CHICAGO – The Chicago Bulls apparently have entered the “tough love” phase of their never-dull, retooling season.
After one of the worst collapses in recent Bulls history – they led the Atlanta Hawks 110-100 with 3:02 left Wednesday at United Center, only to get outscored 18-2 in the time that mattered en route to a 119-114 embarrassment – the long knives came out in the team’s dressing room. First Dwyane Wade, then Jimmy Butler blasted the commitment and the effort of the teammates they’re charged with leading.
Here’s a distillation of the salvos that pierced an otherwise miserable room:
Wade: “Everyone don’t care enough. You got to care enough, man. It’s got to mean that much to you to want to win. And it doesn’t. … I don’t know how you fix it. It just doesn’t mean enough to guys around here to want to win ballgames. It [ticks] me off, but I can’t be frustrated and I can’t care too much for these guys.”
Butler: “[Expletives] just got to care if we win or lose. … Be a star in your role, man. That’s how you win in this league, man. You have to embrace what this team, what this organization needs for you to do on either end of the floor. On top of everything else, just play every possession like it’s your last. We don’t play hard all the time.”
More Wade: “These games are supposed to hurt. I don’t know if that is in guys in this locker room. Hopefully they can prove me wrong, but I will challenge them to see if losses like this hurt. … We can play bad, we can miss shots, but we’re having too many of these lapses. We’re having too many of these losses. This just can’t be acceptable if you want to do something besides have an NBA jersey on and make some money. That’s all we’re doing around here.”
More Butler: “If you don’t come in [for the next game ticked] off after you lose any game, if you’re not [ticked] off that you lost, man, something is wrong. … I want to play with guys that care, guys that play hard, that want to do well for this organization. That want to win games, man. Do whatever it takes, just win. Who cares who is shining?”
And this, from Wade, capping the message of evening: “I can look at Jimmy and say Jimmy’s doing his job. Jimmy can look at me and say Dwyane’s doing his job. I don’t know if we can keep going down the line and be able to say that.”
Wade and Butler combined to score 73 of the 114 points Wednesday. They made 27 of their 46 shots compared to the rest of the squad’s 16 of 48.
Later, since this is 2017, some Bulls took their plight to social media. In an apparent response to the two venting vets, point guard Jerian Grant posted on Twitter:
I've played this game since I was 4yrs old. Basketball is in my blood and means way more to me than just a paycheck.
— Jerian Grant (@JerianGrant) January 26, 2017
Wade went straight to the people with:
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) January 26, 2017
And more than a few Bulls fans sent around a clip that appeared to show a disconnect in time-out strategy between coach Fred Hoiberg and Butler:
— Paul (@proogs1) January 26, 2017
Shortly before Wade spoke postgame, Nikola Mirotic came from a back room, picked up the score sheet on his chair and immediately crumbled it up and tossed it 15 feet to the side.
It rimmed out. Sort of like Mirotic’s 27-footer just seven seconds into a late Bulls possession, trailing 114-112. Mirotic had subbed in for rookie Paul Zipser, who had launched from 26 feet when Chicago led 110-109.
Mirotic and Zipser are two of the not-ready, maybe-never-will-be players filling out the Bulls roster. Anyone in the market for a lightly used Mirotic might want to pick up the phone before Feb. 23.
Frankly, this disjointed, meandering season is the natural result of a non-committal offseason plan in which Chicago’s front office patched together a little of this, a little of that. So it’s fair to wonder: Are some of the Bulls’ role players really derelict in duty and not professional enough to work hard and lock in? Or are they incapable and overmatched?
Shedding Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah for Robin Lopez and Grant looked like the first step toward a full overhaul. Signing Rajon Rondo, then scooping up Wade when his Miami talks went sideways were two sizable steps back from that, a reflexive grab at regular-season relevance and, what the heck, a couple of lucrative home playoff games anyway.
GM Gar Forman had claimed at draft time that the Bulls were going to get younger and more athletic, and that hasn’t happened. The bench seems made up of impulse buys and unused toys. Mirotic and Doug McDermott in their third seasons haven’t improved, except maybe in comparison to the backpedaling Bobby Portis has done in is second.
If the league average in player efficiency rating (PER) is 15.0, only four Bulls are above water: Butler (26.2), Wade (19.6), backup big Cristiano Felicio (16.9) and workhorse Taj Gibson (15.6). Felicio and Gibson weren’t on the floor at the end Wednesday.
At the other end, there’s Zipser (3.4), rookie Denzel Valentine (6.2), deep reserve Isaiah Canaan (8.3) and tractionless Michael Carter-Williams (8.7). Carter-Williams got 12 consecutive starts after Hoiberg soured on Rondo. He averaged 8.5 points on 38.5 percent shooting (5-of-23 from the arc), along with 2.5 assists and 1.8 turnovers. Then, like Rondo, he went from starting to, boom, two consecutive DNP-CDs now. He looks, from that, to be a poor fit with his third NBA team.
Wade and Butler have been running the offense for long minutes now. There was no Bulls point guard on the floor for the final 8:20 against Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder. Grant played 19:27, Rondo 9:46 and the rest was in the wings’ hands.
It was not ideal, especially down the stretch. The two stars scored 21 of Chicago’s 31 points in the fourth quarter but then, the Hawks scored 41.
Also, the Bulls shot their final free throw with 4:22 left. Over the next 3:10, they were 1-of-8 from the field, with misses from 5, 19, 26, 17, 27, 29 and 26 feet. They got more free throws than Atlanta through three quarters, 22-6, but stopped asserting things inside in the fourth and earned four to the Hawks’ 13 (a few of those were “hack-a-Dwights,” with Howard sank four of his five in the period.)
The mess at point guard is roster-inspired, self-imposed and begging for trouble for a team as challenged as Chicago. Rondo has begun to crack sarcastic about it and Carter-Williams is said to be steamed, but from most outward appearances, the two are handling the humiliation fine.
Which is a different sort of problem.
“They’re supposed to be pissed about it,” Wade told NBA.com before exiting Wednesday. “You want guys to not just be ‘Ah, OK, I’m going back to the bench.’ Rondo’s been an All-Star in this league, a champion in this league, I suspect he’s [ticked]. You expect that from teammates. But nah, it hasn’t been [a disruption].
“That’s the one thing – this locker room is too nice. You might need a little [expletive] in here. The locker room’s too nice right now.”
Until Wednesday night, anyway.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.