When I started this blog, I decided to write a short recap of every game the Bulls have played this season. To be completely honest, I just wanted to generate some content because the site is brand new. I figured it would be give readers something to look at. However, reading summaries and perusing box scores for 40+ games had another unexpected benefit: It allowed me to pinpoint certain (to me) glaring trends. For instance, the Bulls have a maddening (read that: pitiful, feeble, distressing) habit of surrendering season-highs to so-so (or worse) frontcourt players. Guys like Joel Przybilla, Darko Milicic, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace and Nick Collison are among the players who have put up season-bests against The Windy City Male Cows. (Note that some of those players might have since surpassed their performances against Chicago; I haven’t checked.) That trend continued against the Hawks, as Zaza Pachulia scored a season-high 18 points.
Pachulia’s big game wasn’t lost on Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls coach said: “Bibby had his way with us. But I thought the difference really was Pachulia. His 18 points really, really bothered us because he got easy points, layups.” That Zaza! He’s such a bother! I wonder if Vinny’s noticed that the Zazas of the league keep having those kinds of bothersome games against his team.
Another thing I noticed was a series of turnover meltdowns that either caused the Bulls to fall behind early or cost them the chance to win tight games. And, sure enough, they bumbled away the Atlanta game with 18 miscues that gave the Hawks 22 bonus points. Again, Vinny saw it – “The Turnovers really hurt,” he wisely perceived – but his observations sound like a broken record. Sorry, that’s a dated saying. They sound like a scratched CD that keeps skipping over the same chorus over and over. Better?
Then there’s the consistent inconsistency of Tyrus “Groundhog Day” Thomas. His ups and downs are giving me chronic whiplash, not to mention some pretty trippy Tyson Chandler flashbacks. Good one game, crummy the next, that’s our T-Time. Last week, he had 15 points (5-for-10), 7 rebounds and 4 blocked shots against the Cavaliers and then 7 points (3-for-8), zero [!!] rebounds and a block against the Spurs. So far this week, he was great against the Knicks (19 points, 8-for-11, 10 rebounds) and then a no-show against the Hawks (6 points, 2-for-7, 1 rebound). Plus, he’s already in that late Chris Webber “falling in love with my 15 to 17-foot jump shot” phase. But he’s hitting only 33 percent of his outside shots! And I keep getting this unsettling feeling that we’re going to give up on him and then watch him break out for some other team…just like Chandler.
The Bulls don’t have a go-to guy. Ben Gordon isn’t it, and Derrick Rose won’t be until he starts getting whistles. And they don’t have any end-game offensive sets that can produce anything but low-percentage jumpers under pressure.
Which brings us to Vinny D, whose post-game comments are indicative of a man who can’t make coaching adjustments when his team needs them most: During the fourth quarter. After the game, Del Negro deduced the following: “You have to make plays,. You can’t turn the ball over. You have to play smart. You have to know your limitations and know time and score. We’re playing hard but not real efficient at times.”
Well, golly, thanks for that, Vinny. And see, that’s been my problem with Del Negro from the beginning. I remember listening to Vinny doing a pregame interview on ESPN 1000 early in the season. Someone asked him whether he let Derrick Rose run the offense or whether he handled the playcalling. His response, and I’m paraphrasing here, was something like: “Well, Derrick’s a rookie, so I call every play down the floor every time. On the other hand, basketball is spontaneous, so I want Derrick to feel free to ignore me and call his own plays.” That comment made me do a double-take even though I was alone in my car. I mean, which is it coach: Are you running the team, or is your rookie point guard?
Now, I understand what he was getting at. But Del Negro always looks so lost and confused during games, and he sounds vague and wishy-washy afterward. So he thinks his team need to shoot better, not turn the ball over, defend down the stretch. Yeah, okay, Vinny, that’s basketball 101. Del Negro doesn’t seem to have a clear, strong, forceful vision for what the Bulls are or should be. Or maybe he does and simply can’t put it into practice. For instance, every year I have to do some “acting” for an annual company video. When I’m prepping, my lines always sound smooth and natural. But once that camera is rolling, I lock up and belt out the words like I’m an alien meeting humans for the first time ever. (“Greeting…Earth Man…I am Gloort. You are how now?”)
What I’m saying is I don’t think that Vinny’s suddenly forgotten everything he knows about basketball, just that he’s struggling to teach it. It would help, I think, if (as I said) he knew what he was trying to create. Say what you will about Scott Skiles, but he put an emphasis on defense and giving all-out hustle on every play. He knew what he was doing and what his team was about. Had he been asked that same pregame question I mentioned above, he would have said something like: “We prepare Derrick to run our offense every day in practice. He knows the plays and I trust him to run them. If we hit a rough patch, I’ll call a timeout and draw up a play to get us back on track. Otherwise, it’s in Derrick’s hands.” Do you see the difference and why it matters?
My theory is that this is one of those “Secret Rebuilding Years” that teams periodically go through. John Paxson won’t come out and say the obvious: We aren’t going anywhere with this group of players this season. But the 2008-09 Bulls feel like a lab experiment. Spurned by the coach they really wanted (Mike D’Antoni), Pax went with a Del Negro because nobody better was available. Worst case scenario is that ownership gets to find out whether Vinny can coach while Rose develops and struggles through his rookie growing pains. And, while that’s going on, Johnny can reconsider the existing talent and shuffle/trade players without worrying about records and playoff positioning. He might claim that the goal is for this team to make the playoffs, but it isn’t. This is a talent evaluation year, from the coaches on down to the last man sitting at the end of the bench.
So where does that leave us as fans? I’ll be getting to that in the next day or so…