Posted Dec 10 2009 1:01PM
Last spring they took the Celtics to seven games in the playoffs and drew respect for being aggressive, alert and, to a large degree, overachievers. The Bulls left it all on the floor back then. Judging by what we've seen so far this season, they never went back to pick it up.
In consecutive games, they took a 32-point pounding from Toronto, allowed the Nets to double their season win total, then never showed up in Atlanta, losing by 35. That's back-to-back-to-back low points. They've now dropped nine of 10 games. Vinny Del Negro's job is suddenly an issue because, if the players are still buying what he's selling, evidently they're not paying too much for it. He's had lengthy post-game discussions with vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, conversations that could take a blunt turn immediately.
The Bulls host the Warriors on Friday, the start of a six-game homestretch, and if they deliver another string of no-shows, Del Negro might not last through the holidays. Or the weekend. Paxson has canned coaches before during the holiday season, cutting Bill Cartwright loose around Thanksgiving and Scott Skiles around Christmas. So there's precedent. Just something to keep in mind.
The Bulls' players are wondering where the intensity went. When it comes to comparing last spring and this season, as guard Kirk Hinrich said, "our mindset just hasn't been the same."
Quite honestly, the makeup of the team hasn't been the same, either. The Bulls lost Ben Gordon to free agency and never really replaced his ability to win games in fourth quarters. They also left themselves open for disaster in case of injury. Hinrich is still wincing from a sore thumb that's benched him during much of this recent losing skid. Tyrus Thomas' arm injury may keep him shelved until the holidays. Then there's Derrick Rose, who sprained his ankle during the preseason and only now is starting to recapture his quickness. Few teams could survive that kind of carnage to their starting five.
Injuries and a brutal early schedule that saw the Bulls finish November on a six-game West Coast trip certainly did their part in lowering expectations. Nobody thought the Bulls would be leading the division or even sporting a winning record at this point.
Still, losing is one thing. Failing to compete is another. This team might lead the league in giving up. With the possible exception of Joakim Noah, the Bulls don't suffer from third-degree floor burns. Something is missing from the Bulls, and lately, they've shown no signs of recapturing it.
"Either you want it or you don't," Rose said in frustration after the Hawks loss. "If you want it, defend people and rebound."
Del Negro is smart and knows players, but the Bulls took a gamble on him because he came with no coaching experience. He was broadcasting Suns' games just three years ago. The Bulls made a wise move and surrounded him with Bernie Bickerstaff and Del Harris, former head coaches who'd been around the game for several decades. But Harris left and is now helping Kiki Vandeweghe clean up in New Jersey after the firing of Lawrence Frank. Once again, the Bulls are being confronted with questions concerning the coach, which hasn't been unusual since Phil Jackson left. Only Skiles managed to notch winning seasons before his style ran its course.
"You've just got to keep fighting," Del Negro said. "It's just a matter of trying to get better and building something. I'm just trying to keep the team moving in the right direction. It's not always pretty. I understand that."
One way or another, the Bulls seem prime for a shakeup of some degree, with an eye toward next summer, when they'll have enough money to buy an A-list free agent. Thomas is the most likely trade bait, and once he heals and returns to the court, he'll be scouted by a number of teams who expect the Bulls to deal him before the deadline. Another is John Salmons. The Bulls could free up $6 million if they can find a taker.
They'd obviously have a desire to bring Dwyane Wade home, and the Bulls believe Rose will give them an advantage in the free agent hunt over the Knicks and Nets, who don't have a player as promising. There's also Hinrich and Noah, who's turned into a solid rebounder.
"Chicago would be good for any free agent because it's a good sports town, the Bulls have a good winning tradition and we'd have a nice cast of players," said Hinrich. "But our concern at the moment is this season. Our first 10 games, we competed really well, and we weren't even clicking offensively yet.
"Now we've got to get ourselves together. It's on us and whether we're going to put forth the effort. We have the talent. We just have to show the effort every night."
No season should be judged on a single bad week, and Del Negro's fate may wait until he's dealt a healthy deck. Still, the Bulls clearly aren't staring down Kevin Garnett and the Celtics anymore. From their current vantage point, the Bulls are staring up.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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