Champagne and Cam Payne: Things Fall Apart

By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

Expectations are the brussels sprouts on the dinner plate of life. Everyone tells you over and over and over again how good they are, but then when you finally try them, they’re absolutely terrible.

I didn’t want to have expectations for the Chicago Bulls, but I did. I really did! They were low expectations, but I had them, which makes it that much worse that said expectations have all been washed away in one week’s time.

Reminders of the Past

It might seem unfair to be so angry about the Bulls’ last week of play. Zach LaVine was not in the lineup for their second-worst loss of the week, a 39-point drubbing at the hands of the Raptors (more on that later). They also won Wednesday night against the Suns, another rebuilding team and a pretty decent measuring stick considering they also have a young lineup with a high-scoring wing and rookie center.

So why the anger?

Consider that in the first four years following Michael Jordan’s second retirement, the Chicago Bulls posted the following records: 13-37, 17-65, 15-67, 21-61. These were the dark ages of Tim Floyd, which every fan 25 years or older has mostly tried to forget. I actually stopped watching basketball completely for about four years because it was too painful watching Floyd drive the proud Bulls franchise into the bedrock.

The 98-99 Bulls were inept in nearly every sense. They were in the bottom five in almost every offensive and defensive category and they averaged less than 20 points per quarter most nights. Of the 37 games they lost that season, 21 games were by 10 points or more. They averaged 81.9 points per game in the 1998-99 season and scored 49 points in a loss to the Miami Heat that same year. Both are all-time lows that still stand.

Those Bulls were led by a past-his-prime Tony Kukoc and Dickey Simpkins. But this year? The Bulls have talent. So how are they still etching their names in the NBA history book for all the wrong reasons?

The Worst of It

Let’s have a quick rehash of how exactly the Bulls snatched defeat from the jaws of victory over the last nine days.

  • November 14: the Bulls led the Boston Celtics 24-19 after one period, shooting four of six on threes and 44% overall in the period. The Celtics outscored them 32-11 in the second quarter and 92-58 the rest of the game. The Bulls shot 3-17 on three-pointers in the final 36 minutes of play.
  • November 16: The Bulls led Milwaukee 63-45 at halftime. Jabari Parker led a scorching first quarter, scoring 15 of the Bulls’ 40 points as the team shot 62 percent from the field. Justin Holiday made all six of his threes in the half and the Bulls hit 11 of 17 from beyond the arc. In the second half, they were outscored 78-41, a team record for points allowed after halftime. It was the first time in the shot clock era (since 1954) that a team leading by 18 at halftime lost by a least 18 points. Even worse, the Bulls led for a majority of the game, 30 minutes to Milwaukee’s 16.
  • November 17: a Parker layup with 9:44 left in the first gives the Bulls a 5-3 lead. 15 seconds later, the Raptors tie it. The Bulls never lead again on the way to a 122-83 loss. The Bulls were sans LaVine, but Toronto didn’t have Kawhi Leonard, sixth man Norman Powell or OG Anunoby either. It didn’t matter, as Fred VanVleet scored 18 points and Danny Green hit all seven of his shots for the Raptors. Only one player on Toronto’s entire team had a negative plus-minus rating. Antonio Blakeney led the Bulls with 13 points off the bench…on 19 shots.

In those three games, the Bulls had four quarters where they scored fewer than 20 points. They allowed their opponents to score 30 or more in seven periods.

On the other hand, they held their opponent to 27 points or fewer in five of those 12 quarters and 20 points or less twice (27 points/quarter is the current NBA average). They even managed to beat the Suns on Wednesday night; not a bad measuring stick, as the Suns are also rebuilding around a volume-scoring wing and a promising rookie center. However, they still let Phoenix score 41 points in the second quarter and had to come back from a deficit to win the game.

Raising the Stakes

I’ll admit, the reason I’m disgusted is that the Bulls raised my expectations. After the preseason, I expected them to look for a quarter or two each game and get roasted in others, usually the second quarter. That’s pretty much what happened in the last week: the Bulls were quality for 12 or 24 minutes at a time. However, they were even better prior to that. The gaffes were isolated, and you got the sense that certain players were spending more time on the floor and others less in an effort to underperform and stay in the hunt for a top-five draft pick.

However, watching the Bulls spiral out of control against quality teams in the Eastern Conference is just painful, especially when they’ve shown they can keep up with them, at least for three quarters. Two weeks ago, it seemed like the Bulls couldn’t close good games out. Now, it looks like they’ve lost the ability to keep good games close.

Multiple players have spoken about the Bulls needing a leader, Wendell Carter Jr. being the latest to voice that thought. Last week, he offered a reason for the Bulls’ recent woes to Sun-Times beat writer Joe Cowley.

“I feel like we go in our separate ways…feeling like we’ve got the game won and then [the opposition] knocks down a couple of threes and gets on a run, and we’re looking at one another trying to point fingers sometimes. I feel like that’s not going to be successful for us.”

For a 19-year-old, Carter is precociously wise. Whether it comes from the team or the coaching staff, the Bulls need some direction. Well, a different direction. The one they’re currently on leads to more records of futility.

Beast of the Week: In such a lackluster week, Shaquille Harrison was the lone bright spot. While he was mainly a waste management specialist once the blowouts were on, he still played a pestering defense and racked up 11 steals in four games and 10 assists in the last two. Shouts go to Jabari for his best effort of the season in Wednesday’s win against the Suns (20-13-8-2 stl, +14).

Predictions for Next Week:

Nov. 23 vs. Heat – W

Nov. 24 at Timberwolves – L

Nov. 26 vs. Spurs – L

Nov. 28 at Bucks – L

One Last Thing: Denzel Valentine’s season-ending injury was a surprise to me, but thoughts go out to the young man. Any bets on how much longer Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis’ injury timetables stretch out?

Until next time, keep your champagne on ice.

Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR

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