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CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls Jerseys finished 7-1 against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. They outplayed the Cleveland Cavaliers Jerseys in the fourth quarter and beat the defending conference champs in a playoffs-like atmosphere at United Center on Saturday.
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And yet, after the final two games on their regular season schedule, the Bulls are headed home. To lick wounds, to mine what positives they can from their wildly mediocre and extremely unreliable 2015-16, to press their noses occasionally against the glass of the postseason party to which they uninvited themselves and to spin. Always to spin.
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What Bulls fans will get when it’s all officially over, after the Philadelphia 76ers Jerseys drape black crepe Wednesday over another lost season, will be more eulogy than autopsy. “Injuries” will be mentioned a lot and, while they existed and nagged, there’s been nothing like the Derrick Rose blowouts around which Chicago navigated nonetheless to the three most recent of the franchise’s seven consecutive playoff appearances.
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There will be talk about new coach Fred Hoiberg’s challenge in fitting a touted pace-and-space offensive style to a group of players more familiar and comfortable with predecessor Tom Thibodeau’s bark-and-park halfcourt game.
And fans who keep showing up at United Center 22,000 strong, thereby providing no tangible urgency for change, will hear about an offseason devoted to every last button, pulley and lever, about Bulls management being committed to using every apparatus available — draft, trades, free agency — to restore Chicago to playoff respectability.
It might even match in sincerity and staying power the justifications belched up a year ago for paying Thibodeau and his .647 winning percentage as much as $9 million to go away.
So no, the eulogies aren’t going to offer much in the way of explanation for what went wrong for the Bulls this season, literally from the get-go of Rose’s “I’ll be a free agent looking for another pay day in July 2017” Media Day comments in September 2015. For that, you needed to have been paying attention over the past week or so, as Hoiberg, Jimmy Butler, veteran Pau Gasol and a few others dissected the team’s failings while it still was a few blips shy of flatlining.
They definitely step up their game when they see me.
– LeBron James
Gasol rattled off three of Chicago’s most galling failings earlier Saturday, citing “a lack of sense of urgency,” “a lack of awareness” and “a lack of maturity” in the locker room.
“There’s been times where we dropped games, lost games, that we should never have lost, especially at home against certain teams,” the 35-year-old center said. “Those are the times that guys don’t realize how big of a price that you can pay at the end of the year and how much of a different position you’re going to be [in] by those games in November, December, January. ‘Ah, there’s still 40 games to play, there’s still 50 games to play.’ No, those games are just as meaningful as the ones we’ve been playing for the last week or two where our life has been on the line.”
Gasol, whose defensive lapses are as gaping as any of the Bulls, does an admirable job of laying out the what of things gone wrong for the Bulls. What he does not or cannot explain is the how of those nasties infiltrating what was brought back as an experienced, allegedly savvy intact roster from last season.
Was there no one to nip it all in the bud early? No voice that could rise above the rest and command his Bulls teammates to plant their sneakers and say no to that noise? Well, Gasol and Rose don’t have the personalities or the volume in their voices. Joakim Noah, he of the awkward game but fiery heart, was hurt and marginalized.
As for Butler, he grabbed too directly at the team’s leadership reins, generating more eye-rolls than followers. By last week, the self-made All-Star was dropping third-person references to “Jimmy Butler,” still the only Bulls player he really could call out.
Butler did call out Hoiberg early, after a desultory loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19, saying the first-year NBA head coach needed to “coach harder” in holding players accountable. There are those who think Hoiberg’s immediate response should have been to sit Butler out of Chicago’s next game, a loss to Brooklyn, to make his authority known up-close and personal. But he did not. Chicago got a nice 7-1 bump (including six playoff-bound opponents) to reach 22-12 on Jan 7, then began its slide back to blah.
Butler’s challenge persists, in its candor and its perspective, as the defining moment of Hoiberg’s first season. It was brought up again, four months after the fact, in pregame questioning Saturday: So, will you be louder and more direct next season?
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“When I go back and look at the different segments of the season,” Hoiberg said, “we got off to a pretty solid start with this thing. Then some things happened. I think most of that comes from the one comment that was made after the New York game by Jimmy. We had some pretty heated moments with our group, in the locker room, the in-film session. Would I change it and be more vocal, more direct? Maybe. Again, we’ll evaluate that as we go into the offseason.”
Add it to the list, already a long one. Gasol almost certainly is gone, the early-out in his contract offering him at a chance, as he turns 36, to land with a legitimate contender for some late-career fun. General manager Gar Forman’s comments about Gasol as a building block for the Bulls — at a price significantly higher than his current $7.7 million — rang hollow as soon as he said it in February, offered more to stifle chatter about next season than to lay out a real blueprint.
Noah might or might not be back, his game less valuable to the Bulls than his presence. Rose and Butler claim they’ll work out together this offseason to improve their chemistry and communication, though it’s easy to imagine a summer stalemate in which the former in L.A. and the latter in San Diego each expects the other to make the I-5 drive.
VP John Paxson and Forman are safe because that’s the way newly enshrined Hall of Famer, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, rolls with his executives. And Hoiberg has the dual job security of being Forman’s choice as coach even before the position was vacant and of having four years and $20 million left on his deal. It wasn’t Hoiberg’s fault he was undercut well before his arrival, by management telling the locker room “Aw, don’t worry what the coach wants” all of last season.
The Bulls’ championship ambitions, for this bunch at least, are ending with more whimper than bang. LeBron James, who normally puts them down each spring, instead gave them a pat on their heads and a sideways shot on his way out of town Saturday, heading to far better things.
“The Chicago Bulls Jerseys team that plays us is not going to be the one that’s struggling a little bit off and on, as of late,” James said. “They always play well versus us. It’s like human nature — when they see me, it’s like ‘OK.’ They wish I wore every uniform at this point. They definitely step up nba basketball jerseys their game when they see me.”
Except that the struggle hasn’t been a little bit, merely off and on, or just of late. It got addressed in this space quite a while back, both here and here.
What it has been is an embarrasingly blown opportunity in which Rose has played in 66 games, Gasol at 35 has put up 46 more double-doubles and Butler again reached All-Star status. The defense drooped, the offense never got traction, and rosy talk in training camp about Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Bobby Portis has given way to rosy talk on the brink of elimination about Cristiano Felicio, Justin Holiday and E’Twaun Moore.
But hey, the Bulls are 7-1 against the best in the East and 11-5 against the top six teams in the NBA this season. You can do the math for how they’ve done against everybody else, those more of their ilk.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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