December 24, 2007
No player is untradable, no team is invincible, nobody can not be replaced, and those of whom who appear to be cut from the same cloth as their employer can't expect to lean on appearance alone when it comes time to navigate through times of storm and stress.
Bulls coach Scott Skiles was fired today. He had been handed the reins of a flailing Chicago team in November of 2003, charged with weeding out the keepers from the replace-o-Bulls, while working closely with like-minded GM John Paxson to cobble together a winner. The next season, after adding four rookies to the eight-man rotation in addition to youngsters Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, second-year point man Kirk Hinrich, and the ancient Antonio Davis, Skiles somehow crafted a 47-win team. Even after starting the season with nine consecutive losses, the Bulls rocketed to the playoffs and the East's third-best record based around stifling defense and an up-tempo attack on offense. Chicago wore on teams, moving the ball and incessantly keeping up the defensive presence. Somehow, this was the peak.
The Bulls took a needed step back in 2005-06, trading away the uninsurable and uninspirable Curry for draft picks while continuing to work toward preserving cap space for the summer. That space was used on Detroit defensive stalwart Ben Wallace, which led to the trading of 23-year-old 7-footer Tyson Chandler, deemed superfluous after a miserable year that saw him come into camp out of shape and ill-suited to play big minutes. This was the first sign that the Chicago front office considered money matters -- and a staunch refusal to pay the luxury tax -- to be of paramount importance.
The following season saw the team start slow and finish strong, winning 49 games, but cracks were starting to show in Skiles' foundation. His insistence on benching shooter Ben Gordon any time Gordon went through a shooting slump further harmed Chicago's already sub-mediocre offense. He also relied too heavily on players like Chris Duhon and Adrian Griffin to sop up minutes, and opponents were starting to catch up to Chicago's drive-and-kick attack. In spite of this, Chicago swept the Miami Heat in the first round before falling to the Detroit Pistons in the second, and was a popular pick to come out of the East this season.
Instead, the team faltered. Losing games early in the season was a Skiles trademark, but this year's model seemed to be losing by more points than in years past, and every rotation player saw his contributions falter as the team limped along. Youngsters like Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah were yanked in and out of the rotation in what appeared to be borderline-arbitrary moves. Griffin went from receiving DNP-CDs to starting to taking in DNP-CDs again in one four-game stretch, and the offense was by far the league's worst.
Watching the season slip away, GM John Paxson made his move. There's no word on an early replacement, few viable head coaching candidates seem ready for ascension at this point, though this would seem to be a pretty sweet gig: Chicago is full of willing learners, talent and they're a year removed from playing the best defense in the NBA (first in defensive efficiency in 2006-07). Skiles' like-minded assistants might not be a radical enough departure for Pax, who could move down to the sidelines himself (Paxson spent one season as Phil Jackson's assistant coach in 1995-96).
Skiles' NBA future seems pretty grim at this point. He did nothing short of a remarkable job in 2004-05, and should have won the Coach of the Year award. He constantly had these Bulls overachieving and rarely taking nights off in a league that takes entire weeks off at a time. He knows the game, doesn't destroy players on the sideline or in practice, and has taken two teams (Phoenix being the other) into the second round of the playoffs.
But the stereotype that followed him into Chicago four years ago, that of a coach who will burn out and lose his players after a few strong years, hasn't been affected. He seems the perfect college coach at this point, which is a shame, because the man truly knows the NBA game. Jerry Reynolds recalled an anecdote during a Kings broadcast last night where he had to ask Skiles -- then a point guard for the opposing team -- to explain the proper way to run a play to Rodney McCray, then playing under Reynolds for the Kings. The dismissal was needed, but it doesn't make it any less unnecessary.
What happens next for these Bulls players, is entirely up to them. This is a team that is out of excuses.