Can the 2004-05 Bulls be a parallel and inspiration for the 2019-20 Bulls?
The '04-'05 team started 0-9 and later achieved its goal of making the playoffs in an impressive 47-win season
The coach was starting his first full season with the team after taking over early the previous season to finish out a 20-some wins season. It was one of the league's youngest teams and opened the season starting former draft lottery selections who'd yet to make an impact and a savvy veteran born outside the U.S. And then the team began with disappointments, losses piling up with regularity as the team's hopes were dismissed around the NBA.
And then that team achieved its goal of making the playoffs during an impressive 47-win season and a narrow defeat in the first round against the Washington Wizards.
"When we were 0-9, it was interesting because I was seeing progress with Scott (Skiles, coach)," recalled assistant Ron Adams, who is with the Golden State Warriors. "Scott was a great teacher and we solidified a bit even though we weren't winning. I can remember telling Scott when we were 0-9, I said, ‘Scott, I know we're 0-9, but we're making progress; we just have to stay with it. We have an interesting group of guys who are starting to get it and be connected and come together.' We're 0-9 and have to play at Utah. We win at Utah, which was significant because it was the logical culmination of the progression that was happening. We gained confidence and kept improving."
It's not the easiest position to be in when you start like that. You obviously feel the pressure... We knew we just needed to stay with these young guys and get them some confidence because they were all pretty tough guys.
Can that team's experience be a parallel and inspiration for the 2019-20 Bulls, who are 1-3 and playing in Cleveland Wednesday?
The Bulls are ahead of the pace of that 2004-05 Bulls team with one victory. And with two narrow losses in four games, it's too early to say it's too late.
But there are similarities, and not only with the coaching experience. This 2019-20 Bulls team features youngsters of considerable potential with limited accomplishment. And they're being provided assistance—and hopefully succor—by experienced and rugged veterans.
"The thing that allowed us to have the team and the season we had was the trade John (Paxson, then general manager) made getting Antonio Davis for Jalen Rose," Adams said about the previous season deal. "I don't think it would have worked otherwise."
Paxson remains in a similar role now as Bulls Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations. It's not surprising the way Paxson constructed this team with veterans like Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky and Otto Porter Jr. based on the way that first team was built.
Davis that 2004-05 season was the eighth leading scorer on the team, which wasn't his value replacing the high scoring and defense-challenged Jalen Rose.
"It was a great defensive team," said Adams. "Antonio was the big rooster in the hen house, guiding and giving confidence to these guys; they all knew he had their back."
Young, especially, has embraced that role with this Bulls team, repeatedly saying his primary job is to help Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen become All-Star players. They've only shown glimpses thus far, Markkanen with a 35 points and 17 rebounds opener and LaVine with 37 points in the Bulls lone victory in Memphis.
That '04-'05 team didn't have a scorer who could be among the league leaders like LaVine, though it was playing in a lesser scoring era which didn't feature three-point shooting like today. The team had to sort out chemistry with major changes and sacrifices before it was able to follow a winning path.
"The key for us after being 0-9 was we changed the lineup," said then assistant coach Jim Boylan (different spelling). "We made Ben Gordon the sixth man. We had Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, so we also put Chandler on the bench. Not because of anything he didn't do, but Eddy was better at the beginning of the games and Tyson was in at the end. And we inserted Antonio Davis into the starting lineup. He was the veteran who gave the guys stability. He was a big, tough guy and our fragile young players felt comfortable with this guy out there."
Gordon was the third selection in the draft that year, so there was emphasis to start him. Andres Nocioni was the under-the-radar acquisition from overseas and he started early that season along with Kirk Hinrich, who was in his second season, and Curry and Chandler. The Bulls still were committed to the two seven-foot youngsters drafted by Jerry Krause.
Skiles fiddled with the lineup as the losses mounted, giving a start to Eric Piatkowski, and then after the ninth loss starting Davis, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon with Hinrich and Curry. The combination of toughness, veteran experience and scoring youth blended. The Bulls still wouldn't get to .500 until late January, but they prioritized effort, competitiveness and sacrifice. And who knows how far it might have taken them if Curry hadn't suffered a heart episode late that season and missed the playoffs?
"The one good thing is we were very organized and disciplined with our offense and defense," recalled Boylan, who was a Bulls interim coach after Skiles was dismissed in 2007 and an assistant on the Michigan State staff when current Bulls coach Jim Boylen was hired as a graduate assistant.
"They called me senior and him junior," laughed Boylan, who is now living in Florida and doing some work for the NBA.
"Those young guys we had would do anything you asked them to do," said Boylan. "You'd have a veteran team and want guys to do stuff and maybe they roll their eyes or whatever if you're 0-9. Every night they went out and played hard, but AD was amazing for us that year. The change in the lineup was the key difference for us. When you're 0-9, it's really hard for anyone to say, ‘Why are you doing that?'"
The Bulls had invested in Gordon as the third pick. Many complained he was drafted too high as the Bulls also purchased the No. 7 pick from Phoenix to select Deng. There was more criticism they should have taken Illinois native Andre Iguodala instead of Deng.
"Something wasn't right, and the only logical thing you can do is change the lineup," said Boylan. "There was nobody who was so much better than anybody, and no one so much worse than anybody. We had to just juggle until we got the chemistry right, and that move gave it to us. And then you had guys who were good teammates like Othello (Harrington, who started the opener) and Piatkowski.
"Then once we did and started winning there was no room for anyone to be negative because you couldn't argue with the results," Boylan added. "It's not the easiest position to be in when you start like that. You obviously feel the pressure, but Scott and I were in Phoenix and had some success. He felt like he knew the system we were trying to implement was really good. We knew we just needed to stay with these young guys and get them some confidence because they were all pretty tough guys. Hinrich and Duhon were hard nosed.
"The funny thing was the guy who was an issue, but not because of any attitude or anything or any way he acted was Ben Gordon," Boylan said. "We'd be in the first quarter and it would look like he'd never played the game before, kicking the ball around, dribbling off his foot. He'd play horrible for three quarters. We'd be sitting there asking, ‘Do we have to put him in?' Then he'd come in the fourth quarter and score 16 points. I think he led the NBA that year in fourth quarter scoring. It was the craziest thing. We'd sit there and laugh and say, ‘He's got five turnovers, he's one for nine, zero for four for three. Should we put him in?' Yeah, we had to. Then he'd go and score 18 points in the quarter."
"It was," added Adams, "a remarkable team."
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