Monday, December 24, 2007

Goodbye To You

My annoyance with Scott Skiles' stewardship of the Bulls had been relieved somewhat by two recent events: first, I was behind the basket with the Bulls at Verizon Wednesday night handle the Wizards and Griffin and Wallace didn't see the floor, while Gray began to show what he might be able to offer the team for the rest of the season; second, on a lark, I was at the Comcast Center for American University's first win over Maryland since 1926-1927.

Getting beat by a school that was a stepping stone on his way to glory at College Park is probably the lowlight of Williams' Maryland career. And Maryland's fans seem resigned to it. After a pathetic loss to Ohio on December 12th , Maryland fans -- who had enjoyed their team's 131 win and 3 loss record at home against non-conference opponents under Williams prior to the Ohio game -- filed out of Comcast with 3:30 left in the game and their team down 10. Maryland's fans seem resigned to the fact that Gary Williams is not going to be able to turn around what seems to be an otherwise fairly talented Terp squad (they embarrassed Illinois in the other game that I attended this year, resulting in me stupidly telling ACC-loving colleagues to watch out for the Terps when conference play began). Terps fans face at least two more ugly losses before the ACC schedule kicks in: a road game against Charlotte on January 5 (a team that has already beat Wake Forest) and a home game against Holy Cross on January 8 (a team that managed to beat Ohio). Slip-ups against Delaware and Savannah State do not seem to be as unimaginable as they would have before Saturday. But most Terps fans will not call for Williams' head for some time, although the problem with the team clearly rests with him -- if the players lack intensity, as Williams himself said in the postgame interview accompanying the departure of the fans remaining at Comcast, that is because he hasn't found a way to motivate them. And this is how it should be: Williams has an unparalleled record of success here and he's earned the right to test fans' patience while he figures out what has gone wrong.

The same cannot be said of Scott Skiles. In a surprise but necessary move, the Bulls fired Skiles today. I don't revel in the news as much as I would, say, celebrate Ron Turner's removal from the Bears (I am not bitter at all and don't constantly find myself thinking about how with a competent offensive coordinator the Bears win the Lions and Redskins games that I stupidly attended and the Monday night game against the Vikings and that the Bears would then be 9-6 and a difficult out in the NFC playoffs... again, not bitter). Nevertheless, I still consider the announcement a nice Christmas present from John Paxson. It had to happen and not just to embarrass Sam Smith for another prescient article (great call: "But thanks to Artis Gilmore, no one is about to be fired, cut, traded or released"). Commentators tend to focus on how demanding Skiles is of his players. But that is only because most sportswriters are lazy and would rather pilfer from each other than come up with an insight that would assist fans in understanding the game. The reality was that Skiles was tough on young players and once they bent to his will, he largely did not hold them accountable for their failings or backsliding. Skiles' coaching was largely an extension of his ego. He emphasized hard work because hard work is the quality about his play that he was most proud of and rightly so. But a berserker attitude is not sufficient to build a winning program (absent the population of a team with Nocioni clones). Skiles' coaching and game-time management remains deficient. And while he is frequently heard to complain that certain players haven't developed sufficiently (namely Tyrus Thomas) neither has his coaching. After taking out the Heat in decisive fashion in the first round of the playoffs last year, Skiles was outclassed by Flip Saunders in the second round. Skiles' questionable decision-making cost the the team the best chance the Bulls have had at making the NBA Finals since 1996.

Writers who think they know basketball chalk the Bulls' problems up to Paxson's decision to add Ben Wallace and jettison Tyson Chandler. I vehemently disagree. Paxson has done everything possible to give Skiles a stable of talent that should be the envy of the East. The team features some of the most gifted young talent in the league: Tyrus Thomas, Thabo Shefolosha, Joakim Noah, Aaron Gray, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng are all 24 years old or younger. Each year, the talent on the team improves. And yet this year the Bulls are barely better than Zeke's Knicks.

Chicago Bulls fans aren't going to file out of the United Center early without letting the entire organization know that they won't stand for pathetic performances from an outstanding team. So there you go, we all got what we wanted for the holiday: Skiles gets some rest (sleep well Scotty) and Bulls fans get the possibility of a salvaged season and a deep run in the playoffs. Merry Christmas.

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