Merry Christmas, Scott Skiles?
The Chicago Bulls fired Skiles today and didn't even bother leaving a gift-wrapped bag of smelly, game-worn tube socks under the tree. Wow. That's cold.
A Christmas Eve firing isn't unusual. I was in my first season covering the Hawks five years ago when then-general manager Pete Babcock canned Lon Kruger. The crazy part of that firing, was that I had only taken two days off - Christmas Eve and Christmas - so that I could sneak in some time with my family in Kansas City. I could sense that Kruger was in trouble after the Hawks got trounced in Indiana in the last game before the holiday, but I just knew nobody would get fired then. Rookie mistake.
Skiles should have been worried, too. The holiday season touches Bulls general manager John Paxson in a special way. The last time he fired a coach - Bill Cartwright in 2003 - he did it on Thanksgiving.
I can't say that I'm too shocked about Skiles's firing, since the Bulls have been a disappointing 9-16 this season, with no hope of a U-turn in sight. When I was in Chicago last week, working on a story about how bad the Bulls are, Paxson declined to comment. Word had it that he wasn't in the best mood to talk about the team. Bad sign.
I asked Skiles his thoughts about an ESPN.com report that his intense style was beginning to wear on his players, as it did in Phoenix. Skiles didn't get defensive. He just said, "I hadn't heard it until somebody told me about [the story]," before walking away in a rush.
I don't think Skiles was the sole problem in Chicago. They have a number of concerns - Kirk Hinrich and the Bens (Wallace and Gordon) have been huge disappointments - but it's easier to fire the coach than it is the players, so Skiles had to take the fall. It's unfortunate, since Skiles had done so much to turn around the Bulls after that pitiful post-Michael Jordan funk that had Tim Floyd and Cartwright leading the team into obscurity.
"This was a difficult decision to make, but one that was necessary at this time," Paxson said in a release. "Scott helped us in many ways during his time with the Bulls; most importantly, he helped this franchise get back to respectability. I am appreciative of his hard work and the imprint that he left on our team."
But back to to the Bulls other problems. I know a lot has been made about the Kobe Bryant trade rumors, the contract extensions the Luol Deng and Gordon didn't sign and their tradition of slow starts. I spoke to an Eastern Conference scout last week who also mentioned that he noticed that the Bulls aren't a very close knit group. It's not that the guys don't like each other. They get along; there aren't any Deng-Gordon feuds or Andres Nocioni-Hinrich jealousies. They just have a bunch of individuals who don't really socialize or hang out with each other off the floor. That translates on the court, where the Bulls just didn't seem like a group of guys who played for each other.
Sometimes chemistry can be overrated, but if you look at the best teams in the East - Boston and Detroit - those guys really get along off the floor. The Bulls don't have that. And, according to some Bulls observers, Wallace misses the camaraderie he shared with the Pistons, which has led to much of his frustration in Chicago.
But the central problem with the Bulls is leadership. They don't have one. I found it interesting last week that when a reporter asked Skiles where he looked for leadership on the floor, he said, "I'd rather not answer that."
That was an answer within itself.
But when I looked back over the past three seasons, the Bulls won 47, 41 and 49 games. Want to know why they won so many games in 2004-05 and 2006-07, but dipped in 2005-06? Antonio Davis and P.J. Brown.
Three years ago, the Bulls had Davis, who provided the glue, the veteran leadership and savvy that young team needed - especially when they spent the last month of the season without Eddy Curry.
Davis of course was shipped to New York along with Curry the following summer. Yes, the Bulls still had the talent to get back into the playoffs two years ago - and put a first-round scare into the Miami Heat - but the team didn't improve.
Last season, the Bulls signed Wallace and nearly won 50 games, but that was mostly because they had another player in the Davis mold in Brown. Brown was able to mentor Tyrus Thomas and help the Bulls get through some difficult patches - even when his name was mentioned in trade rumors most of the season.
Brown, of course, let his contract expire and doesn't appear to be in a rush to come back to the NBA. That leaves the Bulls with Deng and Hinrich as captains, and Wallace as the most seasoned player on the roster - which might not be a good thing.
Davis and Brown provided the calming influence and the necessary buffer between Skiles and the players.
Wallace is anything but a buffer. He clashed with Skiles from the time he arrived in Chicago - most publicly last season over a silly headband. And, even when Skiles backed off the headband rule, Wallace still wasn't giving the team much of anything this season.
Whether that's the result of age or effort, only Wallace can say. But when he was in Detroit, Wallace led with his hard-nosed, relentless play. He rarely opened his mouth, but when he did, his teammates responded. Now, he lacks the necessary energy, and his words don't even motivate himself.
My only issue with Wallace is that he hasn't a great relationship with many of his coaches since he became a star in Detroit. In his six years there, the Pistons had four coaches - George Irvine, Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders - and now the Bulls are looking for someone else to replace Skiles. For those counting at home, that's five coaches in less than eight seasons for Wallace.
While Paxson finds a replacement, he might want to give P.J. Brown another call - or look to acquire another leader in a trade. Now that his old nemesis Skiles is gone, maybe Jason Kidd wouldn't mind playing in Chicago. Just a thought.
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