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By Sam Smith | 5.15.2015 | 3:35 p.m.
In your opinion, how different will we look next year? That was a thorough drubbing by a beat up Lebron team and there was no doubt these guys are done listening to Thibs based on how we defended the perimeter. The way we went out this year feels more like an end than the end of the 98 season did.
Sam: This is not a good day to do this feature as the emotion is too raw, too close to such a bad ending, a home blowout loss in a closeout game, the worst playoff closeout loss in franchise history. So, obviously, the reaction is somewhere between throw all the bums out and woe is us. The simplistic response is they quit, they tuned out the coach. It was an uncharacteristic game and more so a close for this group, though you can hardly synthesize five years of relentless play into one quarter of poor basketball, and that’s really what it was. It was a complete defeat, for sure, and an opportunity to win this series, for sure. LeBron’s team is better, agreed. It’s not that much as Games 2-4 suggest with the Bulls also having won in Cleveland in Game 1. One LeBron buzzer beater and who knows? You can’t go there. The winner won. The winner is always better. But this is still a potentially strong team. Rose and Butler comprise one of the league’s best backcourts and have shown that in the playoffs. Gasol still has plenty. Noah will need a summer to improve physically and perhaps define a new role, maybe as backup.
They’ll move in some of the young players into bigger roles, adapt more to the offensive players they have, perhaps add someone, though I don’t anticipate any major changes. I’m confident Butler will get his new deal and the current Big Three of Rose, Butler and Gasol, which is pretty good, will return. Plus, the Bulls always have done well filling out a bench. Rose after the game mentioned the 2011 champion Mavericks, who beat LeBron’s Heat in the Finals the year after losing in six games in the first round with basically the addition of just role playing center Tyson Chandler, who’d missed 30 games the year before in Charlotte. The Bulls are not that far away, especially in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs proved they are better now; but they are no monolith.
An article the other day zeroed in on the major reason why Thibodeau's Bulls teams flame out in the playoffs - a simplistic offense that is easy to scout and prepare for during a playoff series and a glut of offensive droughts. Do you agree with this diagnosis? Could the Bulls have improved their playoff chances by hiring a better offensive-minded assistant coach?
Sam: As with everyone who has a strong personality, their strength also can be their weakness. Thibodeau’s stubborn nature of not accepting less and being demanding is a chief reason he’s such a good coach. He pushes players hard and asks a lot, and the Bulls have had high character individuals who will respond. But at the same time with Thibodeau, he is stubborn in demanding of himself, meaning he feels he can do everything. Since Ron Adams was let go as an assistant, I know the Bulls have begged Thibodeau to add someone to run the offense, or at least be an offensive mind to work with. Thibodeau has declined. He likes to run the offense, too, and the issue to me has been less a predictable offense—how many NBA offenses are so creative? LeBron posting up? Harden dribbling all over?—than Thibodeau being so hands on and calling so many plays, which I’ve long felt inhibits the flow. I’ve always been one who’d rather see the players make more calls, push the ball in transition, swing the ball. That’s the reason for the droughts: Late shot clocks with deliberate play in too many play calls. It’s why the triangle is a good offense. It requires players to make more decisions. They should, and the good ones can.
I wish Thibodeau had done for another assistant what Doc Rivers did for him, basically enabling him to have strong input on one side of the ball, which lessened Doc’s responsibilities but didn’t make him less a coach. In fact, it made him better. Thibodeau is basically the only coach in the league who dictates both sides of the ball to that extent. I honestly don’t know Thibodeau’s future with the team, which everyone assumes is a fiat accompli. Though I’ve long felt having an offensive assistant would have lessened the issues that have been around the team all season. Thibodeau came to the Bulls with a reputation as a great defensive coach. He was hired because the Bulls wanted an emphasis on defense, as they always do. Thibodeau was the ideal choice and delivered. Perhaps he still can. It’s just that it’s OK to be the CEO and assign significant responsibilities. Thibodeau doesn’t believe in that. It’s a credit to him that he wants to work so hard. Sometimes it’s not as productive in the long run.
One of your columns this year pointed out that, except for Michael Jordan (who voluntarily retired before the second three-peat), no elite NBA player has ever missed two years come back to play. It's virtually unheard of. Rose has done that successfully. Rose will be even better next year.
Sam: I’ve felt this is the biggest story that has been taken for granted, and I think you have to credit Thibodeau here since he has noted this many times. This has been an extraordinary return from Rose, watching him in these playoff games being judged just like any other player and standing up to that scrutiny. When he’s one of the most unique players in NBA history, an elite star going through multiple surgeries in three straight years and then going right into intense playoffs and performing, leading the team in scoring against the Cavs, relentlessly attacking the basket, averaging 40 minutes per game. Frankly, it’s way more than I could have imagined. Of course, the loss to the Cavs is discouraging and disappointing as the Cavs did prove they are one of LeBron’s weakest teams with Dellavedova and Thompson vital to the success. Credit to them they were able to produce. That the Bulls didn’t match that is to their detriment, but it hardly suggests an immovable object, and even with Kevin Love’s return, which seems likely to me for one more season. After all, they usually sat him in the fourth quarter. But they were the ones to produce, so they deserve the credit. But this is the first time since 2011 the Bulls can look toward the next season—and that one in 2011-12 was uncertain with the labor stoppage—counting on a healthy Rose without having to worry about if he can play and how much. It changes everything about the offseason, if not media day as well. No, he’s not that high flying, often reckless Rose of 2010, but he’s obviously a hard worker who’ll continue to work on his game based on his recovery, a quality lead guard who now has an All-Star backcourt mate to rival perhaps any backcourt in the NBA. That’s a heck of a start for a team on a season. Having this behind Rose should also help him with confidence and assurance, the things he had to work on all this season. It makes the Bulls a much better team knowing they simply can count on Rose. If only that brings some positive to the playoffs.
Aside from the obvious way LeBron empowered and elevated everyone on his team ala MJ, Shumpert and Smith were difference makers. Cavs GM (and probably here again LeBron) deserves a lot of credit for those moves as well Mozgov. Those additions completely reshaped them from soft team into one that can defend and play with an edge.
Sam:I agree. Of course, LeBron emboldens everyone for you much as Jordan did because not only is he so good, but he’s also demanding. If his team loses it becomes his fault. Much like it was with Jordan. It didn’t matter if someone else failed, it was on them. Though they didn’t worry about so much the blame as the failure to succeed, which drives players like them. It’s part of what makes them so great and why James is such a great competitor. Like him or not, it’s not just his size advantage. He’s a great competitor and you can see he pushes players by what he does. He’s demanding in a different way than Jordan, but seemingly no less so. The executive of the year is voted by fellow general managers, and not to say the Golden State general manager wasn’t deserving, but it becomes more a long term achievement award than what you did this season. That’s why media is better voting for these awards. The gms tend to vote more for the people they like, and they don’t like new guys on the block. So David Griffin of the Cavs didn’t win. But his moves this season were the boldest and made the most difference and put him on the line the most by trading the No. 1 pick in the draft. Perhaps it comes back to bite him if Love leaves. But he took the risk to win the only title you can win now, which is this one. He did terrific work for that team and it did help make them a title contender, which is what you have to do as long as you have LeBron. It’s OK to be back in the lottery when he can’t play anymore.
Bulls down 13 to start the 4th. Win or 5 month vacation. Rose is on bench first 4 minutes of 4th. In those 4 minutes Brooks gets torched by Delladalova. Was Rose on bench for these crucial 4 minutes to start the 4th bc of minutes restriction?
Sam: Well, he had played 31 minutes by then. The bench did not perform as well as expected or as well as it had during the season. I thought they did not get enough time, but I also do understand you are under more pressure in the playoffs to get it done quickly. They didn’t, so Thibodeau was quicker with the hook and less trusting. But then when you are less trusting and you need them they’re not as ready. It’s a Catch-99. (I never liked 22 anyway and the number doesn’t mean anything. It originally was Catch-18, but the book publisher didn’t like the title.) But your reserves don’t win or lose you a series no matter what happened in Game 6. The Cavs were tougher and stronger and more aggressive across the board with Shumpert, Smith and Thompson, and made that three-ball. The Bulls certainly should be able to assemble a reserve group to match those players in the long run.
With the termination of Monty Williams, do you think that increases the likelihood that Davis will bolt New Orleans, especially considering everybody will have $ in two years due to the new TV contracts and collective bargaining agreement? Will Chicago have a good shot in your opinion?
Sam: I know of no players ever who have basically made decisions based on the coach. I know Jordan was linked strongly with Jackson in 1998, but I believe Michael would have left that season even if Phil decided to return in the lockout year. After all, he left Phil once before when Phil asked him to reconsider. My sense with the increase in the salary cap with the new TV deal is Davis given an injury history will sign a long term deal as soon as he can with the Pelicans, who can offer him the most money and security.
The top 5 teams in 3pt FG made this season were the Rockets, Warriors, Clippers, Cavs, and Hawks. Perhaps not coincidentally, all of these teams are still alive as I write this. The Bulls were 15th in this category. How can we realistically improve our perimeter shooting next season?
Sam: There does seem to be something to it, and while I’m not an advocate of the Rockets’ fire ‘em up philosophy, I do agree a big flaw for the Bulls has been the lack of three point shooting. I believe that will change drastically as the team’s best three-point shooter, Doug McDermott, didn’t play this season. While I agree with a lot of what Thibodeau does, he does think defense first and goes with Kirk Hinrich, whom we know I support, over a McDermott or Snell or Mirotic because Hinrich will defend better. There’s a place for someone like Hinrich, and I’d like to see him with the team next season. But you have to begin to play these young guys who can make shots. Look what rickety James Jones did in Game 6. I get criticism you can’t win with Rose because his three-point shooting percentage is low. That’s ridiculous. He’ll be a better three-point shooter and was improving a lot before he first got hurt. But Rose has shown more than anyone on the team, and justifiably because he is the point guard, that he wants to pass. But the Bulls have generally spread the court so poorly with few three-point shooters and you saw what the Cavs did in putting LeBron on basically the team’s best three-point shooter, Dunleavy, in the half court, daring anyone else to try. As good as Butler is he’s not a great three-point threat, and then the next best were Mirotic and Brooks, who didn’t play much and really weren’t put in many catch and shoot situations. I believe that will be an emphasis going forward because with Rose and Butler attacking you should have plenty of shooting options as both are willing passers.
Last night’s ending was disappointing to say it mildly. the team just seem to quit after the Mirotic foul, which is hard to understand. It appeared to me that Mirotic, was just trying to show some support for Jimmy who was obviously fouled on the other end prior to the flagrant foul, with no call by the officials. In the old days you would have thought that the team would respond positively and get some much needed drive to circle the wagons and send the series back to Cleveland. Instead the Cavs used the incident for energy and surged from that point on. LeBron is a great player, but the Bulls had chances to win this series, and they blew it. This was a year that helped me understand what Cleveland fans felt when we had Michael, and illustrates what the league is all about, getting 4 Wins is what wins you a series and ultimately makes you a real champion.
Sam: Yes, it hurts to be on the other side watching the celebration all the time, as a really good Cavs team did against the Bulls for four or five years. Perhaps watching that Cavs team from the late 80s is illustrative. They were a great team; no real superstar but hard workers who worked together. Just not quite enough to break through. It didn’t make them losers; but they lost. Perhaps that is the fate of this Bulls group, though it’s not over. I heard that one year window stuff after the game and there really isn’t much to it. Perhaps some changes come after next season with some contracts expiring and the salary cap booming. So the Bulls will have to be smart and not overreact as there are seasons to come. I’ve always felt it was two years with this group once Gasol came with a transition leading to guys like Mirotic and McDermott. This was a step; the bonus was there also was a chance to win, but it didn’t mean the last chance. The Rose return was the first step and now that he’s gotten through the playoffs that was huge. But as I’ve noted here Rose, Butler, Gasol going forward is a group with a chance to win again. There will be changes of course; there always are when you lose. As for that second quarter, I agree that I thought the Mirotic foul was not intentional and no big deal, but players overreact to everything these days because they know it leads to video review and maybe a flagrant. I didn’t think the Bulls so much gave up as the Cavs accomplished what they were trying to do all series, find those three-point shooters. The Bulls came out strong to start the second half, but nothing went in and they did kind of sag. I didn’t think they quit or gave up like the conventional wisdom of sending some message to the coach or management, but gave in a bit more to frustration and exasperation. They did make another run late in the third quarter, but Butler who’d been hitting then missed three long jumpers in a row to start the fourth and the air went out from there. Few teams come back from almost 20 down in the fourth quarter like the Bulls did in Game 5. So it suggests more they didn’t have quite enough than they didn’t care.
Do you forsee a possible scenario where the Cavs win the Finals but also fire Blatt in the offseason? Seems very plausible to me, since it is more and more seeming like the team is coached by Lebron and the assistants rather than Blatt. Not to mention he almost single-handedly cost them game 4 not once with the attempted timeout, but twice by initially drawing up a play where the best player in the world was the inbounder.
Sam: I thought Blatt got a bad rap on that one as after all LeBron was doing a lot of passing to better shooters in the series and was shooting 9 percent on threes at the time when the shot basically was a three. But, yeah, let’s fire all the coaches. They get way too much credit because they talk all the time and then they get way too much blame. It’s still a players’ game, though change is inevitable in sports and coaches go as well. After all, players are fired, too, though it’s called a trade. The Cleveland situation will be tough for anyone because you play at the pleasure of James. I’ve never seen a community so wrapped up in the person of one player. So if they win the title and LeBron wants Tyronn Lue who’s going to argue? Will there be one complaint to the Cavs? As I’ve always written, the playoffs generally determine the fate of every coach but the famous ones like Jackson, Riley and Popovich, and I assume the same with Blatt.
Did someone's dog die just before the game? That was the most glum looking, sluggish, disinterested playoff team I've ever seen. Where was the effort?
Sam: Wish you were there last night. I didn’t think of that question. Maybe there was an Advocate Center mascot.