Can someone please send the Chicago Bulls some type of how-to guide on tanking? In a rebuilding season with plenty of key moments and growth, the last month has been a clinic on what NOT to do.
After Sunday’s 113-94 loss win against the playoff-bound Washington Wizards, the team is projected to land the eighth overall pick if the ping pong balls were to drop in order. The Easter matinee perfectly summed up how the last month has gone for the Bulls.
Despite Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine missing their ninth straight game, Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis still suited up. Both were red hot from the field, combining for 9 of 13 from beyond the 3-point line. Even a line-up consisting of guys like Ryan Arciadiacono, Sean Kilpatrick and Cristiano Felicio scored 14 straight points against the sleepwalking Wizards.
We all know the prime goal of the 2017-18 season: Get a high lottery pick.
Outside of a big free agent acquisition, which the Bulls historically struggle with, landing a top pick is their only feasible chance of landing an All-Star caliber player. With Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine showing star potential, getting a high draft choice would go a long way in organically creating a team primed to contend down the road.
That’s right, contend. Not compete.
The Bulls have built plenty of try-hard squads that compete. We’ve seen seasons with 41+ wins and middling playoff seeds. That might get casual fans excited, but it’s not going to win championships.
And in the NBA, stars win titles. So from a big-picture approach, every win this season is a loss. It represents another failed attempt to find stars that eventually can raise a seventh banner.
Right now, there are nine other teams finding ways to lose epically down the stretch. Yet the Bulls can’t help but drop the ball.
Despite enjoying a nice seven-game losing streak in March, they managed to rack up wins against the wrong teams. In the last month, they’ve beaten the Mavericks, Hawks and Magic and gotten two Ws against the Grizzlies. All four teams sit comfortably ahead of the Bulls for a top lottery pick.
Way to blow it!
Recently, I lauded the Bulls front office for striking gold since last summer. But they still have a significant role in botching efforts to tank this season. Their biggest issue? Not making the memo clear to Hoiberg and his staff.
Collectively, they’ve done the right thing with some top players. Both Dunn and LaVine have officially been ruled out for the rest of the season. They also have carefully limited the minutes of other key guys.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s been inconsistent. That falls squarely on head coach Fred Hoiberg’s shoulders.
Take one of last month’s games against the woeful Grizzlies as an example. When the league forced the Bulls to play Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez, the team overreacted by foolishly starting Holiday. A loss would’ve helped the Bulls chances in the lottery, but the team notched a useless 119-110 win instead. Holiday finished the game 5 of 5 with 14 points in just 17 minutes.
In just a nine-point win, Holiday’s performance made a difference. Why was he starting? Why play him 17 minutes or keep him on the floor when he’s showing signs of life?
When you’re tanking, those decisions add up. Hoiberg could’ve easily brought Holiday off the bench for a few minutes to shut the league up. Instead, he started him, continued to play him and ultimately screwed the Bulls out of a potential tiebreaker with Memphis.
The handling of some players has been questionable, especially as the season winds down. Holiday, Lopez, Markkanen and Portis are either playing consistent minutes or sitting. Why not let them gather DNPs at this point in a lost season?
Bench players, such as former first-round busts Cameron Payne and Noah Vonleh, have caught fire at the worst possible moments. Why not sub them as soon as they start heating up?
These questions are valid when the long-term future relies on hitting the lottery.
There is no need to mess around, especially when the other bottom-feeders are getting serious. For instance, the Suns have held out star guard Devin Booker since March 15.
The Bulls did something similar with Markkanen, sitting him five of six games after a March 11 win over Atlanta. Now, he’s back in the rotation for no reason.
Yes, the Bulls roster has significantly better role players than most of these tanking teams. That’s why it should’ve been on Hoiberg and the front office to come up with a better, more creative way to handle the rotation.
The players aren’t in the business of tanking. Most guys are going to play hard and try to win. That’s their job.
In most cases, coaches strive to win. But the approach needs to change when the organization is rebuilding and guaranteed to miss the playoffs.
For Hoiberg, his role is to help the franchise grow. While he’s helped develop a young roster, he’s failed to help put the team in the best possible position to land an All-Star.
The Bulls can help their cause by dropping the last five games, including two games to the Brooklyn Nets who sit one spot ahead of them in the lottery’s pecking order.
Unfortunately, their odds of landing a desirable lottery pick have been all but completely squashed. Right now, they have a 9.9 percent chance of landing a top-three pick and a 2.8 percent chance of getting the top pick.
Sure, there’s always a chance the ping pong balls could bounce their way, but that’s a risky proposition to bank on.