The roulette wheel spun and the Bulls started Cameron Payne, Justin Holiday, David Nwaba, Lauri Markkanen and Cristiano Felicio for Tuesday night’s 118-86 loss to the Rockets, just the second time that starting five has gathered for the opening tip.
Robin Lopez put his Calvin and Hobbes T-shirt in his locker to dress but didn’t play. Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Paul Zipser and Antonio Blakeney looked stylish in street clothes. Denzel Valentine surprisingly rallied from his swollen knee to play, but Felicio missed the second half of a game in which the Bulls trailed by as many as 40 with a sore back.
The Bulls’ sixth straight loss — the Rockets have won a staggering 27 of 28 — continued their playing out the string under the guise of player development. The increased pingpong ball combinations don’t hurt, either.
Nobody’s feeling sorry for Fred Hoiberg, who is, after all, paid $5 million annually. But with NCAA regionals concluded and the rare road game in which both executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman attended, Hoiberg is appreciative of their support as he follows orders.
“I’ve gotten unbelievable support from everybody all throughout the year, going back to what I thought was a great offseason and training camp. We battled through some adversity,” Hoiberg said, alluding to the Nikola Mirotic-Bobby Portis altercation. “From (President) Michael (Reinsdorf) to John to Gar, all the support we’ve gotten and how we’re trying to build the right habits, it has been there through the good times and bad.
“Obviously, the position that we’re in now with trying to see the young guys and if they fit with what we want to do long term, there are going to be some highs and lows.”
Tuesday provided more of the latter as the Bulls reached 50 losses for the first time since 2003-04, Paxson’s first season after replacing GM Jerry Krause.
Hoiberg said the team’s regression in not fighting through adversity falls on him, but Valentine downplayed that, saying players bear responsibility.
The Rockets did Mike D’Antoni-type things, shooting 18-for-57 from 3-point range as Chris Paul returned from a hamstring injury and James Harden and Clint Capela rested. Eric Gordon tied his career high with eight 3-pointers and scored 31 points in 26 minutes.
Markkanen sank his first five shots and scored 14 first-quarter points. But he banged his right arm in a rebounding scrum, briefly exited in the second quarter and finished with 22 points and an elbow sleeve.
When the Bulls went 10-6 in December, Paxson praised Hoiberg. He also said he didn’t want to “tap the brakes” on the young players’ development because Dunn and Markkanen starred — even if, ultimately, that harmed the team’s draft lottery chances.
“They always told us to compete and do everything you can to put the team in position to win,” Hoiberg said of management. “At that time, we were still seeing what we had with Kris. We were still figuring out what we had with Lauri. We didn’t have Zach in the fold but we were talking about things we could do when everybody was healthy. Niko and Bobby were playing at a really high level. Robin and Justin, our veteran guys, were playing some of the best basketball of their careers. We wanted to keep that going.
“If we could’ve added Zach to that mix when we were playing so well — he played a couple of games, which I think we won with him playing limited minutes — it would have been fun to continue that ride to see how long we could’ve kept it going.”
Instead, Dunn’s scary fall and concussion on Jan. 17 and month-long absence and the Mirotic trade changed things.
“You look at his numbers at that time, he was playing as well as any point guard in the Eastern Conference,” Hoiberg said of Dunn. “He really developed that closer mentality, which is important in this process. You have to learn how to win when you have young guys on the floor.”
Before this season, Paxson and Forman said Hoiberg and his staff wouldn’t be judged by the team’s record but by player development and effort.
“I think when you look at individual skill development, we’ve done a solid job,” Hoiberg said. “Pretty much across the board, our guys are putting up numbers they haven’t achieved.”
Of course, some of that is based simply on opportunity, which everyone is getting, for better or worse.