The greatest player in NBA history is immortalized with a statue outside United Center. Six NBA championships are celebrated on banners that hang from the rafters and trophies in glass cases on the concourse.
The player introductions are well known, the uniforms are classic and the city is regarded as one of the country’s urban centers.
It’s also where chaos lives.
In less than 14 days, the Chicago Bulls went from run-of-the-mill bad to one of the most compelling stories in the NBA. They fired Fred Hoiberg. New coach Jim Boylen questioned their conditioning and had them running wind sprints in practice. They came close in Indiana before getting a last-second win over one of the best teams in the West, downing Oklahoma City at home.
Twenty-four hours later, though, it all fell apart, with the team suffering the worst loss in franchise history and players essentially threatening a mutiny after Boylen substituted new five-man units in both halves, a tactic rarely used in the NBA.
His rationale for the second substitution? Save the starters for a tough practice the following day.
“Some high school [stuff],” one player muttered, substituting a profanity.
That practice last Sunday never happened. Some players spoke of a boycott — practices after games on back-to-back nights are rare in the NBA. Boylen said he changed his mind.
The practice became a team meeting, leading to the formation of a “leadership committee” made up of Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday, Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen. The most recent development: Jabari Parker, a Chicago native whom the team signed this offseason, no longer will be in the team’s rotation and could be traded.
Got all of that? Confused? Imagine living it.
“Our feeling is we’re exactly where we want to be and exactly where we should be,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman told The Times on Monday in the aftermath of the failed mutiny. “And I know everybody wants instant gratification. But we’re going to try to build a foundation and develop these young guys.”
The company line is that the chaos is just a byproduct of change, and change is hard. Hoiberg was too player friendly, too laid back, and Boylen’s discipline-first approach is what these young Bulls need.
“Player development is most important. And Jim realizes that. And, he’s come in and placed demands on guys,” Forman said. “He’s been very honest, up-front with guys. Our feeling is that he’s going to push them. And that’s difficult sometimes because it’s a big change. But we think what happened [Sunday], I really do believe it’s a blessing.”
Forman believes the incident, the tougher practices and the embarrassing five-man substitutions, won’t keep the Bulls from being a destination for, to paraphrase, the right kind of free agents — ones who will embrace the hard work.
He also thinks that seeing how key players react to the drama — Markkanen and rookie Wendell Carter Jr. reportedly were fine with the extra practice — will help in the long-term evaluation of the team.
“We have a base of good young talent, all kinds of flexibility moving forward and all our first-round draft assets,” Forman said. “We really do feel like we’re where we want to be and where we should be.”
But it’s a painful place. They had lost 14 of 16 games before rallying from 21 down to win at San Antonio on Saturday. LaVine, who is owed $78 million after the Bulls matched an offer from Sacramento this summer, missed that game with an ankle injury and still has to prove he can be a key piece of a team’s future.
It’ll likely get worse, though, with Portis, Lopez and Parker all likely to be traded, weakening the roster without necessarily garnering significant returns. (Portis probably would command the most in a deal and still could be a part of the Bulls’ future.)
It’s tough to see how Boylen, who has proven to be emotionally honest and direct, can handle a rebuild. Watching him coach Monday against Sacramento — the first game since the Bulls’ 56-point loss to Boston — you could see a man completely invested in every play, jumping up and down for three-point plays and staring daggers at his players after careless turnovers.
That energy is why the Bulls hired him, but is it too drastic, especially for such a young team that’s trying to learn how to manage the ups and downs of an 82-game season?
The struggles have been met with a mixture of disbelief — the Bulls’ dysfunction even cracking the news cycle in Chicago, where the city is enthralled with the Bears and their recent win over the Rams — and lack of surprise, with sections in the upper levels of United Center mostly empty.
Whether it’s where they want to be or not, the Bulls are there. It’s not a happy place, the celebratory statues, the classic uniforms, the championship banners all feeling very much a part of the team’s past and not the present.