Bulls management wants to tank, but players making that difficult

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Zach LaVine drops 18 points and scores the go-ahead points to lead the Bulls to a 105-101 win over the Magic.

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls lost on Monday night despite the fact that the scoreboard says they beat an awful Orlando Magic squad 105-101 in a half-full United Center. In the battle for NBA draft lottery-ball supremacy, the Bulls took a major step back from securing a top-five pick in a few months. Monday’s pillow fight between two tanking teams offered a reminder of just how bad the Bulls are going to have to be down the stretch to lock down the type of high-tier selection their front office is yearning for.

Make no mistake: While the front office and no member of the Bulls organization won’t so much as breathe the word “tank,” the reality is that has been the plan all along this season. It’s why Chicago’s brain trust has been scouting the likely top picks in this summer’s draft even harder than usual.

It’s why Chicago’s front office wouldn’t have minded if its team gave up the entirety of an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter to a Magic team that literally threw the game away in the final seconds with a chance to win.

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Zach LaVine knocks away Jonathon Simmons’ inbounds pass and takes it the other way for a dunk to give the Bulls a 103-101 lead.

Tanking is the kind of dirty business no team is proud of, but it’s a necessity given the way the rules are written for the NBA draft — especially in the wake of recent legislation for the coming years to come in which the odds of landing the top-three picks won’t be weighted the same way as in years past.

Aside from the front office’s preference, the Bulls’ fan base seems to be onboard with losses in the final two months, as well. When asked in a Twitter poll on Monday night whether they would be more excited to see their team win or lose — 83 percent of almost 2,000 votes said they would like to see losses.

The biggest problem for the Bulls as they hit the stretch drive is that they might have already knocked themselves out of the top five unless they get some serious luck with the ping pong balls in the Lottery. After starting the season 3-20, the Bulls rattled off seven wins in a row behind Nikola Mirotic and a re-energized group of young players. As happy as the Bulls were to see Mirotic reinvent himself on the floor and parlay his career-best success into a future first-round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans, the catch is that Mirotic’s solid play, coupled with the play of Kris Dunn and rookie Lauri Markkanen, might have pushed the Bulls too far ahead of their tanking compatriots.

Chicago rookie Lauri Markkanen didn’t score any of his team-high 21 points in the fourth quarter, but the Bulls won anyway. David Banks/USA TODAY

Tanking has been big business in the NBA, and a major reason why commissioner Adam Silver has tried to reform the lottery process in the future. But like many teams, the Bulls knew full well what the end of this season would look like as far as teams intentionally trying to lose games. They knew it would be a fight to the bottom because of the chances to draft potential franchise-changing talents such as Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton.

That’s what makes Monday’s loss (win) tougher to swallow for a majority of fans and executives who saw the bigger picture in play. There is never certainty in selecting 18- or 19-year-old basketball players not named LeBron James, but a loss (win) like this one, to a team like the Magic, pushed the Bulls that much further away from their goal.

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Denzel Valentine dribbles up the floor and passes to Zach LaVine, who sends it right back to Valentine who takes off for a one-handed jam.

Monday’s loss (win) marks the end of the rarely seen stretch of three home games in four nights that began with Chicago’s best win of the year over Tom Thibodeau and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Bulls personnel quietly beamed after beating their arch nemesis in Thibodeau and former Chicago star Jimmy Butler. It was a win worth celebrating, even for the hardest-tanking acolytes, because of the emotions involved in the recent breakups between Thibodeau and Butler. The fact that LaVine, the centerpiece of the return the Bulls got back from the Timberwolves, scored 35 and had 15 in the fourth quarter didn’t hurt either.

But Friday offered yet another reminder that it is not on coaches and players to tank away a season. Head coach Fred Hoiberg and his staff deserve plenty of credit for continuing to get this young team to play hard, and the players deserve praise for battling on most nights during a rebuilding season in which there were few expectations to begin with. Hoiberg’s team could have rolled over against the Magic, but players and coaches have too much pride and talent to be expected to lose games purposefully.

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Robin Lopez feeds the ball to Lauri Markkanen who dribbles into the paint and gets two points.

That’s why Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman have to make sure that they do everything possible in the final 26 games to weaken their own group for better days ahead. What does that mean? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. LaVine shouldn’t play in a back-to-back the rest of the year. The Bulls have four more sets of back-to-backs. That means there are four games in which LaVine shouldn’t play as he “continues the recovery process from last year’s ACL injury.”

  2. Hoiberg keeps saying Cristiano Felicio, Paul Zipser, newcomer Noah Vonleh and Cameron Payne, when he returns from the G League, will play big minutes. What are they waiting for? Let’s see them in action. Hoiberg noted that he’d like to get Vonleh some more practice time before putting him out there, but there’s no excuse as to why Felicio and Zipser aren’t seeing more time. Hoiberg said that he has talked to Paxson and Forman about players’ various roles down the stretch but not about specific minutes. Now is the time to have more of those conversations — before it’s too late.

  3. The Bulls have a tough Valentine’s Day showdown against the Toronto Raptors. Kris Dunn should remain out as he “continues recovering from the concussion he suffered two weeks ago.” If Jerian Grant and Ryan Arcidiacono can lead the Bulls to a win over the Raptors, then more power to them.

The argument Paxson made after the deadline in keeping veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday made sense. The Bulls weren’t just going to give away either player for next to nothing, because the organization respects the way they go about their business and set a good example for younger players.

Having said that, there is no way Holiday should be playing close to 35 minutes in a game like he did on Monday night. Same goes for Lopez, who played 26 minutes. Let the younger kids play, because neither Holiday nor Lopez are part of Chicago’s long-term future. Again, if the Bulls can win games with Zipser and Payne leading the way, then so be it.

The argument against tanking, notably that putting players in less-than-advantageous positions to win is bad for a team’s culture, doesn’t hold nearly as much weight on a rebuilding team because there’s a solid chance most of the players on this team won’t be here a year from now. The crazy part for the Bulls is that in this up-and-down season, all of their goals have either already been attained or are still attainable.

Lauri Markkanen has proven he’s one of the best players in this draft class. Dunn has bounced back after a tough year with the Timberwolves and was playing well before his concussion. LaVine is showing more athleticism each day and is enjoying playing the role of closer in Dunn’s absence. Somehow after the awful incident before the season, Bobby Portis bounced back to play the best basketball of his career and Mirotic turned around his career and got the Bulls the future asset they craved.

Even Hoiberg, after two lackluster seasons, has found more footing in the locker room and is drawing praise throughout the league for some of his offensive sets. He has quieted critics by getting this young team to buy into his system, while assuring himself at least one more year to show what he can do.

After being lampooned on draft night by many fans and analysts for the package they got for Butler, Paxson and Forman might have gotten the last laugh over time because of the way their new trio (LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn) has performed. They also have the type of cap space this summer that most teams around the league envy.

The only thing left for the Bulls to accomplish this year is to nail down the pick that could potentially set them up for the future. The odds against having the pingpong balls bounce their way again, like they did when they landed Derrick Rose, are long and tough to fathom. The best way for the Bulls to make sure they set themselves up for the future is to lose — and lose a lot — in the days and weeks ahead.

It’s not on Hoiberg or his players to make that happen. It’s on Paxson and Forman to do whatever they have to do to control the variables around their team as best as possible. It’s not too late for that to happen, but if they keep enjoying losses (wins) like they did on Monday night, it will be.

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