CHARLOTTE—The Bulls’ inconsistency has been puzzling and troubling, particularly this year as they tumble farther and farther down the Eastern Conference standings with the All-Star break looming.
Count Pau Gasol as one who doesn’t expect the magical switch to flip anytime soon.
“I’ve said it when we talk about the lack of consistency with the team. At some point, this is who we are,” Gasol said. “There’s no mystery. The results speak for themselves, and there’s a situation we’re dealing with.”
The results on this seven-game trip were startling. Blown leads followed by the same questions and answers following each loss made things look more dire by the day, shining light on the change this team has undergone in the last couple of seasons.
What they need, they don’t have, and what they have they don’t have enough of, even as they cling to hope with health and a more favorable travel schedule it can turn around as quickly as matters trended downward.
Taj Gibson wore a wry smile when asked if the Bulls lost their identity, after their shorthanded 17-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
“What was our identity? Our identity was defense but we went offense,” Gibson said. “You gotta look at it, we got a whole different group of guys. We had defensive guys with dog in them. We have young guys with an offensive mentality.”
One of the few players who can be counted on for production, even if he’s not a nightly impact player, Gibson has a bird’s eye view of things as he’s a part of the old guard through this new transformation.
And try as he might, he’s not the most vocal of players, at least not in the way this team needs someone to be.
The one thing this roster lacks, what every great team has, is someone who’s a little off, a guy whose only vice is winning and doesn’t care who he offends, either in the locker room or on the sideline.
It sounds cliché, but the players exist, guys who rule the locker room and can inspire his teammates, either by fear or charisma.
Think Draymond Green (Golden State). Think David West (San Antonio). Think Udonis Haslem (Miami).
“A guy that doesn’t care too much about anything, except winning? No, there’s not 'A-holes' on this team,” Gasol said. “Sometimes it is useful that a guy gets on somebody else to make him react or do better and not take it personally. There’s a fair argument that it’s something that could be useful and it could be useful at times.
“We don’t have that type of personality on the team here, in that way. You can approach a guy and say, ‘Let’s do this better, let’s pick it up, let’s figure it out, communication. You don’t have to say 'what the eff, wake the eff up.' Some guys are comfortable using that type of language but I’m not.”
It’s not in Derrick Rose’s demeanor, and Jimmy Butler is still learning who he is as a leader. Gasol is a veteran who’s been through it all, but his sensibilities differ from the above listed description, although he clearly knows what it looks like.
They all know it’s what this team doesn’t have, a lieutenant of sorts. Someone who cares least about Rose’s pedigree, Butler’s emergence and Gasol’s rings. Someone who’ll ruffle feathers, from bottom to the top.
Gibson hates the word “soft,” but that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, as a group that was billed as strong-willed has seemed to retreat individually.
Not in cliques or factions, but as single ships passing in the night, and there’s not one force in the locker room that can lift all tides in one direction.
“You gotta have somebody in that locker room to be able to back the coach up, support him and let them know where he’s coming from,” said Minnesota Timberwolves veteran forward Tayshaun Prince, who played against the Bulls in Minneapolis on Saturday.
“A coach can get on players oh-so-much, but at some point in the season guys get mentally, physically tired so they need to hear other voices. That’s where veterans come in.”
Prince was once a young player on a veteran team, helping the Detroit Pistons win a title, come within a hair of repeating and was a fixture in May and June from 2003 until 2008.
“Playing on different teams, we had a guy in Kevin Garnett, in Minnesota,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Guys liked him, respected him and he could say whatever he wanted to because everybody knew how hard he played and the work he put in the game.”
Hoiberg certainly didn’t expect this group to be so...quiet. Playing a decent amount of years in Minnesota, he could have likely believed every team had a Garnett, at least in the locker room, to where the coach doesn’t have to enter that domain.
But as he’s found out, perhaps shockingly, is this team doesn’t have that one guy. And even if he tried to put on that costume, he would be sniffed out as a fraud so quickly he’d lose whatever handle he had on the locker room.
“I think it’s kind of by committee with this group, it is by nature a quiet group but it’s a good group of guys who I think care, want to go out and do the right thing,” Hoiberg said. “We gotta build some confidence right now, that’s a big thing, that’s how you close out games.”
They can’t close out games, in part because of a self-fulfilling prophecy that seems to unveil itself every time things get close, and nobody seems to project enough confidence that everybody can believe in and ride with.
When things were turning in the opposite direction one game on this trip, an opposing player saw Rose tempted to say something to a young teammate but upon seeing the dismay on his face, Rose didn’t utter a word—knowing the fragility of the situation.
“It just depends on the connection and how well you know each other and stuff like that,” Prince said. “I have a bunch of really young guys here so you have to be careful how you approach them, how you say things because everybody’s so different. Especially on our team. We got a lot of young guys who haven’t been on this level. It’s partly babying them and also knowing what to say. It’s correct. It’s a different era. How I used to talk to Sheed (Rasheed Wallace) back in the day, I can’t do talk to these guys like that. They respond different. You want them to respond but you want them to keep playing.”
But things get tight, heads start to bow and eyes get lowered. So words are unspoken because you aren’t sure if someone can take honesty, brutal, public and heated.
“Great group of guys, hands down. Kids. It’s just a different group,” Gibson said. “We had straight defensive guys, hungry dogs. Now we have guys, offensive minded, shoot the three. We used to be scrappy. Now we’re trying to mold these guys into being scrappy. Every game is rough, and we’re still trying to get guys to talk. You’d think it’s the easiest thing. It’s frustrating, but what do you do?”
The next two months will reveal plenty from all parties involved, as either someone will step forward with his play or with his internal honesty to help the Bulls from their own brand of quicksand.
“We gotta be frustrated. We gotta be upset,” Gasol said. “How can we not be?”