The Chicago Bulls just completed an odd and unsatisfying week. After four days off following the end of the two week “circus” road trip (Barnum and Bailey takes over their home court, The United Center and while it’s nice to think that the animals could just be stationed underneath the opponents basket; questions of fairness might arise), the Bulls lost at home to the Lakers, a team they had beaten easily on the road, then beat the defending World Champion Cleveland Cavaliers before succumbing badly to the Dallas Mavericks, owners of the worst record in the Association.
The win over Cleveland should have been a hallmark. It was more than a hard fought game between two regional archrivals. Both coaches utilized their personnel as if it were a playoff contest; four players played over 40 minutes, and LeBron James logged 45, playing the entire second half. The Bulls 111-105 would have been just the sort of signature win that would begin to silence the chorus of doubters were it not sandwiched by losses to lesser teams. All three games point out a significant issue with the Bulls roster construction.
In most offseasons this decade, the Bulls roster construction agenda was simple, finally get by whatever team LeBron James was on and reach the NBA Finals for the first time since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were in red and black unis and Phil Jackson roamed the Bulls sideline. Hard to believe, but 20th anniversary of the last title from the dynasty era is only 19 months away. This year the goal was different. An old, creaky and publicly unhappy team finished out of the playoffs in 2015-16. The goal this time was simple: move past the Joakim Noah/Derrick Rose era (yes, since Rose was hurt so often, I think it’s fair to say that Noah was the Bulls lynchpin for the last six seasons). Rose was traded. Noah left via free agency and in their stead, the Bulls added Robin Lopez, Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. It looked like a disaster since Rondo and Wade were joining Jimmy Butler, each a ball dominant player. Yet so far it’s worked brilliantly. The Bulls starting five ranks among the best in the league, and that’s doubly impressive since Rondo’s effort level is inconsistent, to be charitable.
What hasn’t worked so well is the bench. Rather than a truckload of data, here’s a simple emblematic moment. In a November 22 game against the Denver Nuggets, a lineup comprised mostly of reserves turned a 31-17 lead into a 41-31 deficit. Yes, the Bulls bench is bad, very bad. Some of the problems can be traced to injuries. The team has been without sharpshooter Doug McDermott for three weeks due to a concussion and the second unit has missed wing defensive specialist Michael Carter-Williams for five due to a sprained wrist. Some of the problems lie in usage. Neither of the Bulls bench big men, Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic protect the rim very well, but Cristiano Felicio does, yet he remains so steadfastly glued to the bench that I’ve begun to wonder if a deeper transgression is happening (does he bring his Game Boy to team meetings, is he flirting with the coach’s wife or daughter?). For whatever reason, Felicio isn’t playing and the arrival of the second unit is usually nervous time for Bulls fans.
Portis, Mirotic, McDermott, Felicio, and MCW are young players with fewer than four years in the league each. They plus rookie guard Denzel Valentine comprise the Bulls next major challenge. Coach Fred Hoiberg arrived in Chicago after stellar success at Iowa State. Developing young players would figure to be a cornerstone skill of a successful college coach, so how he develops this crew should be a litmus test of his skills. The counterweight to Felicio’s inaction is that McDermott was having his best season with clear improvements in all phases of his game. Hoiberg was a noted tactician at ISU, and he’s created a top 10 offense from a Bulls lineup that looks like it shouldn’t succeed, but the personnel and performance of the bench unit is a dark cloud over what has been an unexpectedly pleasant day this season for Bulls fans.