CHICAGO -- Fred Hoiberg couldn't believe what he had just seen.
With eight seconds left and his team clinging to a one-point lead in a game in which his Chicago Bulls once trailed by as many as 18, the 45-year-old coach looked on helplessly as Denzel Valentine threw a bad inbounds pass and then compounded that mistake by fouling Ben Simmons, sending the Philadelphia 76ers to the line to give his team a 116-115 win.
All Hoiberg could do in that moment was turn around and shake his head in disbelief. His team battled hard all night only to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory. In a season full of painful losses, this one had to hurt more than almost any given the circumstances. Hoiberg came into the game knowing that veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the young group's leaders all season, wouldn't even be dressing as the Chicago front office got a longer look at players like Cristiano Felicio, Paul Zipser, Cameron Payne and Noah Vonleh.
In the midst of a career-altering season, Bobby Portis went off for a career-high 38 points but missed several shots in the final minute that would have locked up a victory and given him the 40 points that television cameras caught him telling anyone who would listen that he would earn on the night. David Nwaba scored a career-high 21 points, Zach LaVine hit what many thought was the clinching 3-pointer with a minute left, further solidifying his role as Chicago's new closer. But all the good notes faded away in the final 36 seconds as the Bulls blew a five-point lead in dramatic fashion.
"These are learning opportunities for our team," Hoiberg said after the game, trying to put a positive spin on the result. "I couldn't be happier the way we went and played and competed. We dig ourselves an 18- point hole and fight all the way back and have complete control of that game. A lot of guys played well, so there's a lot of positives to take out of this game."
Having both played in the league and worked in the Minnesota Timberwolves' front office during his career, Hoiberg understands the business of basketball. He knows that the front office wants to evaluate its talent for the future. He also knows that, like a lot of teams around the league down the stretch of the season, the Chicago front office wouldn't be heartbroken if the team went on a prolonged losing streak to secure one of the top five picks in this spring's draft lottery. Hoiberg knows all of the facts surrounding his current situation, but that doesn't mean he has to like them. As much as it might be beneficial to the Bulls in the long run to lose any game they can, it doesn't do a locker room full of proud men any good to lead the league in moral victories. Thursday's loss offered another reminder of how difficult it will be for the Bulls to lose as many of the games down the stretch that much of their fan base would prefer they do.
Hoiberg's group looked motivated by the challenge of playing without Lopez and Holiday. They know what many fans and critics are saying about their chances in the final 24 games, and they believe they can change the narrative of losing games before the season ends. After all, the Bulls did almost knock off a Sixers team that currently sits in seventh place of a mediocre Eastern Conference playoff race, and they did it with star rookie Lauri Markkanen scoring only three points.
With games against so many poor teams in their future, the Chicago front office is going to have to try even harder to make sure its team is in the best position for defeat. Even if Thursday was an aberration, the reality is that with Kris Dunn, LaVine, Markkanen and Portis on the floor, the Bulls might simply have more talent on the floor than many of their opponents down the stretch. In hindsight, the loss of Lopez and Holiday might not be as dramatic as some fans expected. Both players have strong reputations within the young locker room, but neither is the type of difference-maker who will change a game on most nights.
If anyone understands the types of emotions Hoiberg will have to endure over the final seven weeks of the season, Sixers coach Brett Brown does. For the past five years, Brown has presided over the Philadelphia rebuild and has become the public coaching face of keeping a positive attitude while a front office tries to tank its way to top picks and glory. He knows it's a difficult process for any coach, but he says he believes the ordeal is not as tough as it seems.
"When I look in the rearview mirror, it's not as painful as people made it out to be," Brown said before the game. "Losing stinks and the pain of losing is real, but the things that went into growing young players was really enjoyable for me. The development of young guys, giving them opportunities, explaining life in the NBA, what it takes to stay in the NBA, building a culture, stuff that nobody sees when it's not just 48 minutes in front of 20,000 people. The underbelly of what it means to grow a culture and raise the bar, grow something, interests me a lot ... it kept me motivated. It didn't beat me down, but you had to coach yourself a little bit. We dumped all of our effort into relationships and development. And it was really kind of that simple to find ways to get up in the morning, go to sleep feeling like you're accomplishing something that's important either for the program or some young players."
Hoiberg can take solace in the fact that throughout this season his young players have repeatedly risen to the challenge on most nights. They might not always win, but they have given a professional effort throughout much of the season. It's a credit to Hoiberg, his staff and his players that they have answered the bell in a season where many expected the group to roll over. As Brown watches from afar, he has confidence that Hoiberg can lead the Bulls out of the same kind of doldrums that hovered over the Sixers organization for so many years.
"I've spoken a lot with Fred," Brown said. "The only experiences that I can confidently share are a little bit of what we just spoke of. We went overboard just with the relational side and the development side. Anything that fell into those two categories, we went overboard trying to help guys. Help them get better, help them try to stay in the league. The leadership that you have to have with your staff, with the media, with your team, where you keep it very candid and transparent and real all matters. And somewhere out there Fred will figure out what's great for him and I think he's going to be fantastic. I think they're lucky to have a coach like Fred that can steer this program with these young guys and get them playing hard and let them see this season through."
The craziest part about where the Bulls sit now, even after such a gruesome loss, is that they aren't that far away from where the Sixers are. Dunn, Markkanen, LaVine and Portis provide the type of young core that any team would like the opportunity to build around. Of course, the difference is that for all the talent that four-pack has displayed at times this season, there still doesn't appear to be a transformational star within that group. The Bulls are hopeful that Markkanen and LaVine can become All-Stars in the near future, but neither player has the type of ceiling that Joel Embiid or Simmons has. And therein lies the rub for the Bulls for the rest of the season.
It is possible for a transformational talent to fall to a team outside of the top five picks of a draft. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is a living, breathing reminder of this on a nightly basis, given that he was the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. But he remains the exception, not the rule. More often than not, franchise-changing talents like that of Simmons, the first pick in the 2016 draft, and Embiid the third pick in the 2014 draft, come at the top of any class.
As difficult as it is to deal with a meltdown like Thursday night's, Hoiberg should remind himself of that reality as he re-watches his team's self-destruction. It was Simmons and Embiid who made the plays down the stretch. And it's the Simmons- and Embiid-like players that the Bulls currently don't have. There are no guarantees in anyone's basketball life, but in the grand scheme of another season, another loss, as painful as it might be, could accomplish more in the long term than another meaningless win.
Don't take my word for it -- just watch Simmons and Embiid and hope for the best when the pingpong balls bounce in May.