By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
In the darkest days of World War II, France and Great Britain were in shambles. One country was conquered; the other subject to nightly bombing raids and incursions. In this time of crisis, two leaders — Charles DeGaulle and Winston Churchill — came forward to inspire their citizens, their countries and the rest of the world to victory.
Basketball is not war. It’s not even close, no matter what journalistic cliches and that old dude in the barbershop might tell you. A basketball team is a social construct, consisting of a group of players, all pulling toward a singular goal. That is where a leader, or leaders if needed, must emerge to keep the group moving forward to achieve said goal.
The Chicago Bulls, like any NBA team, have had great leaders in their successful times. Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan in the 1970s; Phil, Scottie and MJ through the dynasty; Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng in the 2000s, then Rose, Joakim, Taj, Jimmy and Thibs at different times through the first half of this decade.
It easy to identify a leader when times are good, but the Bulls are currently in a dark period, and there is no clear cut captain on the team. The question of leadership was asked most recently by Wendell Carter after the November 15 loss to Boston, and until that role has been filled, the Bulls will meet with defeat more often than victory. So who should take on that role of team leader?
To a casual observer, LaVine is the Bulls’ MVP this season. LaVine has been their highest scorer by a wide margin and the early-season talk says he’ll receive his first All-Star game invitation this season. However, LaVine has not been the best player on the team, at least according to advanced stats. Justin Holiday leads the team in Box Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player and Wins Above Replacement, according to Basketball Reference, while LaVine is sixth, fourth, and fourth on the team in those categories. (We’ll get to Holiday’s leadership qualities in a moment.)
Sporting the best stats on the squad doesn’t make you the de facto team leader, but LaVine’s long-term contract and offensive presence mean he’ll be the first voice writers look to for quotes after a Bulls win — or more likely, a loss. Throughout the season, LaVine has said mostly the right things, but he has shown a propensity to contradict Fred Hoiberg, particularly when it comes to shot selection in crunch time.
The budding star is due to return to the team in the next two or three weeks, and he’ll be a welcome sight for a Bulls team that has struggled at the end of close games. It will take time to work Markkanen into true game fitness, but his youth, scoring prowess and dry Finnish humor (he and the rest of the country smoked Donald Trump via Twitter after Trump’s inane comment about forest fires) should engage the team on the court while deflecting criticism off of it.
No. Leaders play defense, and Jabari doesn’t.
Holiday & Arcidiacono
These two guys would be my ideal picks to be the public faces of the Chicago Bulls. Holiday, as we’ll see in the “Beast of the Week” section, has been the most consistent player for the Bulls so far, both offensively and defensively, and as mentioned above, his stats bear that out. (Curiously, his stats are markedly better in losses than in wins.) Holiday is also top ten in three-pointers made and attempted, with the best shooting percentage of anyone on that list other than Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton.
Ryan Arcidiacono has been a revelation this season. Last year, he was on a two-way deal and spent the bulk of his time with the G League Affiliate Windy City Bulls. After posting solid numbers with the lower-level club, the Bulls signed Arcidiacono to a one-year minimum deal, most likely with the expectation that he would back up Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne. However, Dunn’s injury and Payne’s spotty play gave Arcidiacono an opportunity, and he’s maximized it.
Arch’s 4.89 assist-to-turnover ratio is second to DJ Augustin (for players averaging 25+ MPG) and ahead of Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Patrick Beverley and fellow 2016 college grad Fred VanVleet. Also, Arch is ninth (!) overall in the league in Offensive Rating and tops on the team in Offensive and Overall Win Shares.
However, both Holiday and Arcidiacono seem to be quiet workers, rather than vocal leaders. Holiday is an eight-year veteran in his third season with the Bulls and won a ring with the Warriors, but this is the first time he’s been an integral part of a starting rotation. Arch is still a young player and his place on the team isn’t yet solidified. While they’ve set an example with their play, neither have the room to be one of the team’s main voices.
Wendell Carter Jr.
The young rookie has shown bright signs of the future this season, and that future will most likely include him being a player the team looks to for direction. Not only did he hold his own against some of the better centers in the league earlier this season — prior to a stretch of consistent foul trouble in the last five games — he’s an articulate, intuitive and forthright young man.
Big men willing to fight for rebounds are also respected by most players, and Carter has shown he’s willing to jump in the “alligator wrestling pit,” as Johnny Bach used to call it, and grab boards. However, rookies still have to earn their keep, so until Carter has a full year under his belt, don’t expect him to speak too loudly.
So…Who’s the Boss?
I hate to continue beating such a drum, but the head coach does set the identity of the team to a certain degree. The fierce coaching of Dick Motta was as much a driving force of those Sloan/Van Lier teams as the players were, and the sharing principles of Phil Jackson’s Knicks enabled the 1990s Bulls role players to be important pieces of a championship puzzle.
Hoiberg should be setting the agenda for the team in this time of flux, and while he has shown the ability to coach through difficult situations, he seems overwhelmed right now. Hoiberg can’t be blamed for injuries or the flubs of management, but a captain must steer the ship when the weather is stormy as well as when it’s serene.
This, above anything else, is why I don’t think the current coach will see the fruits of the Bulls’ rebuild.
Beast of the Week: The first line below is Justin Holiday’s stats from last week, and the second are his stats for the season.
39.0 MIN, 19.3 PTS, 10 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.3 BLK, 48.0 FG%, 47.8 3P%, -5 P/M
35.4 MIN, 13.0 PTS, 4.6 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 42.6 FG%, 41.4 3P%, 1.9 BPM
Holiday’s been the most consistent Bulls player this season, and turned it up last week, especially on the defensive end with the added blocks. The coaching staff has taken to playing Shaquille Harrison more recently, and he and Holiday on the floor together provide a harassing defense without too much gambling or playing out of position. (This is all a nice way to say that Holiday is boosting his trade value, right?)
Predictions and Predilections: The Bulls played their first of four consecutive road games Wednesday night, and even though they pushed the Bucks to the wire, it was another sad trip back to the hotel. Chicago’s 3-9 at home and 2-7 on the road but its scoring shapes up to 91 points per game and 114 given up away from the UC, while scoring 105 at home and giving up 111.
If that weren’t enough, the Bulls are playing three of the better teams in the NBA before returning to Chicago next week.
Friday at Pistons – L
Dec. 1 at Rockets – L
Dec. 4 at Pistons – L
One Last Thing: Question for you readers, courtesy of my man Danny M.: if you were Bulls GM, what would you be willing to trade for Markelle Fultz?
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR