Building a perfect roster isn’t possible. It’s never been done before, and it never will. Every great team has had some form of weakness, no matter how minute. Perfection shouldn’t be the baseline for expectations; function and cohesion are the ultimate team-building goals.
On paper, the Bulls haven’t constructed a roster that functions seamlessly. That’s not to say it’s impossible that the team gels. Both Matt Moore of CBS Sports and Scott Rafferty of The Sporting News eloquently pointed out several ways the best case scenario prevails. Despite their best efforts, I remain a skeptic.
No matter how the Bulls plan to scheme their way to success, fundamental flaws exist that will prevent the franchise from having a positive season. What that means for head coach Fred Hoiberg remains unclear, but after a less than stellar rookie season, Hoiberg heads into the second year of a five-year, $25 million deal with much to prove and a roster misaligned to his vision.
In a way, the daunting task of superseding ex-coach Tom Thibodeau will seem trivial in comparison to what is to come should the Hoiberg and the Bulls head off-kilter this season. General Manager Gar Forman has put all his eggs into the 2017 free agency race, therefore on-court success is a must. A losing season will be a tough sell to any top free agent, and should that transpire, someone will be the scapegoat.
As it always is in sports, the coach is the one who’ll wear the brunt of the blame. The great irony of course is Hoiberg was the chosen one. Sent to the Bulls to unleash what Thibodeau couldn’t, Hoiberg hasn’t. It was meant to be better than this. Instead, the Bulls will be lucky to manage a winning record, according to Vegas.
From time to time, bookmakers get things wrong. But so too do NBA franchises. Forman hasn’t helped his coach by assembling an ill-fitting and unbalanced roster. Several problems exist, some being larger than others. While many flaws have been well documented, three key faults exist that can quickly derail the Bulls’ season.
The Opportunity Cost Of Playing The Shooters
Unless you're new to the Chicago Bulls, you would've heard about what will be a season subplot: the lack of shooting.
Allergic to taking and making 3-pointers, Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and the large distribution of minutes they're projected to play will be impact the Bulls' ability to appropriately space the floor. There's no getting around that. Methods can be implemented to move the needle from to terrible to bad, but it’s a problem that isn’t going away.
With the Bulls’ starting perimeter incapable of threatening defenses with their range, Nikola Mirotic will bear the brunt of the shooting load should he slot into the starting power forward role. One man alone can’t solve the problem; he’ll need to be heavily supported by the reserves. That sounds easy enough – how hard can it be to play spot minutes and jack three’s?
The real question is, will there be enough minutes for the sweet shooting backups to truly have an impact?
Using some basic logic, there will be 96 minutes available at shooting guard and small forward each game. If we assume Wade and Butler average 28 and 36 minutes, respectively, that leaves 32 minutes to split across among the reserves. Apportioning that time equally to Denzel Valentine and Doug McDermott, both will play a maximum of 16 minutes a night.
Again, sounds simple, until you realise that Doug McDermott was playing 23 minutes per game last season. That being so, how can McDermott be expected to help buoy the offense by producing a similar volume of 3-point attempts whilst seeing less time?
Of course, neither McDermott nor Valentine are bound to playing all of their minutes at one position. Both showed versatility at the collegiate level playing multiple positions. Hoiberg will need to explore this possibility if he’s to supplement a poor starting unit with capable long-range gunners.
There’s no mandate suggesting Valentine must only play shooting guard when Wade sits. As a viable replacement for Butler, Valentine can shift up to small forward, playing next to Wade and Rondo on the perimeter. This lineup experimentation could easily push Valentine up to 20 minutes a night and, in the role of catch-and-shoot player, it’s possible that four or more attempts from the 3-point line become routine.
Similarly with McDermott, downsizing is also an option for the third year forward. As a smaller solution to Nikola Mirotic, McDermott acting as a pseudo power forward will open up the floor for the Bulls in a way no other player on the roster is capable of. With some creativity and trust from personnel, it’s certainly possible for Hoiberg and the Bulls to insert floor-spacers in the rotation, but at what cost?
By experimenting with Valentine and McDermott at various positions, it means more minutes for bad defenders at various positions. Playing McDermott at power forward may make sense for an offense starved of spacing and shooting gravity, but the defense will suffer extreme setbacks. So too will the perimeter defense if Valentine is paired with Rondo and Wade.
And therein lies the problem with this roster; too many one-way players will need to fill key minutes. By seeking out rotations that support additional shooting, an opportunity cost exists, primarily on defense. Any lineup with Valentine, McDermott and Mirotic all on the floor at once will be unplayable. Two of those three together may also be untenable, particularly if paired with weak defensive players at point guard and center.
Accompanying the starters with shooting options will only be possible if Hoiberg wisely manages the amount of defensively flawed shooters he plays at one time. If the Bulls are to be respectable on defense, it’s likely that no more than one of the bench floor spacers plays extended minutes, meaning one of McDermott or Valentine will see fewer than expected minutes, thus killing off any myth that suggests the bench unit will complement the starters lack of 3-point range.
Weak Perimeter Defense
Gone are the days when the Bulls could unleash Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer and Jimmy Butler onto an opposition.
Deng and Brewer are gone, and their roles were never replaced. In solitude, Butler remains as also the only credible wing defender on the roster, just as he has been for the last several seasons.
Like Deng before him, Butler was the horse that Thibodeau broke, playing him excessive minutes. The former coach was victimized for it. Ironically, Hoiberg will do the same because he has no choice, though the jungle drums won’t beat as loud. Butler, the Bulls’ best and most efficient offensive player, is also the team’s only hope at stopping the league’s elite scorers. After him, no viable defensive option on the perimeter exists – well, technically Tony Snell is still there, but is he really?
Gone are the days where Wade could consistently impact games with his defense. Sure, he’ll get into passing lanes and block the occasional shot, but his man-to-man defense has declined significantly as he progresses to his mid-30’s. Rondo, too, is long removed from his days as an elite on-ball defender. Like Wade, Rondo now focuses on playing the passing lanes, giving up position to gamble for steals that lead to fastbreak points and assist opportunities. As pretty as that may be when it works, more often than not, it hurts.
Hoiberg can’t look to his bench for defensive replacements, either. On the rare occasion that Butler does sits, who will guard the best offensive threats? Are we positive Doug McDermott can hold an immovable object to a sub-par shooting performance, let alone an actual NBA player? Denzel Valentine, a rookie with questionable defensive fundamentals and limited athletic upside, also has no chance against competent offensive talent.
Once more, the Bulls will be asking Butler to guard the Lebron James’ and Kevin Durant’s of the world with no reprieve, all while hoping he can maintain his scoring average. Hoiberg will command that of Butler (more like asking really nicely). He has no choice but to do so. Until the front office acquires a reliable wing defender who’s capable of being a neutral on offense, Butler will continue to be one of the more overworked stars in the game.
Too Many Offensive Creators
On-ball offensive creators are invaluable in today’s perimeter-based NBA. Not only does dribble penetration create good looks at the basket, it pulls and pressures a defense, leaving shooters open for clean looks behind the arc.
Every team wants one. Some are fortunate enough to have two. After watching Derrick Rose toil alone for so long, the Bulls have out done themselves, collecting three notable offensive creators.
So what’s the problem? If on-ball creators are a prized commodity, how can this possibly be a bad thing?
The answer lies in a key metric Hoiberg must manage – time in possession per player. Too much of anything can quickly turn bad, and in a limited possession game, Hoiberg could find himself dealing with too many guys who want to create and run an offense.
In an ideal world, Butler and Wade will be comfortable working tirelessly off-ball and cutting into the lane for their baskets while Rondo supplies them with gorgeous bounce passes on the move. It will be a thing of beauty that we will all marvel at. In theory, it sounds like basketball bliss; Butler and Wade get their buckets, Rondo racks up the dimes. It also sounds naive.
Rondo, Wade and Butler are all different players, but ultimately, they’re all lead guards. In their own way, all three want to own possessions. Their egos will not allow any other outcome. Not over an extended period. Tongues will be bitten and true emotions hidden, but for how long?
Yes, Rondo found his place next to Paul Pierce and Ray Allen during the Celtics’ championship run. Wade made way for Lebron James. Both have experience playing next to stars and sacrificing their own touches. All of this is true, but they did so knowing they were playing for an elite team. The Bulls won’t be that. Not even close.
Managing this dynamic shouldn’t be a problem for Hoiberg during the first three quarters. Staggering the stars’ minutes within rotations is a plausible solution, as is hoping that Butler embraces his offensive versatility. But in the fourth quarter when your best players should all be on the floor together, how do the Bulls solve the dilemma of having three guys who all want to make plays?
The possession count will slow in the final period. Defenses will ramp up and bad offensive habits will kick in. “My turn-your turn” isolation basketball will inevitably continue in Chicago, just as it did with Rose and Butler over the past two seasons. Two similar players couldn’t make it work before, so why will it now? The math hasn’t gotten simpler, either. Now there are three guys who’ll want the ball.
The Bulls correcting past wrongs with an all or nothing approach is as predictable as it is frustrating. Without thinking about cohesion and fit, a roster has been drawn together on a whim with little planning or ingenuity.
This iteration may only last one season, but if all goes to hell, those responsible for the roster won’t be held accountable. Fred Hoiberg and his coaching career will be the one to suffer.