Missteps by management, on-court issues and injuries have all played a role in preventing both teams from ascending to next level
POSTED: Mar 5, 2016 11:32 AM ET
One issue all season for the Bulls has been Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose doing more co-existing than meshing.
CHICAGO — In a world where our wannabe elected leaders seem to have trouble remembering what they said from one day to the next, it might not be easy to recall that -- at one point this season, or at least before this season -- the idea of the Houston Rockets clashing with the Chicago Bulls in a primetime network slot in March was a good one.
Make Plans: Saturday Night Primetime on ABC Mashup: Rockets - Bulls
Get ready for the Saturday night clash between the Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls.
In some alternate but feasible NBA reality, back when it was booked anyway, the Rockets and the Bulls looked like serious contenders for a fresh-look Finals. At the moment, though, fans of both teams should be grateful that somebody picks up a victory Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC).
Houston made it all the way to the Western Conference finals last spring with a fast-paced offense, a Top 10 defense and, in James Harden and Dwight Howard, two of the league's most talented stars. The latter ground its way to another 50 victories, flexing long-established defensive habits while getting an all-NBA season from Pau Gasol, more overachievement by Jimmy Butler and glimpses of a healthy Derrick Rose.
Plenty of games. Plenty of practice times. Individual work. We've got room for improvement.
– Rockets coach J.B. Bickerstaff
The Bulls were considered the only legit threat to block Cleveland from a second straight East championship. The Rockets already were rubbing elbows with Oklahoma City and the L.A. Clippers and, per some predictors looking to be different, poised to topple San Antonio, Golden State or both in the postseason.
So here they sit, a combined one game under .500, clawing for their playoffs-qualifying lives. Houston has a little worse record (30-31) but is in a little better spot: eighth in the West, two games in front of Utah. Chicago (30-30), at ninth in the East, would be out and has equally desperate Washington nipping at them from a half-game back.
Taken together, the Rockets and the Bulls are on pace to lose 25 more games than they did in 2014-15, which suggests that maybe Kevin McHale and Tom Thibodeau weren't their biggest problems after all.
Which was sillier: Firing McHale -- whose .598 winning percentage ranks No. 1 in franchise history -- after a 4-7 start? Or turning Thibodeau -- whose .647 percentage ranks behind only St. Phil Jackson (.738) among Bulls coaches -- into a lame duck last season? Both moves represented scapegoating by management -- Daryl Morey and Les Alexander in Houston, Gar Forman and John Paxson in Chicago -- that empowered locker rooms already overly entitled, relative to their accomplishments.
GameTime: Stacey King
Chicago Bulls Broadcaster Stacey King joins the GameTime crew to discuss Derrick Rose, Chicago's injuries, and what the Bulls need to do make the playoffs.
The blame game typically snares coaches first, but it's not going as planned this season. Consider the five teams have dumped head coaches this season: Houston, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Phoenix and New York were playing at a combined .422 clip (81-111) under McHale, Lionel Hollins, David Blatt, Jeff Hornacek and Derek Fisher. Under their replacements J.B. Bickerstaff, Tony Brown, Tyronn Lue, Earl Watson and Kurt Rambis? A marginally better .439 (51-65).
Bickerstaff, amid speculation suggesting he won't be back in the fall (Scott Brooks' name has been floated by various sources), only has nudged the Rockets to 26-24 since stepping in for McHale. The same flawed chemistry and glaring lack of leadership that was responsible for the season's miserable start remains. Harden and Howard aren't just paper superstars, they're the NBA's reigning oil and water. In style of play and in temperament.
The Bulls' roster has its own fissures, with Rose and Butler doing more co-existing than meshing. The former doesn't quite dominate the ball the way Harden does in Houston but he dominates the nightly rotation, with whole game plans scrapped with Rose's will-he-or-won't-he-play-tonight unpredictability. The latter surprisingly showed a Dwight-like need for touches and isolation plays in the season's first half, chafing with the faster pace new coach Fred Hoiberg envisioned.
Harden, depending whether you believe on-the-record Rockets CEO Tad Brown or multiple anonymous sources, had a hand in McHale's firing. Howard seems to crave the NBA's latest status accessory of the elite: occasional "DNP-rest" nights off. Rose persists in focusing on his next pay day, as if he doesn't have a few years' worth of IOU's with the Bulls' name on them. Meanwhile Butler grabbed at Chicago's unattended leadership reins, a move that felt forced and went nowhere.
That's where both these teams are headed, frankly. Bickerstaff and Hoiberg in recent days sounded like New Year's resolutionists still promising changes nine weeks late.
"We got a month and half of basketball left before the playoffs start," Bickerstaff said. "So we got plenty of time. Plenty of games. Plenty of practice times. Individual work. We've got room for improvement."
Said Hoiberg: "It's time. We're getting healthy. We're getting our guys back. Now it's about going out there and correcting all the things that have been costing us, especially on the defensive end."
Yet both coaches, while newcomers in their current gigs, have been around long enough to know how rarely teams ever just flip switches and suddenly change course. Habits, discontent and apathy that settle in over five months typically don't get cleansed in two.
Both Houston and Chicago have had secondary issues at the court and trainers room level -- the Ty Lawson flop, the Gasol-Joakim Noah disconnect, Donatas Motiejunas' back injury, Nikola Mirotic's step back and appendectomy, and so on. But the responsibility for their primary problems -- an overreliance on analytics and disregard of personalities, the presumed infallibility of the executive suite -- rests higher.
Way above the coaches they hired, well beyond the ones they fired and are still paying.
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