Line-up changes, offensive issues, playing down to the level of competition.. we've had it all, Bulls fans.
Chicago is on a three-game slide, which in the big picture isn't the end of the world, but as their 11-8 record suggests, this team isn't a contending squad. The roster is quite simply too flawed to make a deep post-season run, and as we near the 20-game mark, it looks more and more likely that Fred Hoiberg's offense won't be fully implemented until the start of next year.
Since the start of the 2014/2015 season, the Bulls have become an inconsistent mess. Their effort-level can swing more than any other team in the NBA, which can be seen via victories against Cleveland and San Antonio, and via losses to at-the-time sub-standard franchises who didn't have their game together like Detroit and Charlotte. But more than that, it's like this combination of players doesn't care all that much. Is it just pure coincidence that this coincided with the acquisitions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott? I'll be honest with you, I've given this some thought. It seems weird that the inconsistency issues began when that trio of offensive-minded players were brought in. Let me preface my concern with saying that none of those guys should be viewed as bad locker room guys or guys that need to be moved.
My theory hinges on the fact that these guys share the same primary focus, putting the ball into the basket, whereas the usual Bulls personnel were defenders first, who later on evolved offensively (minus Derrick Rose who did the opposite). Taj Gibson came in as an energetic defender who had to develop a reliable jumper. Joakim Noah was in a similar situation. Jimmy Butler was viewed as a larger Tony Allen type for a while, and most had him peaking at 12-15 points a game. And then the kicker: These guys were drafted onto a team that had Luol Deng on it.
Yes, I think the trade of Luol Deng has indirectly sent this team into a talespin of confusion and insecurity. If you ever go back and watch games of the Deng-led Bulls, you'll see a guy taking his arm around a guy and pointing out areas on the court where to do specific things. You'll see a guy who every single night defended everything from smaller two-guards to large power forwards, and everything in-between, without complaining about it. You'll see a guy who, despite repeated poor shooting, was the engine that made the team go. Noah described the trade as him losing a brother. Butler still talks about Deng to this day, and we're coming up on the two-year anniversary of the trade.
What essentially became a Deng for Gasol swap (trading Deng led to cap space that the team would spend on Gasol) proved to be an action created out of short-sighted need. While the move was for the most part supported by fans throughout, myself included, it seems now that the trade sent away more than just Deng. It sent away this team's identity.
Call me melodramatic if you must, but ask yourself this: Over the past two seasons, have you seen even a small percentage of the same intensity that the Deng era Bulls brought on a nightly basis? Have you seen even a hint of the same on-court stability? What about consistency?
For me, it's a triple no. What I see now is a 35-year old Spaniard who insists on playing isolation basketball in an era where iso-ball is one of the most inefficient ways of scoring, and who provides nowhere near the same effort every night. That's not to say Pau is somehow solely at fault for this new tendency, but it's saying the Bulls cut out and sold their heart, just to get another arm.
Indulge me for a moment. Imagine these Bulls with Deng filling the three-spot. Him spending time with Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, and putting an arm around Noah and Rose to tell his little brothers all is going to be okay. Imagine him never requesting specific type of shots or specific amount of minutes. Imagine his effect on Jimmy Butler playing alongside him now that he's become a star. Deep down, will you tell me that the presence of Deng wouldn't have a positive effect?
I see why people would call this a cop-out in suggesting Deng is the main reason for all this. Because you're right. He isn't the main reason. But he's a pretty damn big one. The Bulls have other problems going on, as they always seem to do, and they include everything from vision impairment to career-altering knee injuries, and here I'm unfortunately talking about two players. Additionally, they no longer have this deep arsenal of two-way players that they once had. However you spin it, building a team with guys who are dominantly better on one side of the court is a faulty way of laying your foundation. It was a faulty way when they focused strictly on defensive-minded players, and it's faulty now after they decided to go the other way.
I would like to close off this post with a suggestion of re-acquiring Luol Deng, but that ship has sailed. Quite frankly, I would understand fully if Deng refused such a trade given the ways this team threw him under the bus in the past. He deserves better than that, which is really the crux of the problem. This organization used to be one where you could never say that sentence and mean it. But as the years have gone by, this team has removed themselves from being a top-class franchise and have settled into mediocrity. Personally, I blame arrogance and the security they have in visitors and fans. Every press conference is a reminder of how little they think of their fans' intelligence, using the same buzz words as "flexibility" and "process" and thinking it'll be perfectly acceptable answers to a fan base who for the most part is being kept in the dark on what the team is trying to do. Look no further than this very season where a plethora of Bulls fans have no clue if the Bulls are just standing pat, or trying to go all-in for a championship.
That lack of transparency, combined with decisions that so obviously miss the big picture, will always see them fail in their quest for another title. Whether management have to change, or the organizational mindset have to, it all comes down to doing things different. I actually respect the Bulls for trying to open themselves up to a more offensive-minded line-up, even if they never understood that the basis of having one that'd separate them from the competition would require players that actually fit together. But what I don't respect is not learning from your mistakes, and in that, the Bulls aren't doing anything different. It's a new approach, but built on flawed premises yet again.
I hope to be proven wrong. Nothing would make me happier than writing a piece where I eat every single word I've just typed. But somehow, I don't think that'll happen. In fact, let me make an attempt at predicting how these next years will unfold:
The Bulls will make numerous appearances in the playoffs, getting bounced in either the first or second round. The team's roster will have at least one piece missing at a specific position at all times, just as they'll be significantly better at one end of the court than the other. Management will still prefer old veterans and use mostly the draft and free agency to improve themselves, and not give young players enough opportunities to play, preferring instead to use said old veterans because their logic dictates that such a preference means more winning, even if it only adds a few regular season wins to the mix and does nothing to improve their long-term situation. They'll make no attempt at communicating with their fan base outside of their normal buzz words, and will be perfectly satisfied with the UC filling out.
That blueprint has been in effect for over a decade, and remains very much alive. But that's the thing that needs to change before the Bulls can move on to better things.
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