these same talks with [the media] every night. About how we got to do better. … [Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg’s] right. We got to look ourselves [in the mirror]. I look at myself in the mirror every night, and I try to do different things every night. Still got how many more games left? We’ve got 11 more games left. It’s really do or die, and it’s really frustrating. We got to want it. We got to want it. Sometimes I feel we want it, sometimes I don’t know if we’re kidding ourselves or not.”
Seventy-one games into the season and we are still waiting to see if the Bulls are willing to fight and beat the odds like they did so often over the last five seasons. If they don’t make it into the playoffs, everyone from the front office, to the coaches, to the players can look in the mirror and understand that they all share part of the blame for what has been a very disappointing season in Chicago.
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