Thursday NBA Roundup: Bulls Leadership Drama Only Masks Bigger On-Court Problems

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2017

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 27:  Rajon Rondo #9, and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Chicago Bulls look on against the Boston Celtics on October 27, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Chicago Bulls are falling apart at the seams.

Though they're just a game below .500 after Wednesday night's 119-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks and remain in possession of the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed, drama is taking center stage in the Windy City. It all started with Dwyane Wade's postgame comments, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell

I don't know what happened. But we continue to be in these kinds of situations and lose games like this. Everyone don't care enough. You got to care enough, man. It's got to mean that much to you to want to win. And it doesn't. So I don't know what happened.

I don't know how you fix it. It just doesn't mean enough to guys around here to want to win ballgames. It pisses me off, but I can't be frustrated, and I can't care too much for these guys. They have to care for themselves. You got to do better. You got to do better with knowing where your shot's coming and knock them down. You got to do better with knowing film, knowing personnel. Just as a team, just got to do better, man.

Jimmy Butler voiced similar concerns: 

Motherf--kers just got to care if we win or lose. At the end of the day, do whatever it takes to help the team win. You play your role to the tee. Be a star in your role, man. That's how you win in this league, man. You have to embrace what this team, what this organization needs for you to do on either end of the floor.

On top of everything else, just play every possession like it's your last. We don't play hard all the time. It's very disappointing whenever we don't play hard.

And then things really spiraled when Rajon Rondo took to Instagram, referring to his old teammates with the Boston Celtics

Teammates took sides, posting on Twitter and liking Rondo's Instagram post—including a (petty?) like from Wade. And now, there's no telling what the fallout will be from these events, since the team could do anything from just moving past the drama to shopping Rondo. 

But this is a distraction from the ugly truth. Leadership issues matter most for competitive teams, and the Bulls are bad.

There's no sugarcoating necessary for a squad that's posting a negative net rating (minus-0.7) and has been even worse since calendars flipped to 2017. During January, the Bulls are on the wrong end of a minus-1.1 net rating, ranked No. 21 in offensive rating and No. 13 in defensive rating. 

Even those numbers might not be sustainable. 

Nothing is more important than shooting in today's NBA, and the Bulls can't drain triples. Butler, Wade and Rondo aren't suddenly going to become Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams aren't going to light it up from beyond the arc. 

Chicago is second-to-last in field-goal percentage, shooting 43.4 percent. It's dead last from three-point territory (31.5 percent) and is making fewer triples per game than every other squad (6.5). And, according to B/R Insights, the team's inability to make deep attempts plays directly into it creating just 47.7 points per game off assists—the Association's third-worst mark.

Turning to NBA Math's adjusted numbers puts into perspective just how bad the shooting has become:

No one is even in the same ballpark. 

And again, where will help come from? Nikola Mirotic is operating well below expectations on offense, and the Bulls aren't overflowing with youngsters waiting for their chances to shine. Denzel Valentine, Paul Zipser and Bobby Portis can only do so much. 

Sure, Chicago would be in the playoffs if the season ended now—though it would likely get walloped by a focused version of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, it's only a game below .500 and is a mere hot streak away from looking like it's enjoying a far better campaign. And, of course, the roster contains a few big names and significant star power. 

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 20:  Jimmy Butler #21 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Chicago Bulls look on from the bench during the game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on January 20, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and ag
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That doesn't mean the Bulls are good. And while this in-progress drama may distract from the team's offensive futility, it sure won't help solve it. 

Leadership issues aren't the cause of the woes, even if they're symptomatic of the overall struggles. No matter how the team feels about Wade and Butler's motivational speaking and not-so-subtle jabs through the media, that's not the primary concern. 

The biggest issues come on the court, and they were created by the assembly of an ill-fitting roster that maxes out as a .500 team in the modern, shooting-obsessed NBA. 

        

Reminder: Averaging a Triple-Double Is Hard

Russell Westbrook was phenomenal during the Oklahoma City Thunder's 109-98 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. He just wasn't in a sharing mood—especially during a 17-point fourth quarter that helped his squad hold off Dallas' late charge. 

The point guard, who remains one of the leading contenders for MVP and was just named to the All-Star squad for the sixth time in his career, finished with 45 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals on 16-of-29 shooting, 4-of-8 from downtown and 9-of-11 at the stripe. He even turned the ball over just four times despite his heavy involvement. 

But that line seems underwhelming because it's not a triple-double. In fact, it was just the second time this season he's failed to record four assists in a game, and the first happened (in part) because he was ejected from a Dec. 29 contest against the Memphis Grizzlies

Westbrook is now averaging 31.0 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.2 assists. It's increasingly clear just how precarious his quest for the trip-dub season is, as even a few more shot-hunting outings like this could push him below double-digit assists. 

Assuming the explosive 1-guard suits up in each of the Thunder's 35 remaining contests, he'd have to average the following numbers to finish the season in Oscar Robertson territory: 

StatisticPointsReboundsAssists
Average Necessary for a Triple-Double Averageminus-18.29.29.7

The scoring will be easy; it's guaranteed. But three-assist nights don't help his case in the toughest category. 

Of course, Westbrook could just negate these concerns if he averages 23.0 blocks or 21.3 steals for the rest of the campaign. 

           

The Indiana Pacers' Big 3 Comes to Play

Perhaps it's time to think of Paul George, Jeff Teague and Myles Turner as one of the NBA's rising Big Threes. 

Each has excelled throughout the 2016-17 campaign—George with his scoring exploits (even as his defense has declined), Teague with his playmaking and Turner with his shot blocking and overall defensive contributions. And they were at it again in their 109-103 victory over the surging Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday, which pushed the Indiana Pacers back over .500 (23-22) and into stronger playoff positioning within the Eastern Conference (sixth). 

On the heels of his latest All-Star selection, George excelled against Andrew Wiggins. He frustrated the young Minnesota wing with his hounding perimeter defense—something we haven't always seen this year. And even more impressively, he exploded on offense for 32 points and five assists on 12-of-22 shooting from the field and a 3-of-4 showing from downtown. 

Meanwhile, Teague almost posted a triple-double with 20 points, eight rebounds and 13 assists. Though turnovers hindered his performance at times, he was a dynamic playmaker who provided his Pacers teammates with plenty of easy looks. 

And Turner did everything.

The sophomore center finished with 23 points, six rebounds and two blocks, and the Wolves (other than Karl-Anthony Towns) had trouble scoring whenever he was in the vicinity. It's just the latest evidence Turner belongs in the same conversation as Towns, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic as the basketball-watching world debates the league's best up-and-coming bigs. 

Remember, George is just 26 years old. Teague won't celebrate his 29th birthday until June, and Turner can't legally consume alcohol. This trio is still learning how to thrive alongside one another, and it has plenty of time to keep figuring it out. 

      

Line of the Night: Nikola Jokic

The Denver Nuggets continue to hold serve in their quest for the Western Conference's No. 8 seed, this time with a 127-120 victory at the expense of the Phoenix Suns. And as has so often been the case in recent weeks, Jokic led the charge. 

The up-and-coming star exploded for 29 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, a steal and two blocks on 12-of-21 shooting from the field Thursday, highlighted by this no-look dime to Kenneth Faried:

But this might not have been a true explosion, since that implies Jokic's line was atypical. On the contrary, it's in line with what he's been doing lately.

Since the sophomore center returned to the starting lineup Dec. 15, he's averaging 21.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists. During that stretch, he's shooting 62.5 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from downtown and 81.2 percent on his free-throw attempts.

Over his last seven outings, those numbers are up to 26.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.0 dimes. 

If you're thinking of him as anything less than a star, stop doing that. And while you're at it, cross your fingers that the hip injury he suffered late in the fourth quarter isn't serious:

   

All-Star Snub Shows Out

Let's turn to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, who made a compelling case that Rudy Gobert should've been among the Western Conference's All-Star reserves: 

DeAndre Jordan's getting All-Star clearance before Rudy Gobert is weird. 

This isn't a shot at Jordan. He remains a defensive bloodhound and a lob-thrower's dream. But Gobert is the better one-man wrecking crew these days.

No one has contested more shots around the basket, and yet scorers can't solve him. Opponents put down 43.6 percent of their point-blank opportunities against him—the fourth-lowest mark in the league among those to challenge at least 100 attempts near the bucket. And good luck trying to best him in the post or out of pick-and-rolls.

These dominant defensive showings have fueled Gobert's climb through the NBA ranks, but a deeper offensive bag rounds out his game. He is now serviceable in the post, has mastered the art of screen-setting and ranks as a top rim-runner out of pick-and-rolls.

Gobert agrees he should've made it. He hinted as much before the Utah Jazz's 96-88 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon:

Oh, we saw.

Gobert was dominant on the defensive end against Los Angeles, just as he's been throughout the season. En route to accumulating nine points, 13 rebounds and six blocks, he shut down the interior and made anyone wearing a purple-and-gold uniform think twice about entering his territory.

Three of the rejections came during a short stretch in the third quarter, in which he gave Utah all the momentum and sparked a massive run that lasted until the beginning of the final period:

Gobert might not score many points, but he's provided as much value as any big in the Western Conference. The Jazz will have one representative in New Orleans for the All-Star festivities in Gordon Hayward, but they should have two.

Now, we get to see what an angry 7-footer can do for the rest of the year.  

                

Thursday's Final Scores

  • Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Dallas Mavericks 98
  • Indiana Pacers 109, Minnesota Timberwolves 103
  • Denver Nuggets 127, Phoenix Suns 120
  • Utah Jazz 96, Los Angeles Lakers 88

          

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games on Thursday.