The celebration was muted Tuesday night, and why shouldn’t it be? The Chicago Bulls escaped Indianapolis with a 98-96 win over the Pacers, keeping, at least momentarily, Chicago’s flickering playoff hopes alive. A four-game losing streak highlighted by soul-crushing losses to New York (twice) and Orlando was stopped, but these Bulls, stalled at .500, seemingly losing confidence by the quarter, continue to be an enigma.
Remember last June, when the Bulls’ brass introduced Fred Hoiberg, declared him the perfect fit and smiled as Hoiberg gushed over a roster he openly declared had championship potential? That was before Jimmy Butler publicly criticized him, before Joakim Noah became annoyed with him, before a promised free-flowing offense eroded to a far less efficient version than the one former coach Tom Thibodeau ran last season. Better days indeed.
The days of Thibodeau overextending Noah in a meaningless regular-season game seem like a distant utopia. Chemistry issues continue to plague the Bulls’ locker room, league sources told The Vertical. Grumblings range from Hoiberg’s inability to hold players accountable – a complaint registered publicly by Butler last December and one that lingers in the locker room today, a source said – to Butler’s shoddy shot selection to the disconnect within the team offensively. Take Tuesday, for instance. Chicago will take the win, but the Bulls scored five points in the final nine minutes, a stretch highlighted by possessions with few passes and forced, contested shots.
Hoiberg is an easy target, and it’s fair to criticize the college coach who has yet to translate Iowa State’s up-tempo offense to the pros. But Hoiberg was the repairman brought to overhaul a team that just needed a tuneup. The Bulls never won fewer than 45 games under Thibodeau. They played with discipline, won with defense and battled each possession with relentless intensity. Hoiberg shouldn’t be faulted for trying to put his own imprint on this group, but no one should be surprised that it has been so resistant to him.
A shakeup is inevitable, and it’s already begun. Noah is done for the season with a shoulder injury. He is expected to walk at the end of the season via free agency. Pau Gasol could, too. The Bulls want to play faster, be more offensively versatile under Hoiberg and neither big man appears to fit that mold.
Changes, though, could run deeper. Derrick Rose is entering the final year of his contract, and the price tag ($21.3 million) won’t look nearly as bad in the exploding cap era as it has in this one. The 2011 MVP is gone forever, but this version, a mid-40-percent shooter from the floor, low 30s from 3-point range, yet still capable of sporadic spurts of greatness, is desirable in a league starved for capable playmakers.
Indeed, no one is untouchable. The palace intrigue that surrounded Butler and Hoiberg prompted several teams to inquire about Butler’s availability at the trade deadline. Though they were rebuffed, several rival executives told The Vertical they intend to try again. Boston was among the teams trying to pry away Butler in February, and several executives point to Orlando, with its treasure trove of young players and defensive-minded head coach, as a team to watch closely in the pursuit of Butler.
The Bulls wanted to be rid of Thibodeau, and they have reaped what they have sown. No more friction, no more personality conflicts and, in all likelihood, no more playoffs. The rebuild Chicago didn’t need is coming. No stopping it now.
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