Fred Hoiberg didn’t wait until 2017 to make some changes in his life. The Chicago Bulls coach decided to try a new approach with his lineup against the Milwaukee Bucks on New Year’s Eve. That change didn’t exactly bring the expected results, so it’ll be interesting to see how long that New Year’s Eve resolution will last.
There’s a lot to unpack about what we’ve seen from the Bulls in 2016, but perhaps there’s no greater statement of where the team lies both now and for the future than when they cross paths with their neighbors to the north.
Chicago has been good and bad this season and it’s been hard to make heads or tails of it. When you’re ready to proclaim them a playoff team, they disappear and take any semblance of a winner with them.
It’s easy to overlook the bad if you use their wins to turn a blind eye to it and refuse to accept what this team has turned into as the season moves along.
The Bulls are now 0-3 against the Bucks this season. There can be no single more significant indictment of Chicago and the direction they are heading. And it has little to do with the now hot seated Hoiberg. He isn’t a great coach, but Jason Kidd is far from the answer himself. There is a lot to break down in this and we’re going to look at few things from this game to see if we can get a few answers.
Dec 6, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Rajon Rondo (9) against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Pistons won 102-91.Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Rajon Rondo was a healthy DNP-CD for the first time since 2007 and no one was surprised.
There was a high level of amusement, but not surprise. Rondo has been documented over and over as a terrible defender. For comparison, James Harden takes a lack of guff for being a porous defender. However, he’s doing a much better job than Rondo. Also, he’s doing things like putting up 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists in a single game.
Rondo has experienced the triple-double life. He put one up in December even. However, he isn’t scoring at anywhere near the rate of Harden. Also, he’s not setting up shooters. Or athletic. Or even trying to do anything at this point.
There are a lot of Rondo problems and a lot of directions that people are pointing the blame. Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago mused on Twitter about the situation before Saturday night’s affair:
I know people are down on Rondo but a big part of me wonders if he’s more a casualty of the lack of expected shooting on the floor
Goodwill makes an interesting assertion, but I asked a simple question that received no reply: What shooting was expected to be on the floor? Did Chicago take Denzel Valentine in the draft because they believed he was going to be a part of the starting five, or Nikola Mirotic to beat out Taj Gibson for the starting spot despite Gibson clearly being the better and more consistent NBA player, or McDermott to take the top spot at the wing ahead of Butler or Wade?
I do not agree that Rondo is a casualty of expected shooting. I believe that Rondo is a casualty of years of poor showing on his end. He’s been a bad defender for years. He’s been a terrible shooter for years. He’s clashed with teammates and coaches for years.
The Bulls front office has been a trainwreck of poor decisions, and bringing in Rondo and then doubling down with Dwyane Wade was a very bad idea. But there isn’t an answer out there that makes Rondo the answer or indicates that he was ever going to be the kind of point guard that was going to push Chicago into the next tier of teams in the East.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune was more diplomatic in his description of events than we have been:
Bulls courted Rondo in free agency before Wade sent signals he'd leave Miami. He was viewed as upgrade over Jose Calderon. Looks messy now.
Of course, Johnson is completely correct. However, he holds back and doesn’t deliver all the punches that he could. This always looked messy. The money always looked bad. The signing was always the opposite of younger and more athletic. The suspect Bulls defense was always going to be considerably worse with Rondo on the floor.
So now Chicago has questions to answer about the future of their deposed point guard. They could try to find a trade. They could reinsert him in the starting lineup. They could make him the backup, working with the second unit. Or they can DNP-CD him for the next four months. While it would be incredible to see how that last option would play out, the best option would be to look for a trade. That means they’ll probably end up putting him back into their starting five and it won’t improve anything.
Dec 30, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic (44) falls out of bounds and lands a videographer during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
A Steady Decline
The Bulls sat Rondo on Saturday night. Great way to end the year. The problem was that the result ended up the same – another loss.
Michael Carter-Williams looked great early on. He grabbed two steals, playing markedly better defense than Rondo has put up all year.
Chicago pushed out to a big 11-1 lead to start the game. Basically, they looked a lot like the Bucks did in their previous December meetings two weeks earlier. It wasn’t to last.
22, 27, 31, 36. Milwaukee scored more points in each quarter. And talk about a huge fourth quarter.
27, 24, 25, 20. The Bulls started strong and then it was all downhill from there.
Chicago shot 39.8 percent from the field for the game and, you guessed it, started strong in that category as well. They shot 47.6 percent in the first quarter and it was all downhill from there.
The fourth quarter was a disaster. And that was bad news for so many reasons. One of them that was worth noting is that they were without Rondo, a player who had missed the fourth quarter before this and it was an improvement. However, this highlights just how deeply flawed this team is even without Rondo creating problems.
Chicago started the quarter with a lineup of Wade-McDermott-Mirotic-Jerian Grant-Cristiano Felicio. That lineup was the primary victim of a 10-0 run. Later in the fourth, the Bulls had a lineup of Robin Lopez-Gibson-MCW-McDermott-Jimmy Butler. That lineup was the primary victim of a 10-2 run. At multiple points in the fourth, with both the starters and bench players in the game, Chicago got run off the floor by a younger, more athletic Bucks squad.
Dec 31, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dunks against the Chicago Bulls during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
The Front Office Failure
I hope you’ve made it this far, because this is the most important part and what we’ve been building to with the other examples of how the Bulls dropped their third game to the Bucks this season.
Here’s what provides the most damning evidence that the Gar Forman-John Paxson duo are terrifyingly inadequate and have been for years: The Bucks.
Milwaukee is far from their final form. They young players aren’t anywhere near their potential and they’ll have Khris Middleton back either later this year or for the beginning of next season.
The Bucks have done a lot of things wrong, including a timeframe of nearly a decade where they floundered as one of the more terrible teams in the conference. Still, they did some things right and those things are the kind of decisions that GarPax has been getting wrong for years.
Greg Monroe might not be in Milwaukee much longer, but he was only ever on a short-term deal and had no history of issues approaching the likes of Rondo. The Bucks stopped chasing overpriced free agents that weren’t going to make them a better team in the future. O.J. Mayo is gone, but Dwyane Wade still has more than a year and a half left at more than $20 million per year.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 22-year-old phenom, just put up a game that had a stat line matchup just once in the past 50 seasons, by Anthony Davis. His ridiculous 35 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and seven blocks on Saturday night put him in some rare company indeed. Not only were those numbers matched only by Davis, but to even get into the 30 point, five rebound, five block club is difficult. Beyond Antetokounmpo and Davis, you’re talking about a very short list that includes David Robinson and Charles Barkley.
The Greek Freak wasn’t a top draft pick, he slipped out of the top 10 and wasn’t highly valued or projected. The Bucks hit on him anyway.
When the Bucks had a top pick, they didn’t miss. They grabbed Jabari Parker in a no-brainer move. He lit up Chicago on Saturday night for 27 points, five rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block. In fact, he only had four games of scoring less than 20 points in the month of December. Parker is a player who came back stronger after a potentially devastating ACL injury. A bit of luck the Bulls never had with their former star player and top draft pick.
These are obvious. Milwaukee is young and athletic. They just signed their 22-year-old superstar in the making to a long-term deal for less than the maximum and they’re about to do the same with Parker who is still just 21 years of age himself.
They’ve got a few great players who might became generational talents. Chicago opted to sign a player who was a generational talent in a past life instead of learning any lessons from the toils of the Bucks. And it looks like a cataclysmic blindness on their part. How can you repeat the folly of a team in your own division that just stumbled out of the same mire that GarPax are immersing themselves in?
The final nail in the coffin for the Bulls front office should be not that the Bucks hit on an obvious pick in Parker or scored huge on a lightly-regarded Antetokounmpo. It should a nail called Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon was a second-round pick by Milwaukee this summer. The rookie out of Virginia still has a long way to go, and I might be making too much out of him at this point in the year. However, with Matthew Dellavedova missing the game with injury, Brogdon was called upon to start and looked better than most players in the game, including those players who had much longer and more impressive resumes.
He finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Those numbers are equal to or better than what a certain $13 million point guard with a DNP-CD for Chicago has put up this season. He’s certainly looking better than the Bulls second-round pick, Paul Zipser. He’s also looking better than the player that I predicted they would take, and they ended up choosing, with the 14th pick in the draft, Denzel Valentine.
Like Brogdon, the book is far from shut on Valentine. They are both rookies with presumably long careers ahead of them and any number of possible outcomes. For now, however, it is clear that Chicago has been sabotaging themselves and have established a track record as one of the worst front offices for evaluating and developing talent.
There needs to be a sea change for the Bulls. It isn’t just Rondo, it isn’t just Hoiberg. It extends to Forman and Paxson and their history of not seeing the forest for the trees.