Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs and every day to prepare like we’re a playoff team.
Jim Boylen on media day
Starting on media day, Bulls' leadership set lofty expectations for this team. As fans, we all bought into it because it made sense: Fred Hoiberg was a lousy head coach and surely Jim Boylen, who’s been around the league since 1992 and worked with great teams like the Olajuwon Rockets and Pop’s recent Spurs title teams, would be a more prepared coach and one that could develop the potential that everyone saw in this young core.
But that was then. Currently, the Bulls hold a 19-36 record at the All-Star break and are a mere four games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. However, their pre-All-Star break record against teams that are currently .500 or above is a pathetic 3-21. They’re only 16-15 against teams below .500.
So far this season, we've seen:
- A fan stare Jim Boylen in the eye and call him a clown as he exited the court
- Boylen and LaVine butt heads early in the season with LaVine citing a “lack of trust” from Boylen
- Wendell Carter Jr. like a tweet from me questioning if the coaching staff had basically instructed them to ignore midrange jumpers even if defenses were ignoring the midrange and eliminating anything at the rim
- Bulls Twitter unite around the ignorance of management and coaches demanding changes
- Chicago Bulls attendance begin to plummet as a clear message to ownership
- The Bulls' coaching team make Lauri Markkanen the seven-foot Steve Kerr, preventing him from doing anything in his comfort zone
- Bulls' management decide, “Eh, we’re good” at the trade deadline
As John Paxson began to defend his reasoning at staying put, Bulls Twitter wasn’t buying it. Fans were openly predicting what Paxson would say. He would blame injuries, the unknown of the Bulls roster, and the potential of this core. Here's what he actually said:
“We weren’t going to be buyers per se. Just given the fact the roster and the way we have it right now and the fact we’ve had kind of a disjointed year with the injuries, we weren’t going to trade Zach, Lauri, Wendell, Coby [White] because we don’t know what we have yet. And we need to see.”
Same excuses, different year. The reality is that there are a lot of unknowns. Wendell Carter Jr. is only in his second year and was hurt for about half of last season and Coby White is just a rookie. What we do know, however, is that the core duo of Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine have played together for three seasons with limited success. In the 2017-18 season, they played 19 games together, their +/- was -120, and the Bulls went 8-11. In the 2018-19 season, they played 41 games together and were a -128 as the Bulls went 11-30. This season, they’ve played 46 games together and are a -59 with the Bulls record sitting at 17-29 in those games. That’s 106 games together resulting in a 36-70 record. There’s just no progression there.
At this point, it’s fair to wonder if they’re a good fit together. Zach LaVine is a ball-dominant scorer who struggles to create for others on his team. We’ve seen this before in the NBA and there are clear ceilings for this type of player. I’ve tweeted repeatedly about the 20/5/5 club for perimeter players — if they score 20-plus points per game but average less than five rebounds and five assists per game, it takes them from being a franchise player to a notch or two below that. LaVine has belonged to that club for his entire career and my question about him has always been, “When the shot is not falling, what else are you bringing to the table?” For guys like LeBron James, it’s passing, rebounding, or defense in spurts. For Kawhi Leonard, it has been defense. For Steph Curry, he creates for others.
The great players in the league bring something other to the table besides buckets, and LaVine has been unable to do that consistently. The club LaVine is in is populated by guys like Dwyane Wade when he was declining, George Gervin, Allen Iverson, Michael Redd, Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, Carmelo Anthony, Mitch Richmond, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Martin, Reggie Miller, Klay Thompson, and Bradley Beal. There are some great players on that list, some great scorers, but starting a franchise with guys like this? It can be challenging and there’s an obvious ceiling (minus Klay Thompson, who’s always been second or third in the pecking order for the Warriors). I think we’re at that point with Zach Lavine. Management doesn’t believe it, but this is probably his ceiling.
So, where do the Bulls go? There are problems with management, coaching, and personnel… so what’s the hope for this franchise? There’s no easy fix. Even if John Paxson is fired or moved into an advisory capacity, as was the rumor making the rounds yesterday, Jerry Reinsdorf still has to find someone to oversee basketball operations. The Bulls usually run with someone who has been developed inside the organization that they trust. Would they make the right hire?
Let’s say Paxson stays and they fire Boylen. I’m 34 years old and the Bulls have literally only hired two coaches that had previous NBA head coaching experience (Stan Albeck and Scott Skiles) in my lifetime. We’re trusting them to get the right person? Maybe we get lucky in the lottery and get the first pick, but in this draft, is there a sure thing? The draft class seems pretty weak. Maybe the light comes on for Zach Lavine and he starts becoming a creator instead of a scorer. Maybe Lauri Markkanen just becomes more assertive and emerges as the focal point of this roster. Maybe Coby White defies the odds and this tumultuous rookie season isn’t going to be his norm (check out this list for even more hope). Maybe the Bulls will stay healthy (we didn’t even touch on the inept Bulls training staff headed by Jeff Tanaka and his sweaters), maybe Boylen’s system does work, but the transition period was just rocky. There’s a lot of maybes and not a lot of certainty. Maybe that’s the hope – that maybe we’ll get lucky.