The first flashpoint in the Chicago Bulls' meandering, directionless season came in January, when Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade infamously called out their teammates for not caring enough and not doing their jobs.
That was only a harbinger of what was to come.
Monday night's win at Charlotte was Chicago's first in its last six contests, a skid that included arguably its worst game of the season Sunday—a 100-80 loss to the Boston Celtics in which the Bulls scored a season-low 26 points in the first half.
As a result, frustration with second-year coach Fred Hoiberg is at an all-time high.
Rajon Rondo questioned why the team is "experimenting" with lineups instead of trying to make the playoffs. Wade pleaded the fifth to reporters' continued questions about Hoiberg's revolving substitutions—13 Bulls trotted in and out of the lineup Sunday—and suggested "upper management" should answer those questions.
"I don't want to say too much," Wade told reporters. "I don't want to say the wrong thing."
That wasn't the case in January, when a 119-114 loss to the Atlanta Hawks—in which the Bulls blew a 10-point lead in the final three minutes—prompted Butler and Wade to unload on their teammates. Rondo soon took to Instagram to proclaim his "vets" in Boston never would have done that. It was an ugly scene; a league source told Bleacher Report all three players were fined.
So it's understandable Wade is done putting his money where his mouth is.
In retrospect, it should have been easy to see this train wreck of a Bulls season coming from a mile away.
Chicago is a team at a crossroads, and it's not a pretty sight. After an era of success that fizzled amid Derrick Rose's persistent injury woes—and the organization's latest ugly coaching divorce, this time with Tom Thibodeau—finding a new direction was never going to be easy.
"Derrick's injuries really derailed us," one member of the organization said.
Fair enough. But the steps the Bulls have taken since then have only pushed them further off the tracks.
Chicago was 255-139 in five seasons under Thibodeau, better than everybody in the NBA other than the Spurs, Thunder and Heat. Those Bulls teams, anchored by Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and later Butler, were damn near unbeatable—when they were healthy. But of those 394 games, Rose missed 213.
After divesting themselves of the final two years on Thibodeau's contract, the Bulls hired general manager Gar Forman's longtime friend, Hoiberg, to chart a new course. Forman and Hoiberg have known each other for more than two decades. They were at Iowa State together when former Bulls coach Tim Floyd coached there (and Forman was his assistant). Hoiberg even sold Forman his house in suburban Chicago when he left the Bulls as a player in 2003.
"They felt like they could control [Hoiberg] a little bit, maybe," a league coaching source said of Forman and executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson. "They felt he was young and could build up the team."
After the Bulls missed the playoffs with a 42-40 record last season, Hoiberg's first as an NBA coach, Forman and Paxson decided it was time to move on from Rose. They dealt the former MVP to New York in June in a trade the Knicks probably regret more.
That part of the Bulls' rebuild was easy to understand. It's Steps 2 and 3 that have been difficult to decipher.
If it was time to get younger and build around Butler, who signed a five-year, $90 million extension in 2015, Wade and Rondo seemed to be odd complements.
Not just from a chemistry and pecking order viewpoint, but from a tactical one as well.
"It's a three-point shooting league, and they have a backcourt where that's not their forte," a rival head coach told Bleacher Report.
And that's putting it kindly. Through Sunday, Wade and Rondo had combined to shoot 29.6 percent from three this season. That trails the three-challenged Pistons backcourt tandem of Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (34.0 percent) as well as the equally three-averse Magic backcourt of Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton (32.5 percent). For a little context, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have combined to shoot 40.6 percent from three this season.
When the Bulls hit the All-Star break as barely a playoff team with veteran leaders mouthing off in unsettling ways, Butler's name became one of the most prominently mentioned in trade talks around the NBA. However, a league source familiar with Chicago's strategy said the team was not initiating trade discussions about Butler but merely fielding calls. There was "absolutely nothing" the team even came close to considering, the person said.
Yet the belief persists in front office circles that Butler is no fan of Hoiberg. In fact, a scout with a rival team told Bleacher Report he's witnessed persistent episodes when Butler, Rondo and Wade have ignored plays Hoiberg has called.
"When Fred would call plays on the sideline, Rondo would just flat-out blow him off," said the scout, who spoke with Bleacher Report on the condition of anonymity. "Wade does it, too. Butler does it, too. ... That becomes infectious."
Rondo, of course, is a known freelancer; ignoring Rick Carlisle's play calls was one of the factors that got him bounced out of Dallas. But Butler? The face of the franchise and the centerpiece around whom the team has decided to build? That's troubling—and supports a belief in front office circles that the only reason Forman and Paxson entertained trade proposals for Butler was because dealing him would protect Hoiberg.
"Getting rid of Butler saves Fred's job," another person in the NBA coaching business said. "Otherwise, malaise continues."
That brings us to Step 3 in the Bulls' master plan: trading Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick to the Thunder for Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne.
This one—in a vacuum or as part of this unfolding narrative—actually makes sense. Here's why.
• Gibson, 31, was absolutely going to leave as a free agent this summer, league sources say. The Bulls were not going to re-sign him.
• Gibson's departure gives Hoiberg a chance to take a look at Lauvergne (under team control this summer as a restricted free agent) and find more minutes for 2015 first-round pick Bobby Portis.
• McDermott's departure creates more opportunities for rookies Paul Zipser and Denzel Valentine.
• The Bulls get Payne, who may wind up being a starting point guard and may not. But if nothing else, he's a young talent on a rookie contract and a player the Bulls liked a lot when he became the 14th pick in the 2015 draft.
That is the basketball explanation, and it's plausible—though, as the Bulls' current tailspin has proved, it's also created a nightmare for Hoiberg in terms of how to divide playing time.
"It can't be easy for Fred and his staff to deal with all of this," a rival coach said.
But there was more than X's and O's involved in Chicago's trade deadline strategy, and it has to do with Forman and Paxson predicting that the NBA's free-spending free-agent market will burst in 2018.
Like hedge fund managers, they're counting on a crash after two straight summers of exorbitant contracts given out amid unprecedented spikes in the salary cap. And when other teams pull back, the Bulls believe they'll be ready to pounce.
"This market's going to shut down in 14 months," one executive within the league said. "And when it does and you have flexibility, it's a buyer's market and you'll have opportunities."
By then, Wade and Rondo will be long gone, and the Bulls will be banking on their ability to attract high-impact free agents in their prime—something they've never done. It's also something that will be even more challenging if the collateral damage from the Wade-Rondo experiment continues to mount.
It's a new spin on rebuilding for the Bulls, one necessitated by their glorious championship history (six banners hang from the rafters at the United Center, at last check) and the demands of a fanbase accustomed to winning and not complete rebuilds, which history has shown take six or seven years to bear fruit, if ever.
With only $3 million of Rondo's 2017-18 salary guaranteed, Chicago really only risked one year on the tempestuous point guard. (Though league sources insist the Bulls brass hasn't ruled out bringing Rondo back next season.) Wade, 35, has a player option for next season. Given the tumult in Chicago, rival executives believe it's reasonable to expect Wade may want out—despite the $23.8 million he is owed if he stays.
"They're in a tough situation because they don't want to really say it's a rebuild," one of the coaching sources said, noting how high the bar for winning has been set in Chicago.
It will all come down to whether the Bulls' bet on a free-agent market collapse in 2018 is on the money—and whether they can capitalize. The alternative was to bottom out, rebuild, waste precious years of Butler's prime and take their chances in the draft lottery.
But in the meantime, Hoiberg—one of the nicest guys in the NBA, and perhaps too nice for his current job—has to make it work. When it comes to head coaches in Chicago, it's never easy. From Scott Skiles to Vinny Del Negro to Thibodeau, there's a long history of love affairs turned sour.
"Having scouted [Hoiberg] a bunch, you can see it," the rival scout said. "He's laid back, he's relaxed, and he's not going to rip into people. It doesn't seem like he has the respect of his entire team."
At the moment—less than two years into his five-year, $25 million contract—Hoiberg has the unwavering support of Bulls management. But if past is prologue, he should be concerned.
"Hoiberg's safe for now, but you watch," one of the coaching sources said. "With about a year or two left on his deal and they're losing, you'll see. Those guys aren't going anywhere, and they know it."
Those guys are Forman and Paxson. And for better or worse, this is their plan.
Ken Berger is a national NBA columnist who has covered the league since 1996 with the Associated Press, Newsday and CBSSports.com. His award-winning work has been honored in Best American Sports Writing, and he's co-hosted Eye on Basketball on CBS Sports Radio since 2013. Connect with Ken on Twitter (@KBergNBA) or Facebook (@kenbergernba).
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