Editor emeritus Brandon Pence evaluates how the Chicago Bulls players performed during the 2015-16 season in his annual “Can or Keep” series.
You didn’t think retirement was going to keep me from writing “Can or Keep,” did you? This is my WrestleMania, and just like the aging WWE legends, I’m making a special guest appearance. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write a eulogy for this era of Bulls basketball.
(If you’re unfamiliar with “Can or Keep,” read last year’s edition. Basically, I go through the roster one by one and decide if the Bulls should
“can” him, let him go, or keep him.)
Can or Keep: Can
Dunleavy was awful this season. It wasn’t unexpected. Dunleavy is 35 years old and coming off major back surgery that had a setback. He appeared in 31 games for the Bulls this season and still shot a respectable 39 percent from three. Sometimes it was painful watching him play, but the Bulls needed his shooting or, at least, the threat of his shooting, to space the floor.
I would cut ties with Dunleavy this offseason for a few reasons:
- With the looming salary cap bump, Dunleavy is on a fantastic contract: He’s owed $4.8 million next year and $5.1 million the next year. He’s a movable asset, and with teams moving to “pace and space,” you could easily find a taker for his services. What if you packaged him with Taj Gibson? Could you get a decent return? I think it’s possible.
- Justin Holiday has made him expendable. Hoiberg wants to play with pace, and that’s difficult to do with a 35-year-old who is slow and not athletic. Holiday is the complete opposite: He’s fast, athletic, and he can knock down the 3-ball. Also, he has Hoiberg’s trust, and this Bulls team has long been in need of athletic playmakers.
- Doug McDermott needs more time to develop. Yes, McDermott is still something of a liability on defense, but he was much improved in his sophomore campaign. The Bulls need to go all-in on McDermott and give him the playing time he needs to develop into a competent defender. Dunleavy taking minutes from McDermott is not beneficial in the long run.
Can or Keep: Can
This is a first in my Bulls writing career: I am actually going to praise Taj Gibson.
If you’ve read and followed me on Twitter, you’re aware that few Bulls annoy me the way Gibson does. I’ve long believed he was overrated, a highlight dunker in the playoffs that had trouble passing out of the post — he still does — and was slightly overrated on defense.
But he was fantastic this year.
His stat line doesn’t tell the whole story. He averaged a mere 8.6 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game, but Gibson played in 73 games. After Noah’s injury, he brought toughness and defense on the court every night. Gibson also seemed to hold guys accountable for their poor and lackadaisical play and like he was becoming the veteran voice in the locker room.
If I had to use one word to describe Taj Gibson this season it would be consistent. He was just consistent every night and left it on the court.
However, the Bulls are shifting into a new era of “pace and space.” With the way head coach Fred Hoiberg wants to play, you simply can’t have Gibson as your starting power forward. Gibson provides a low-post presence with a decent arsenal of moves at his disposal: versatile defense and toughness. But in the modern NBA, he might be considered an antique.
How many times have we seen Gibson post up while surrounded by three defenders and then force up a bad shot with guys standing open around the perimeter?
In the modern NBA, power forwards and centers are capable of finding the open shooter and understand the concept of trading two points for three. In the modern NBA, power forwards and centers can space the floor with their shooting and open driving lanes for the Derrick Roses and Jimmy Butlers of the league. Gibson doesn’t offer these things, so in a modern NBA offense, he is basically obsolete.
Gibson is also on a very nice — and expiring — contract that could make him appealing to some teams. As I mentioned earlier with Dunleavy, you could maybe package those two warriors together and get a decent return.
It’s time to cut ties with Gibson and land a power forward or center that will fit what Hoiberg wants to do.
Can or Keep: Can
Gasol was supposed to be the missing link in the Bulls’ championship puzzle, but instead, he has become a target of constant criticism.
Gasol doesn’t play with “grit,” so he doesn’t fit the Chicago-style of “grit and grind.” Instead, he appears lazy, and his play has been frustrating for Bulls fans. Questions like, “Why won’t he step out on the pick and roll?” and “Why does he keep lobbing up lazy 18-footers?” plagued this Bulls season.
But Gasol was great for the second year in a row.
He earned his second-straight All-Star appearance, accumulated 46 double-doubles in 77 games — seventh in the entire NBA — and was a much needed offensive presence for a Bulls team that still struggled to score.
However, Gasol prohibited the Bulls from playing with pace, as he’s slower than molasses. Couple that with his poor defense and laziness on the glass at times, and Gasol was arguably more of a detriment than a benefit on this team. That’s why it was so frustrating when trade rumors were leaking out.
Fans wanted Gasol gone and became frustrated when management wouldn’t go ahead with a trade. Either way, Gasol has indicated that he plans to pursue free agency and some of his recent comments about “wanting to be apart of something special again” seems to ensure that Gasol won’t be back in a Bulls uniform. This is probably for the best, as this will allow the Bulls to pursue a more athletic rim protector who would be a better fit in Hoiberg’s offense.
Can or Keep: Can (if I could, but the Bulls are keeping him)
With all the promise of his initial press conference and how this culture would change, it has been a disaster for the rookie head coach. I wasn’t an advocate for his hiring — as I said last year in this column. I thought Adrian Griffin was the more logical choice — but I was willing to give him a chance.
Things just seemed to fall apart quickly, and things that hadn’t happened under former head coach Tom Thibodeau started bubbling to the surface: questions of leadership, guys pointing fingers at one another, chemistry issues — which was particularly odd since this core had been together since at least 2011 — and players taking shots at the coach and the coach making questionable remarks about the players.
For a team that wanted greater communication and a change of culture, this was an unmitigated disaster. I’m willing to give Hoiberg another chance to see how he does if management gives him the talent he desires. But frankly, he looked overwhelmed this season. I’m skeptical of whether he’ll ever be a good NBA coach. Some guys just don’t have it, and some great college coaches didn’t have it in the NBA — guys like Rick Pitino and John Calipari — flopped in the NBA.
That’s not an indictment of Hoiberg as a person, but for fans, we want championships and missing the playoffs and having such a poor season — with basically the same roster as last year — is inexcusable. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’m just not sold on Hoiberg.
Gar Forman and John Paxson
Grade: F for the coaching hire, C+ for personnel moves
Can or Keep: Can (as I’ve explained in length)
These guys are a joke.
I lump them together because it’s ultimately unclear who does what and where the final decision making comes from. Gar Forman seems to get the credit/blame for hiring Hoiberg and trading Kirk Hinrich for Holiday and a second round pick.
I gave them an F for hiring Hoiberg — which I explained above — and for running out a top-five coach in the NBA and the second winningest coach in Bulls history. I gave them a C+ because the Hinrich trade was a genuine steal, Cristiano Felicio looks like an absolute steal if he continues to improve, and they lucked into Bobby Portis in the draft. I couldn’t go higher than C+, though, because they refused to trade Gasol when there was a decent offer on the table and didn’t take a chance on shaking up this team when it was clear they weren’t title bound.
The problem with Forman and Paxson is they’re increasingly becoming a joke in the NBA, and I’m worried how that will influence their abilities to sign or even re-sign players and rebuild this team. If they’ve lost credibility, the Bulls are in trouble.
A change is needed because of the turmoil that surrounded Thibs’ departure. This would be the second feud Paxson has had with a coach, and with all of Thibs’ faults, he was still a terrific coach and a genuine recruitment tool.
What are the Bulls selling to free agents now? They no longer have a winning culture, a respected coach, or a championship contending roster. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.
Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose
Can or Keep: Keep Butler, Can Rose
I decided to lump the final two players together because, ultimately, they’re intertwined. The two Bulls stars failed to find chemistry together on the court, and it’s becoming more and more evident that the two of them just can’t be on the same team for a few reasons:
- “Pace and Space” can’t work if both of your guards are terrible from 3-point range: Butler shot 31 percent from three while Rose shot 29 percent. The Bulls could survive with one of them on the court, but they needed a complementary guard who can hit threes(i.e.: E’Twaun Moore)
- Both men succeed with the ball in their hands. Hoiberg’s ideology is for the ball to move from side to side quickly. That’s going to be difficult when you have two players who like to iso and are very good at it.
- Both men have similar styles: They like to slash and get to the rim. It’s hard to have both guys doing the same things as there isn’t enough space.
The evidence of these two men not playing well together is also mounting: The Bulls were -3.3 per 100 possessions when Butler and Rose were on the floor per NBA.com/stats. Out of 115 two-man lineups for the Bulls this season, the Butler-Rose pairing ranked 113th in Net Points at -110 per basketball-reference.com.
Their stats reflected their poor fit too:
- Butler with Rose: 19.4 ppg, 5.1 reb, 4.3 ast, 1.7 stl, 44.3 percent FG, 29.8 percent 3pt, 83 percent FT (Bulls record: 28-27)
- Butler without Rose: 27.7 ppg, 7.2 reb, 7 ast, 1.4 stl, 50.5 percent FG, 38.2 percent 3pt, 82 percent FT (Bulls record: 9-2)
- Rose with Butler: 15.7 ppg, 3.3 reb, 4.6 ast, 0.6 stl, 41.9% FG, 27.6% 3pt, 77.1% FT
- Rose without Butler: 18.2 ppg, 4.1 reb, 5 ast, 0.8 stl, 47% FG, 46.2% 3pt, 85% FT (Bulls record: 3-5)
That’s a red flag when both men are that much more improved when the other is missing. Obviously, it’s a smaller sample size, but it’s too great to ignore.
I gave Rose a B- this season because it felt like he was out for himself and not the team. When I was watching him, I felt like he wasn’t making anyone else around him better, which is a problem particularly if you’re the point guard.
I gave Butler a B- because the leadership stuff was a huge distraction: He kept making silly remarks in the media, and should’ve just let his play do the talking. For his actual play this season, though, I’d give him an A: Butler has come up big when this team needed him time after time.
The leadership stuff has been overblown in my opinion, though. Maybe Butler did come on too strong, but Butler seems to be in that MJ/Kobe cut where he’s crazy competitive and demanding.
From a report by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, it seems like some of the veterans still saw this as Noah and Rose’s team while Butler was trying to assert his dominance. Notice that Broussard also said the younger players see Butler as the leader.
To me, this is an easy fix: If Butler does have the respect of the younger talent, then get rid of the older talent that aren’t a fit for Hoiberg’s system. As aforementioned, that’s virtually everyone. A roster makeover would likely fix this inner turmoil and allow the Bulls to build around Butler, who has shown some potential to be great if you surround him with four competent guys.
Why would I choose Butler over Rose? The reasons are simple:
- Rose is a free agent next year, and from some of his comments, it seems like he may have one foot out the door. Butler just signed his new contract, though, and will be here the remainder of his prime unless the Bulls go a different direction. That’s much more secure.
- Butler seems hungry; Rose does not.
- Butler also seems to be leading by example. He’s working every summer to get better. I retweeted it recently, but McDermott joined Butler out in San Diego last summer, and Butler dragged him out of bed before the alarm went off. Rose didn’t do that. Noah didn’t do that. Only Butler did, and when you have a guy with that mindset, you generally find a way to win. There were also reports of him going all out in practice. I’m sure that rubs off on younger guys and helps them realize they need to elevate their game.
- NBA history is full of champions, but most every great team had a player that played both ends of the court. Butler does that. Rose does not.
- Rose’s injury history cannot be ignored. Even though Butler hasn’t played more than 67 games since becoming a full-time starter in 2013, I’d still wager on his health and ability to stay healthy more than I would Rose.
Either way, the Bulls are in a state of flux and I believe that changes will be made. They may not be huge changes or franchise altering changes, but there will be changes. Will that help this team get back on track? That’s uncertain, but this season had to be humbling for both management and players. Jerry Reinsdorf can’t be happy about losing out on playoff revenue either. As I wrote last month, that may be the fire that ignites a change in this franchise.
*All players’ headshots courtesy of stats.nba.com. Hoiberg’s headshot and the Paxson/Forman cutout are courtesy of Getty Images.