The head-scratching losses are piling up. The listless performances continue to puzzle.
The Bulls tried to address two goals when they made their bold acquisitions at last month’s trade deadline. Improve this season’s playoff positioning. And make a statement to the rest of the league, and impending free agents, about the commitment to winning and relevancy.
But following the Bulls’ dismal showing in Cleveland Wednesday night, a 121-105 dud in which they trailed by as many as 33 points and committed 20 turnovers, they dropped to 12th in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Remember that talk about chasing a sixth seed to avoid the play-in tournament? That’s seven games away with 14 to play.
“It does worry you a little bit when you come out flat and you don’t impose your will on games that you need at this point in time in the season,” veteran forward Thad Young said.
Management’s trade-deadline day can’t fully be judged until subsequent moves are made this offseason. But what kind of selling point will it be for management to pursue free agents if the Bulls fail to even qualify for the play-in tournament?
Granted, the Bulls sit just a half-game behind the Raptors, one game behind the Wizards and own the tiebreaker over both teams. All it will take is one mini hot streak to right their playoff picture.
But following performances like Wednesday, is there strong confidence that will happen?
“We just didn't have the energy and physicality needed to win an NBA game. I think we kind of eased into the game and they took it to us,” Nikola Vučević said. “We just never could respond and we got a little frustrated with the refereeing; that affected us a little bit.
“We just didn't bring the focus and energy needed to play an NBA game. Especially because we played these guys a few games ago, so we knew how to play them. We knew what their strengths are, but we just didn't do a good job taking away any of that.”
Perhaps management has a sign-and-trade plan in place to land Lonzo Ball. Because, remember: The Bulls sent two lightly protected first-round picks to the Magic in the deal for Vučević, whose career-best streak of double-figure scoring games ended at 106 with his nine-point, one technical foul night.
So, second-round pick aside, the only way to improve this team this offseason is through free agency or trades. Especially because only two of the deadline acquisitions who are in the rotation---Vučević and Troy Brown Jr., who missed the loss with a sprained ankle---are under contract next season. Re-signing Daniel Theis will take some salary cap maneuvering.
Sure, the busy trade deadline wasn’t only about this season. But part of the plan was to improve in the short term so they also could improve in the long term.
Instead, the Bulls dropped to 5-10 since the trade deadline and 2-2 since losing leading scorer Zach LaVine to the league’s health and safety protocols.
In the wake of losing LaVine for an absence of at least 10 days, the Bulls talked about the need to play with a sense of desperation. But that was the Bulls sleepwalking their way to a 22-point first-quarter deficit. And that was the Bulls watching guard Collin Sexton beat them to two straight offensive rebounds and a putback early in the second.
The Cavaliers, not the Bulls, played like a desperate team down 20 points and chasing a playoff berth.
“We talk about this all the time, so I think guys understand what's at stake here,” Young said. “But we’re walking into games sometimes on cruise control. And we don't have that type of team where we can walk out there and be like, 'Oh, let me see how they're playing me today.' We need to walk into games saying, 'Oh I'm about to go at this guy.' Being aggressive and understanding that every possession counts. And every single game from this point on counts.”
Thursday night against the Hornets would be a good time to prove they understand.