Over the last 5 seasons or so, we've been told of all the similarities between Paxson, Skiles and Hinrich as some sort of band of brothers, but as the firing of Skiles confirms, perhaps losing exposed the various rifts between the Bulls three leading men. However, Skiles was fired not because he was the one of the three who performed poorly, but rather because his position as coach rendered him more dispensible than base-year-compensation point guard or general manager.
There are many models for rebuilding a team. As covered here and elsewhere ad nauseum, John Paxson chose to go with overachieving college and international players who had won accolades. The thinking was that they would bring an infectious verve and work ethic, a true appreciation for basketball, to the Bulls, leading the team and the franchise to collective success.
The stated goal was no less than winning a championship, but along the way, the Bulls parlayed a basketball-educated large metropolitan area into one of the most profitable enterprises in the NBA.
In selecting Scott Skiles, Paxson continued to place his stamp upon the franchise, one of accountability and hard work. Fittingly, he also passed up or missed out on other former players such as Doc Rivers or Nate McMillen, neither of whom became saddled with the disciplinarian, "anti-player" reputation that seemed a given with Skiles.
Commentators pointed out similarities among Paxson and Skiles, and Kirk Hinrich can be added to the group as well. Paxson was a 6'2" point guard known more for his solid fundamentals than any superstar quality. Paxson hired Skiles, a 6'1" point guard known for maximizing his skills despite lacking athleticism and tough personal demeanor; after all, this was the man who would not back down from Shaquille O'Neal in a practice confrontation. After Jay Williams' motorcycle accident left him unable to continue as the cornerstone point guard of the franchise, Paxson's first pick as GM was the 6'3" Kirk Hinrich, who had a reputation for being fundamentally sound and the coach's son.
But things fell apart this season after multiple seasons on the brink of failure. Skiles failed to improve upon the win percentage of Bill Cartwright in his first partial season. The Bulls made the playoffs the next three seasons, but only after starting 0-9, 3-12 and 3-12. They failed to reach 50 wins and advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once, sweeping a Miami team in comparable disarray.
Pundits predicted that Skiles would not last with this young squad, that the players would tune him out, and that he was only a rebuilding coach and not a championship one. True to form, during this contract-year of Skiles, blowouts of the Bulls increased, while his assessments to the media showed increasing sense of befuddlement and confoundment. His lineups showed the same, often featuring overmatched journeyman Adrian Griffin, stopgap forward Joe Smith or second round pick Aaron Gray while the promising future of the team languished on the bench in the form of high draft picks Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas.
But the Bulls' failure cannot be laid at the feet of Skiles only. In some sense the lemonade could only be as good as the quality of the lemons. For a perimeter team, the Bulls are alarmingly short of shooters. Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Nocioni are the only true long range shooting threats, with Deng and possibly Joe Smith being threats only inside the three-point line. That the three returning players in this group started the season in a slump doomed any hope of victory. Adding non-shooters Noah, Thomas, Sefolosha, Griffin and Wallace is like going into battle with only half of your armor.
At some point Skiles had to realize that there was a reason that the players Paxson gave him had overachieved--it was because they realized their deficiencies (whether in height, talent or athleticism) and gave it everything they had at a time when the opposing players failed to do this.
But the flip side of the equation is that at the next level of competition, those same deficiencies might just be insurmountable. Ben Gordon's diminutive stature might be hidden on a team where everyone else is long and athletic, but add to it the height deficiency of Hinrich and Wallace, and the lack of offense of Wallace, Noah, Sefolosha and Griffin, the lack of experience of Thomas, the lack of height and athleticism of Duhon and the inability of Deng to get off his own shot, and you're starting every season in the hole. And that's not even broaching the now famous lack of an inside game or lack of a superstar.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Skiles was upbeat when reached on this Christmas Eve about his unfortunately-timed firing. One has to wonder whether Skiles threw in the towel mentally well before this, knowing perhaps that his early success with a severely limited roster doomed him to a future of trying to motivate victories out of overmatched troops.
This was the man who holds the record for most assists in a game, who had previously coached Jason Kidd, now stuck on a team that does not even start a true point guard. He's a basketball purist stuck with a GM and a point guard who have been point guards in name only.
There was a chance that the cavalry would come to the rescue by way of free agency and the gift of high draft picks from clueless trading partner Isiah Thomas.
But instead of buying a golden goose, Paxson ended up with some magic beans and the promise of good defense.
So regime change it is, but only cosmetically. Things will get better, but only after the personnel and vision have changed from defensive and defending overachievers from college and international play to basketball players who hit their prime while they are in the NBA. A little offense wouldn't hurt either.