The 2015-2016 season effectively ended with last Saturday’s tough loss to the Detroit Pistons. If the mishmash of D-Leaguer Grizzlies euthanizing the Bulls wasn't enough, last nights meltdown against the Heat certainly closed the playoff door on the Bulls, who, for the first time since 2008, will be sent packing before the playoffs even begin.
With it, the era of the Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Tom Thibodeau Bulls will finally die. Despite the new coach and Jimmy Butler going supernova at times -- 40 point half against Toronto, 53 point game against Philadelphia (yes, it counts) and last Saturday’s 28-17-12-3-2 against Detroit -- the Bulls were a sluggish, deteriorated, pathetic version of those same old Bulls. Once a source of inspiration, excitement, and hope, this failed season has left them as a cluster of parts that will likely have to be sold off this summer.
In retrospect, this team never really had a chance. For the Nth straight year, they were hyped as the only competitor to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the East’s top spot, if only they remained healthy. But when a team quits on itself the way this one did last season, it’s nearly impossible to overcome those broken relationships. Bringing in Hoiberg in favor of Thibodeau never even had a realistic chance to solve the pervasive, defeatist attitude. Obviously, the Bulls were pillaged by the injury epidemic this season, but that’s an easy cop out to why this season is the greatest failure in recent Bulls history.
Streakiness and Inconsistency
All year, the Bulls displayed zero ability to bounce back from a bad loss, always letting themselves slide into series of progressively more depressing ones. Perhaps best highlighted by the recent 3 game winning streak to keep hopes alive, followed by a 4 game losing streak to the Knicks (twice), Magic and Hawks, the Bulls season has been littered with the “maybe we got this” 7-point wins, followed by a series of “we’re doomed, blow it up, I hate you GarPax” 15-point losses. This streakiness is the product of the lack of mental toughness and leadership with this group, and it wreaks of mediocrity.
Here’s a chart of the Bulls game log. As you can see, they tend to win some, lose a few more, pick a couple up, and boom, back down to .500.
That's a lot of up and down.
The inability to stay consistent and bounce back from losses speaks to the lack of mental toughness and leadership within this group. There is no doubt this roster has talent, even if they all under-performed. Maybe they thought they’d make the playoffs all along, and once they did, they’d flip the switch and become the title contender they were supposed to be. The Bulls had ample opportunity to spark a resurgence, and it never happened. Worse, every time you thought they might get back in the race, they'd drop 3 or 4 in a row.
Maybe the talent didn't fit, maybe it was the injuries or the coaching change or maybe these players are just done playing together.
The Thibodeau Hangover
Fans still have pangs for Thibodeau, insisting that no team would under-perform so egregiously under his leadership. During his tenure, Thibodeau lived his mantra, “we have more than enough to win,” and he got his players to believe it too. Thibodeau is a better coach than Hoiberg. But firing Thibodeau was still the right thing to do, at that time, given the circumstances. Things soured to a disturbing end once the front office had enough of him. Critiquing him for overusing his players, for his 'bland' offensive and generally not getting to the Finals, which were the expectations. The Thibs era needed to end. Even some of the players expressed their developing distaste for his harping ways.
Yet, here we are, in the Bulls era of rest, pace and space and analytics, Jimmy Butler is still out here playing the third most minutes per game. The Bulls are going to miss the playoffs for the first time in 8 years. Even Vinny Del Negro managed not to do that. So yes, Hoiberg has been underwhelming this year. But it’s not completely his fault.
This team does not match his system. Maybe the elite coaches can overcome that, but management overlooked the roster flaws and tried to give it one more run. Too many players were either old, injury-prone and past their prime, or too young, inconsistent and defensively incompetent. Even if last year felt like it should have been the end of an era, this year has to be. There are no more excuses.
In a Kerr-lite move, Hoiberg tried benching Noah to start the season, which did not help the Bulls in their general aim for continuity. Despite playing one of his worst seasons the year prior, Noah was still the heart, the voice, the engine -- whatever metaphor you choose -- he was what gave this team order, stability and purpose. But when Noah stopped playing well, he lost his credibility to take charge and keep the troops in line. Even though he looked closer to normal before his season-ending shoulder injury, at that point, the damage was done. And the rest of the team seemed to be put off by his benching, despite it making sense from a basketball standpoint, especially given the constraint of Gasol having to start.
Perhaps recency bias has clouded our collective memory, but the Bulls quit on Thibodeau last year, most excruciatingly after the LeBron James game 4 buzzer beater in the Conference Semi-Finals. The relationship between Thibodeau and the front office was beyond salvageable. Yes, Thibodeau is a great coach, but when his firing became imminent, the players quit. Once they quit on Thibodeau, they quit on themselves. They quit on the chance to win with this core and no coach was going to revive them.
Hoiball Never Worked
When Thibs got canned, the Bulls hired their longtime rumored successor, Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg's ties with Gar Forman dates back to their time together at Iowa State, where Hoiberg played under Forman during his tenure as an assistant coach. Despite the quasi-nepotism, Hoiberg was a very successful coach at the college level and was expected to administer a healthy dose of offensive ingenuity into the crumbling, drought-stricken Bulls offense.
Obviously, the transition was not going to be as seamless as the Warriors, with their addition of Steve Kerr. It couldn’t possibly. But if the Bulls could incorporate some semblance of a modern, ball moving, floor spacing, fast paced attack, it would work wonders for a team who for 5 years had to rely on holding teams to 90 points in order to win.
As it turned out, the Bulls would have no such luck.
From the start, no one seemed to buy into the Hoiberg system. After missing training camp with the orbital fracture, Derrick Rose couldn't learn the system the right way by the time he returned to the lineup to start the season (despite not being able to see). Instead of the transition game being a primary initiator of the offense, Hoiberg had to beg Rose to get the ball past half court before the 21 second mark on the shot clock. Jimmy Butler was even worse when he would bring the ball up, sometimes having to scramble to get across half court before the 8 second violation.
20 seconds left, down 4, and you’re going to walk it up the floor?
Sure, Butler's excess minutes would suggest he should try to retain energy, but if you're not moving the ball up the floor here, it just isn't happening. After this particular game, Hoiberg alluded to the lack of urgency in the post-game presser, expressing his affinity to wanting to move the ball, especially against a tired team on the second of a back-to-back.
Hoiberg mentioned it multiple times at the postgame presser, but the pace killed the Bulls tonight. They had to run on a tired DET team
— Stephen Noh (@hungarianjordan) April 3, 2016
As such, the Bulls got absolutely nothing in transition. Per Synergy, they rank last in the league in transition PPP (0.983) and 23rd in transition frequency (only 11.8% of possessions). These numbers are virtually identical to last season (slightly better in transition PPP, ranking 23rd at 1.076 and 24th in frequency at 11.9%), but notably, they converted at a higher clip last year. The fact that they put forth so little effort to push the ball is a testament to the fact that the team didn’t buy in.
The Bulls took their time this year, and cared progressively less as the season wore on. There was no urgency, and that was painfully evident on all ends of the floor. Fault the players for not buying in or Hoiberg for not getting them to, but ranking last in transition is the absolutely perfect example of the complete failure that was this season.
Thibodeau’s Defense No More
Along with Hoiberg, the Bulls brought in defensive guru Jim Boylen to maintain the defense that Thibodeau had built. The hope was that the Bulls defense would remain as grizzly and disciplined as it was under Thibodeau; since the personnel remained the same, they should easily be able to repeat what had so brutally been branded into their muscle memory. In conjunction with an offense primed for a much-needed makeover, the Bulls should have become a top-5 offense and defense, right? At least that was the vision.
The big problem was the lack of communication. With Thibodeau, he was virtually doing the communicating for every player. But more importantly, everyone always knew his job. ICE, ICE, ICE all the live long day. They had their responsibility and they knew what they needed to do to execute it, and they did or they wouldn’t have a spot in the rotation. Without that demanding overtone constantly chirping in their ears, they couldn’t muster the willpower to execute. And can you blame them? Being ridden to execute for 5 years is exhausting. It's like they put on the freshman 15 after leaving home for college.
The Bulls Pick and Roll defense was also a complete disaster this year. Even though they ranked 12th in Ball-handler P&R defense (allowing 0.821 PPP per Synergy, far better than last year, but far worse than all previous Thibodeau seasons), they were 24th in Roll-man P&R defense (0.968 PPP allowed, Synergy) which should give you an idea of how good the back end was without a spry, healthy Noah defending the rim.
Sure, Gasol tallied a couple blocks per game, and Taj Gibson fortified what little remained from the glory days, but the Bulls couldn’t handle any pick and roll - the cornerstone of the modern NBA offense.
Teams began to expose the Bulls, running them into pick and roll after pick and roll, and it took a toll. Using holistic, season long standards, the Bulls ranked fine in most defensive metrics, but the exponential decline month-to-month displays the decreasing level of attention and effort as the season progressed.
Sometimes they would switch, sometimes they would ICE, sometimes trap -- it looked like they were just doing whatever they pleased, or just gave up trying to communicate with one another.
This is not a jab at Boylen or Hoiberg. In the modern NBA, ICEing is still very effective. But it really helps to be able to throw different looks at an offense. Think about the best pick and roll combo in the game, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. There’s no way you beat them by doing the same thing over and over again. As a matter of fact, teams have had great success trapping or switching. You need to mix it up to put pressure on them into making mistakes. If you run the same coverage over and over, they will break it down.
But with a greater amount of defensive movement and responsibility, the Bulls became confused. They lost interest and quickly turned from stalwart to sieve.
Even still, that Bulls integrity began to degrade while Thibodeau was still at the helm. Counter-factually, had Thibodeau remained another season, the same defensive breakdowns would likely have occurred. This is a group, without the motivation, was unable to compete at a high level. Their laziness and unwillingness to try to put together a winning season was the reason for failure.
Hoiberg certainly underwhelmed. His shortcomings were accentuated by his inability to implement his patented "Hoiball" offense and maintaining the Thibodeau defense. He failed to make adjustments, plug and play the right players at the right time, develop the young guys or get the most out of any of his players. There weren't any areas that he had unquestionable success. But given the circumstances, it's unfair to blame him completely. He will have another go around next year, but with a different cast to give him a chance to prove himself as a legitimate NBA coach that can bring the Bulls back to relevance.