MINNEAPOLIS -- There is no joy in watching the Chicago Bulls anymore.
The fun has been missing most of the season as this inconsistent bunch tries to find its way under first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, but many games, particularly over the last month, have been a joyless slog and look similar. The Bulls either find a way to squander a lead late and lose, as they did Saturday night in a 112-105 loss to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves -- their 11th loss in their last 16 games -- or they pull out a win that shouldn't have been as difficult to close.
The Bulls had a 105-100 lead with 2:55 left to play in regulation Saturday and never scored again. The bad habits that have been built up all season reared their ugly head again: couldn't hit key shots late, couldn't play the type of defense needed to close, couldn't withstand a late rally from a desperate team. Watching the Bulls these days is like watching the same bad movie and hoping for a better ending that isn't coming.
So why does the story continue to be the same?
At the heart of any discussion surrounding the underwhelming Bulls is that the roster just isn't as good as it was billed to be. Granted, the Bulls have dealt with their fair share of injuries this season. Joakim Noah is out for the season because of shoulder surgery. Nikola Mirotic is out for at least another week after an appendicitis and a hematoma removal. Mike Dunleavy made his return on Saturday after missing the entire season after offseason back surgery. Jimmy Butler missed his second game because of a knee strain and it is unclear exactly when he will return. The reality, though, is that players like Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Mirotic just aren't as good as Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson thought they would be in Hoiberg's system.
That point was driven home even more Saturday as Timberwolves third-year big man Gorgui Dieng went off for a career-high 24 points, 13 rebounds and a season-high 7 assists. Dieng was the player many within the organization wanted Forman to select in the 2013 draft, but Forman went with Snell instead, which continues to look like an even bigger mistake.
For as good a job as Forman and Paxson did in finding players like Butler and Taj Gibson late in the draft, their last four picks before talented rookie Bobby Portis have not panned out. Marquis Teague is out of the league, Snell has played poorly all season, and McDermott and Mirotic have been inconsistent at best.
Aside from the roster depth that was supposed to be there, the Bulls biggest problem under Hoiberg is that they still don't have an identity. For a group that prided itself on mental toughness over the first four years of Tom Thibodeau's tenure, this group, under Hoiberg, hasn't shown much at all.
"We talked about it a little bit, we got to have a bigger ego, a bigger team ego," Dunleavy said. "To the point where it's like, 'Look, man, we go into games like, we're winning this game.' We're doing the stretch like, 'We're going to handle business.' There's like this doubt that seems to be creeping in and we're too good for that. We got good players, we're well-coached, and we got to execute a little better. But more importantly we got to have that feeling like, 'Man, we're going to get this done.' "
Listening to Hoiberg after games lately is akin to listening to the same track spinning on repeat. He sees the problems, but he can't seem to get his players to buy into finding the solutions. Hoiberg can talk all day about toughness and communication, but the players have to be the ones to make the difference. Fifty games into the season, they still aren't on the same page. This group of players have never given off the sense they are going to quit on the season, but they also don't seem to want to do the things it takes to break all the bad habits.
"We just got to find a rhythm some way," Derrick Rose said. "I like the way that we were playing defense earlier in the year where we were closing games because of our defense, and the offense was behind. So it kind of switched up where it's the defense that we lack right now towards the end, and I think all that starts with communication, as far as getting back, who got the ball, guards talking, bigs talking, making sure that everybody is on the same page."
But Rose and his teammates have been talking about a lack of communication all season -- the group hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt to believe that things will suddenly change now. Over the years, this group of players has thrived under adverse circumstances. They enjoyed when people counted them out. Now, when the trouble signs start buzzing late in games this team continues to fold over on itself. Mental toughness has to come from within a group's soul and this group doesn't have it -- so is there any way to get it back this late in the season?
"I think first and foremost you've got to have a couple things go your way and you make stuff happen," Dunleavy said. "But you do it through practice, repetition, and I think mostly it's that belief inside. Whatever makes everybody individually good, you got to bring that together collectively and just have that belief. No matter who's playing, who's not. This team's been through this before in terms of having guys out -- it hasn't stopped us. You just show up, you do your job and you get wins. That's what we've done so we got to get back on track."