The Bulls didn't look like a team in desperate need of a victory to keep its dwindling playoff hopes alive. They went through the motions like a team playing out the rest of the schedule in a lost season. And that was before the first whistle had even blown in what would become a 111-89 blowout at the hands of the lowly Orlando Magic. Many of the players on this beleaguered squad spent a portion of the pregame warmups laughing and smiling as they went through their routine. Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic each attempted a shot while seated on the bench just before the pregame events ended. In what would be a harbinger of things to come, both missed badly.
The lackadaisical effort prior to the game was a precursor to the Bulls' terrible performance once the game actually started. It was the third consecutive contest in which the Bulls failed to show up and give a professional performance. It's the third straight game in which the Bulls looked like a group that had given up on itself.
After it was over, coach Fred Hoiberg and his players pushed aside the notion that the group has quit, but that's exactly what it looked like throughout Saturday's game against a bad team playing its fifth game in seven nights.
"I think it's just a team that's a little bit lost," Bulls swingman Mike Dunleavy said. "In terms of going out there every night, knowing what it takes to win. We give off that impression of beaten down, but I don't think anybody's given in right now, I just don't think we're good enough."
Dunleavy's assessment has veracity in the sense that, as a group, the Bulls are not good enough. They haven't been all season. The roster that Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson built hasn't proved that it does have enough talent to compete for a playoff berth -- let alone a championship.
But Dunleavy and the rest of his teammates are kidding themselves if they think they can find their way with 10 games left in the season. The Bulls are a broken team. They don't enjoy playing with one another on the floor and they have not taken to Hoiberg's system all season.
"It's a lot," Dunleavy said of the issues ailing the Bulls. "It's not just one little thing here or there. It's not on the defensive end or the offensive [end], it's both. It's just a lot of stuff. To say it's like one thing we're not doing right and that would solve everything, that's just not the case. It's a bunch of stuff we're struggling with. Not only with effort, but execution and discipline and continuity. You can go through the whole thing. So from that standpoint I can't sit here and say it's one thing, or we're not playing hard enough. We need to do everything better."
Out of all the issues facing the Bulls, the single biggest one at the moment might be that this group is devoid of a unifying leader.
Joakim Noah used to be that guy for the Bulls, but injuries have robbed him of that chance. He battled knee issues throughout last season and didn't play at a high level. He came to training camp in arguably the best shape of his career, but Hoiberg decided to take him out of the starting lineup and not play him down the stretch in games early in the season. When the final chapter of Hoiberg's first season as a professional head coach is written, his biggest mistake will likely be in how he handled the Noah situation. Hoiberg not only diminished Noah's confidence, he weakened Noah's voice among his teammates by slashing his minutes and his role.
Once Noah went down because of season-ending shoulder surgery, Taj Gibson tried to fill the role as the emotional heart and soul of the group. Gibson might be the most popular person within the Bulls' locker room, but he hasn't been able to unite this fractured group. All-Star Jimmy Butler desperately wants to be the leader of the pack, but some of his veteran teammates chafed earlier in the season when Butler tried to assert himself more within the locker room. As a former MVP, Derrick Rose has the clout to be a leader, but he has never been comfortable with a more vocal role. Gasol has the cachet of two championship rings, but he hasn't been in Chicago long enough to engender that kind of trust from all sides.
That leaves Hoiberg as the man who is in charge of bringing together this broken bunch. But after five years of having former head coach Tom Thibodeau bark orders at them, the Bulls have not taken to Hoiberg's laid-back style. The 43-year-old former player continually harps on the fact that the Bulls are "locked in" at shootarounds and at practices, but that has not translated when it matters most.
Hoiberg has not been able to bring his players onto the same page throughout the season. Never has that been more evident than over the past three games. The Bulls look lifeless and disinterested. Aside from Gibson's consistent effort, the other players have too many stretches in which the game doesn't seem as important to them as it should.
When asked if the Bulls needed to have honest conversations with each other, Butler didn't hesitate.
"I think so," he said. "I think honesty's always good. The truth hurts sometimes. But I can respect it."
But are the Bulls having those conversations now?
"Yes and no," Butler said. "Maybe it's more of a generalization, instead of me to you. I don't know. Do we have sensitive guys? I guess we're going to find out tomorrow."
Problem is, the Bulls are running out of tomorrows.
Butler hinted that the Bulls might have a more spirited team meeting Sunday than usual. But at this point, what is the difference? The Bulls are who they are.
When asked about Sunday's proceedings, Butler initially demurred, then dove in a little deeper.
"We're going to find out if somebody's got a problem with somebody," Butler said. "Or they don't like the way somebody's doing something. Now's the time to speak up on it. We've been talking about it all year long. We don't really have that much confrontation. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's a bad thing. I just hope that things get changed because I think we all want to be in the playoffs."
The last part of that statement is hard to believe given that this group plays like it wants no part of the playoffs. These Bulls play like they just want the season to end.