Mysterious as it was on one level, the Bulls' sudden ineptitude this season had a familiar look to a Chicago sports fan. Just as the White Sox couldn't hit the ball and suffered through a debilitating slump early last season, the Bulls found they couldn't hit a shot, which proved fatal for a jump-shooting team. And just as the Bears' inability to mount a decent running game this fall left the defense on the field to tire late in games, the Bulls' offensive struggles put too much pressure on their defense, which soon collapsed as the players took on a hangdog demeanor.
If you want to shake things up, the conventional sports wisdom says, you can't fire all the players, so you have to fire the coach instead. The Sox' Ozzie Guillen survived this summer on continued goodwill from the world championship two years ago, and Lovie Smith was handed a long extension by the Bears after taking them to the Super Bowl last season.
The Bulls' Scott Skiles, however, had no such collateral, and he paid the price, being fired on Christmas Eve, the very same day "Tiny" Tim "Pink" Floyd was sacked six years ago.
The importance of team chemistry is pretty clear in football. When the Bears' big, beefy defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor went down with injuries a few years ago, opposing offensive lines were able to cut down the middle and chop away at Brian Urlacher, greatly diminishing the overall effectiveness of the defense. Likewise this year: with Tommie Harris not yet fully recovered from last season's severe hamstring injury, Urlacher was exposed, even as he dealt with his own back woes. Combined with the poor offensive running game—which also put more pressure on Rex Grossman, with predictable results—it was more than the team could stand.
Chemistry has always been less tangible in baseball. Certainly, a good defense improves pitching, and a high-powered offense cures many ills, but what fans don't see—except in the results—is the way a good clubhouse mood creates confidence day to day. Or, as Henry Wiggen says in Bang the Drum Slowly, one of my favorite baseball novels, "Winning makes winning like money makes money."
The precise role of chemistry in the Bulls' early-season collapse remained elusive enough that even a skilled tactician like Skiles was unable to address it. Some of the team's troubles were mechanical, in that bad outside shooting forced the Bulls into a style of play they weren't comfortable with. Even when the Bulls hit their shots, opponents played them honest, refusing to bite with double-teams on their drive-and-dish offense. At the other end of the court, the Bulls' justifiably fearsome help defense—the trait that most recalled the six Michael Jordan championship teams—unraveled as it became slow at rotating off double-teams to cover open shooters.
Yet none of these shortfalls was solely mechanical; a mental aspect played into them as well. Skiles's unrelenting intensity probably aggravated the shooting slump: the more players tried to will the ball into the basket, the worse they shot. There's no telling what went on in the locker room during the halftimes of the games the Bulls were losing so woefully, but it's clear that after years of whipping his team into shape at midseason, Skiles had lost his ability to motivate his players.
That was especially true of the younger ones. He reamed Joachim Noah for criticizing the team's effort after his first game (though the rookie basically echoed what Skiles said in his postgame remarks); on another occasion, he publicly ridiculed Tyrus Thomas for not running up and down the court, a remark he later apologized for. After his one game as acting head coach last week, Pete Myers said he thought they seemed loose and relaxed during pregame shootarounds but tightened up once the game began. (The game was a listless 94-79 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.) Bulls general manager John Paxson, meanwhile, suggested the team had to get back to having fun on the floor.
Other matters Skiles had no control over. Last spring, after rallying to make the playoffs for the third straight year, the Bulls dethroned the defending champion Miami Heat and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, so their confidence should have been on the rise going into this campaign. Yet Paxson's long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to consummate a deal for Kobe Bryant seemed to drain that confidence, as if the players sensed Paxson didn't think they were good enough. That was no doubt exacerbated by his failure to reach long-term deals with young stars Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. Under National Basketball Association rules, the Bulls have the chance to match offers from any other teams for their restricted free agents like Gordon and Deng, so Paxson faced no real urgency. But the delay nonetheless sent a wavering message about whether they were appreciated.
So while both the Bears and Sox made off-season moves that didn't work out, bringing on their difficulties, the Bulls returned almost their entire roster of up-and-coming players and added new talent such as Noah—only to watch the youngsters backslide. Skiles had previously found ways to turn pitfalls into pluses, so the players emerged stronger and better from short periods of adversity. But there was no sign such a turnaround was coming this season for the 9-16 team, so Paxson pulled the trigger.
But to what end? He's promoted assistant coach Jim Boylan to interim head coach, but Boylan was Skiles's right-hand man for four years here and before that in Phoenix. Replacing a taskmaster with a player's coach frequently yields immediate dividends, but is Boylan that kind of a coach? After all, he did play under Al McGuire, the ultimate player's coach, at Marquette. Paxson said only that Boylan "has his own ideas on the way he wants us to play." What seems obvious is that he's inheriting a mess, but a mess with immense promise—in short, a classic Chicago head-case team. And so one year leads into the next, like season to season.v