Bernstein: Effort Is Just The Start For Bulls

A taskmaster coach charged with reinvigorating the Bulls? We've seen this before.

Dan Bernstein
December 04, 2018 - 3:30 pm
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(670 The Score) So we are doing the try-hard thing again. We know how this ends for the Bulls.

Bill Cartwright's laid-back demeanor begat the hard-charging ways of Scott Skiles in November 2003, with executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson valuing old-fashioned coachy coachness to get the most out of the core group of young players he had built through the draft and free agency. By prioritizing defense and hustle, the Bulls climbed back into the playoffs the next season after winning 47 games, only to lose to the Wizards in the first round. They won 41 in 2005-'06 and lost to Dwyane Wade's Miami Heat, again in the opening round. The era peaked in 2006-'07, in which they went 49-33, eventually losing to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then Skiles and his players drifted apart as they always do, and it was on to Vinny Del Negro.

He would lead them to .500 records in the next two seasons, also ending with first-round ousters both times at the hands of the Celtics and then the Cavaliers, in each case superior opponents with considerably more talent.

So the answer was for Paxson to respond by looking again for more effort and energy and attention to detail, so he hired the pathologically obsessive Tom Thibodeau to bring just that, and he did. More intense coaching would unlock everything, was the idea, turning to the closest thing to Bill Musselman that still stalked the Earth. The regular-season victories piled up as the next iteration of beloved core players battled to win each next possession every time down the floor while accruing heavy minutes at largely unsustainable rates. The peak of this version peaked by losing in the conference finals in Thibodeau's first year, then the Bulls were undone by injury and fatigue both physical and mental at every level of the organization. After bowing out to the Cavaliers with an embarrassment of passive-aggressive infighting between Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler in a 21-point season-ending loss in conference semifinals in 2015, it was time for another voice.

In came Fred Hoiberg, the laissez-faire recreation director with the newly fashionable space-and-pace offensive system. The players could breathe a bit after the oppressive weight of the gloomy Thibodeau was lifted, presumably allowing them to grow as originally envisioned.  

The first Butler-led team never quite achieved exit velocity, and for the next one they rewarded Hoiberg's desire for shooters by bringing in Wade on his last legs and headstrong veteran Rajon Rondo to put alongside Butler after his own stated desire for more isolations. The result was a mostly desultory mix of decent enough defense and struggles to score, leaving the 2016-'17 Bulls bounced in the first round by a Celtics team they couldn't stop.

Then it was time for the Butler trade, the ensuing remodeling, the "We have to see what we have in our young players" public explanation of a obvious and understandable attempt to tank a season for a top draft pick. Not only did that effort fail, but the top of the draft ultimately ended up being less franchise-altering than once thought.

After that, pretty much every significant player was hurt or got hurt at one point or another, and Hoiberg was asked to coach a rotating band of bums. Multiple players had already learned the apparent lesson demonstrated by Butler to treat the coach like a floor mat, so one answer was to sign Jabari Parker as a positive influence. Paxson ended up back at an all-too-familiar point, disappointed in his team's commitment and concentration and looking yet again for more toughness from the top.

Taskmaster No. 3 is Jim Boylen, whose job it is to not let the new material group start to develop bad habits. Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine will be expected to develop because everyone is making more out of practices and again running the floor in games. Such is life with the Bulls. It's grindy time once more.

Paxson's personal basketball sensibilities will cease to be offended if there's nightly competitiveness and accountability for lapses, and we can get back to doing what we always do, which is trying to figure out how the Bulls can find a transcendent generational talent to get them out of this well-worn cycle and on the path to something meaningful.

If history is a guide, Boylen might just coach up a healthy roster enough to be on the edge of playoff contention next season, playing perfectly respectable NBA ball and remaining as far from a championship as such things tend to be.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in middays. You can follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.