ORLANDO, Fla. -- As reporters approached Pau Gasol after the Chicago Bulls' latest lackluster effort Wednesday in a 102-89 defeat to a below-average Orlando Magic squad, one reporter conveyed to the All-Star center what was on the mind of everyone who has covered this beleaguered team all year: that these question-and-answer sessions feel like a broken record.
"Broken record," Gasol affirmed.
The loss to the Magic wasn't as bad as others this season, as far as the point deficit goes. But the team's defensive performance -- in their fourth straight defeat -- coupled with its showing in a 129-111 loss to the Miami Heat on Tuesday brings to mind stronger and more wrenching words than the tiresome explanations players and coaches have given recently in summing up the team's play.
The Bulls haven't just lost these past two games. They have been embarrassed on the defensive end. What makes matters worse for first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg is that his team has had way too many stretches over the past week -- and, for that matter, the past month -- when it appears to be going through the motions.
The Bulls have the third-worst net efficiency in the league since Feb. 1, according to ESPN Stats & Info, coming in at a -7.1 clip. The only teams worse during that span are the Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers.
"Honestly, we've got a lot of holes everywhere," Bulls small forward Mike Dunleavy said of his team's defensive woes. "Just with not getting into our coverages or going into the game plan. Not knowing individual tendencies of our opponents. And then just having a little bit of that grit to get it done, just to get it done. Whether it be in the rebounding game, the post-ups [or] hitting people, so it's kind of all across the board."
Compounding matters for Hoiberg is that the offense he was brought in to supposedly fix has progressively gotten worse. The Bulls have dropped 11 of 15 games since a Jan. 31 blowout at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers. Their offensive efficiency (101.2 since Feb. 1) is third worst in the league, again besting just the Suns and Sixers.
The Bulls have dealt with plenty of injuries during this stretch, specifically to All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler (out since Feb. 5 with a knee injury) and second-year man Nikola Mirotic (out since Jan. 28 with an appendectomy and related complications), but to use injuries as a major excuse obscures the fact that the Bulls have had the same problems all season.
Too often, the Bulls look like a group that doesn't play with the effort needed to carve out small, defensive victories. They haven't shown the mental toughness to fight through the adversity that continues to come their way. For his part, Hoiberg repeatedly hits the same notes after games and continues with the tired refrain that the Bulls play with a high level of intensity in practices, but that doesn't translate to games.
It's a coach's responsibility to prepare players for games and make sure that practice-to-game transition occurs. It's a player's responsibility to follow the game plan prepared by the coaching staff and play with a high level through good times and bad. Both players and coach have failed to live up to their responsibilities many times this season.
Nobody is more responsible for the product on the floor than the front office executives who put the team together. General manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson have to take more blame than anyone for the way this season has unfolded. They were the architects of these Bulls.
They were the ones who believed Hoiberg was the right man for the job after they fired Tom Thibodeau over the summer. They were the ones who sold Hoiberg as an offensive guru who could unite a fractured team. They were the ones who believed this group could contend for a title and had enough depth to sustain itself through the course of a long NBA season. They were the ones who decided to bring this group back without any major changes to the roster in the offseason. Maybe most damning of all in the short term, they were the ones who decided to stand pat at the trade deadline (besides a cost-cutting move to dump well-liked veteran Kirk Hinrich) instead of starting the process of shaking up a roster that badly needs a makeover.
The issues the Bulls are having in regard to unity, togetherness and toughness on the floor are the same ones that started to creep up last season. These aren't new problems -- just bigger ones. Forman and Paxson are the men who allowed the issues to fester without doing much about it. Now they are the ones who have to watch as their championship-or-bust season possibly goes bust before the team qualifies for the playoffs.
Hoiberg is hopeful Butler will play soon -- maybe as early as Saturday against the Houston Rockets -- but Butler's arrival won't fix what is ailing the Bulls most. This is a team with a broken spirit and a broken heart.
When asked if his team is better than its record, Gasol, the 15-year veteran, had a blunt answer.
"No," he said. "I think the record always shows who you are. I don't think we're better than what our record is."
Gasol's honesty underscores a lot of hard truths for the Bulls. At 30-30, the team's record wouldn't be good enough to make the playoffs if the season were over. That seems right for a team that simply hasn't been able to find its way.