Something changed about these Bulls in February.
Some will point to the Otto Porter Jr. trade, while others will cite Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine blossoming into future stars as the true reason for the turnaround. Hell, Robin Lopez morphing into an offensive force deserves a mention, too.
While these variables have been factors in the team’s sudden identity shift, it’s hard to ignore Jim Boylen’s changing demeanor and on-court approach.
For the first time in his short tenure as coach, the players are now responding to Boylen. Even for the early cynics, it’s tough to mount an argument against this reality — even if we can still openly question the absurdity of having to wait two months for the offense to be up-scaled to normalcy.
As such, the narrative has begun to shift. And maybe it should. We’re not long removed from LaVine taking not-so-veiled shots at his coach’s offense. Yet here we are, now receiving sourced reports which outline a once disgruntled player offering to pay Boylen’s league-mandated fines.
LaVine learning to trust in Boylen was as unlikely as the recent upswing the offense has taken since February. Much has been made about a decrepit offense vaulting from the league-worst troughs of shit it once resided in, to finishing February as a top-five ranked offense. As it should. We owed it to ourselves to bask in any signs of competence given what we all had to sit through during December and January. While the offense has expectedly cooled off some, it has still been decent into March, so much so that the team ranks seventh in offensive rating since Feb. 1.
A two-month sample always comes with limitations, but maybe this is a sign of a lasting team-wide development, something which can be used and built upon for next season?
Assuming as much, it would be wrong to not apply a similar logic to the defensive side of the basketball.
Balance on both sides of the ball is ultimately the best indicator of a good team. For this iteration of the Bulls, which ranked dead last in offensive rating for much of the season, it’s a trait that has been lacking. And so that has continued. While the offense has made an unexpected leap, the team’s defense has plunged to levels which would be concerning if it wasn’t egregiously comical.
Using the same sample of games (since Feb. 1), the Bulls have allowed opponents to score 116.4 points per 100 possessions. For context, that places the Bulls 29th overall in defensive rating, only marginally ranking higher than a historically pathetic Cleveland Cavaliers defense.
While we can laud Boylen for the offense finally functioning as it should, we shouldn’t ignore what has occurred on defense. Before being promoted to the top job in December, Boylen, among other things, was tasked with controlling the defense. Stopping the other team is his domain. And so we shouldn’t accept the Bulls falling off this badly under his watch.
Sure, some of it is on personnel. Not having rookie center Wendell Carter Jr., who flashed signs of being a defensive savant in future years, undoubtedly makes a typically bad defense even worse — as does having to play Cristiano Felicio and Antonio Blakeney. That’s a valid critique. So too is expecting an improvement on defense once known defensive sieves Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis were replaced with Porter. It never came.
Despite the defense slipping to abhorrent levels, with LaVine and Markkanen showing glimpses of stardom, Porter seemingly solving the everlasting small forward riddle, and a (likely) top-five draft pick joining the roster in a few short months, naturally, focus has largely shifted to what has been working. I’ll put my hand up and admit to buying a sizable quota of the hype. This team had me high in February. The come down in March, though, has been harsh and deflating.
I should’ve known better. That includes you, too (except yfbb, who in his wisdom / brand never believed). Before leaping to conclusions which suggested better days were fast approaching, I needed to remind myself that we’ve seen this all before.
Who here remembers that mild-mannered fella who has been busy handing out resumes to any NCAA program who’ll listen? It has been a few months, so you may have forgotten Fred Hoiberg was once the head coach of the Chicago Bulls (congrats on apparently getting the Nebraska job, coach). If you’re failing to remember Hoiberg, then you also probably struggling to recall that under his guidance, we witnessed a youthful Bulls team play some truly quality basketball on both sides of the ball.
Choosing to isolate a 27-game run from the 2017-18 season, one could’ve easily mounted the argument that the playoffs weren’t that far away for a Bulls team who has recently hit reset on their roster. That may sound insane given the team opened the season with only three wins in its first 23 games, but everything changed once Nikola Mirotic returned to the team after his broken face had fully mended from a punch courtesy of then-teammate Bobby Portis. Fueled by his All-Star-level numbers, Mirotic and the Bulls won 15 of their next 27 games. They did so while playing a balanced brand of ball, ranking 14th and 15th in offensive and defensive rating, respectively.
Extrapolating a 56 percent win rate over an entire season, posting 46 wins in a perpetually weak Eastern Conference all but guarantees a playoff berth. A historically poor start to the season ensured that wasn’t going to happen in 2018. But what about the following year?
With Markkanen, Kris Dunn, and the rest of young roster exceeding expectations under Hoiberg — and LaVine still to return from an ACL injury — maybe a push toward the postseason in 2019 wasn’t out of the question if the team could remain competent on both ends of the floor?
Yes, about that …
We casually allow ourselves to forget moments like this because the key actors to its success are no longer here, and instead, choose to remember last season for what it was: a botched tank job. But before Sean Kilpatrick or any other Bartelstein-affiliated ring-in cost the team a place in the tank standings, there was a time where we were quick to buy into any modicum signs of success.
Just as we did with Hoiberg and last season’s team, we’re doing the same now with the Boylen-led Bulls.
Despite the best efforts from some to overlook how poor the defense has been while suggesting Boylen’s staying power in Chicago is real, the same level of trepidation that surrounded Hoiberg should remain with Boylen, even if a random month of quality basketball remains front of mind.