By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) My immediate reflex to the Chicago Bulls hiring Doug Collins on Tuesday is that it’s a net harmless move. As their new advisor of basketball operations (Division of Northwestern Wildcats Scouting), it figures to be something of a credibility move in which a front office adds a known name for the sake of adding a known name.
As the former Bulls coach stressed at his re-introductory press conference, this new gig won’t interfere with him attending the Northwestern basketball games coached by his son, Chris, and those coached by his son-in-law at a Philadelphia-area high school. It would appear the job involves something akin what Jim Thome does as special assistant to White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, only with less venison chili cooking for the office. Think Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson asking, “Would this be stupid?” and Collins giving his best guess via text message while yelling at a Big Ten ref from the rafters of the Allstate Arena.
Maybe the Collins hire leans on coach Fred Hoiberg’s job security somewhat, though Collins insisted Tuesday that he’s not here to coach. Maybe it adds an unnecessary cook to the rebuild kitchen. Maybe Collins’ presence eventually pushes out much-maligned general manager Gar Forman should those text messages prove comforting to the also detested Paxson.
But as of now, this just feels like giving someone money just to be around from time to time for perfunctory procedural meetings and Paxson adding someone underneath him whom the Reinsdorfs trust and who buys Paxson some insurance on his future here, too. That is to say — besides any fan’s bloodlust for the current front office to be taken to a wood-hipper — harmless.
Yet it smacks of typical Bulls culture. Not just the famous Reinsdorf loyalty of re-employing former players and coaches of the Bulls and White Sox, even if it means making up jobs for them or just letting Scottie Pippen get paid to drink courtside (which I would also be very good at for slightly less money, Bulls, just sayin’).
Collins touched on ageism Tuesday. Apparently someone would question whether a 66-year-old could still have a feel for the intricacies of today’s NBA.
“I’m old, but I’m not old school,” Collins said. “I have a young brain. If being on time and working hard and all those things are old school, then yes I’m old school. But I will match my wits with anybody in terms of young people and what’s going on now and what’s happening. I am woke.”
Forgive me while I audibly do a pain-groan for a minute from that last sentence.
All right, I’m back.
OK, fine, Doug, but are you bringing anything to the front office that suggests a 21st-century approach to the rebuilding of an NBA team?
That statement doesn’t give us much. And I don’t fault Collins for that — again, he wants to get paid to be near Wildcat games mostly, and there are worse ways to make a buck.
But what of the Bulls tepid approach to basketball analytics? They were classified in the “Skeptics” group in ESPN’s “The Great Analytics Rankings” in 2015.
The Bulls’ front office has long been based on old-school scouting concepts, but it does employ a manager of basketball analytics, Steve Weinman.
The Bulls’ executive duo of John Paxson and Gar Forman stems backs to the Jerry Krause era and bases its decisions on scouting, not analytics. Paxson and Forman emphasize character and pedigree — when looking at numbers, they are, according to one observer familiar with the front office, as likely to look at how often a prospect attended class as they are his advanced stats.
While Paxson and Forman finally picking a lane and blowing the dang thing up is good in the lowest-bar GarPax terms, rebuilding using eye tests and heart-to-hearts with prospects would be like building a bomb shelter out of Derrick Rose ligaments. Hoiberg has always been a pro-advanced stats coach, but the way he’s been publicly gelded by those above and under him since he’s been here lends little credibility to how much the franchise’s philosophy fits with modern hoops.
“We absolutely look at analytics,” Hoiberg said during his introductory press conference as Bulls coach. “I think you have to, but it’s not the be all, end all for us. We look at it as a piece. One thing that we did try to do (at Iowa State) is, I think in our last 75 games, we outscored 61 of those in the paint and again, that’s with small lineups. We also always led the Big 12 in 3-point shooting. We led the nation a couple seasons ago in 3-pointers made and attempted. “We have tried to eliminate that mid-range shot, but there are certain players that are elite mid-range shooters. So you have to look at the type of player. But nobody on our roster took more than 12 percent of their shots in the mid-range. That’s something we look at very closely.”
Which is cool and all, but Paxson and Forman have never conveyed that they’re receptive to hoop nerdery. Enter Collins, who as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers said “I’d blow my brains out” if he had to rely on analytics. Then a few years later after moving to the TV booth, he shed more light on that.
“I am big on analytics being a huge part of it, teams are smart to use analytics,” he said. “But at the same time, to me, there is the eye test, there is the heart test, there is that test every single day when you are with players in practice, developing a trust and a truth with one another about how you want to win basketball games. It is in flux right now, but the beauty is, let’s see how it all turns out.”
Advanced metrics in basketball aren’t the be-all end-all, and they lend themselves much differently to hoops than, say, baseball. But it’s stuff that today’s good teams value. That 2015 ESPN piece listed among its “All-In” and “Believers” in analytics 10 teams besides the rebuilding Sixers who combined averaged over 56 wins that season, including the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Besides Weinman, the Bulls also have Miles Abbett as their basketball analytics coordinator, so it’s not as though the organization has entirely ignored advanced stats.
How much they’ve played a role in player personnel decisions, though, has been unclear at best. Based on recent Bulls history — both record- and talent evaluation-wise — it’s safe to guess not enough.
Might that change as this franchise attempts to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the Rose-Jimmy Butler era that was often fun but fruitless? Well, it took the front office a really long time to admit what fans and media saw for a while and finally entered the joy of NBA tanking.
Then they went “older and less analytic” by adding Doug Collins to it, in a 21st-century rebuild. Harmless enough, I guess.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.