The long, angered and confused faces worn on the Bulls’ faces as they sat on the bench in the waning moments of Thursday’s disappointing but predictable loss to the New York Knicks have been seen plenty of times before.
Yes, this season, along with the look of bewilderment Fred Hoiberg has worn while trying to explain what he considers the unexplainable—how a team he believed to be disciplined shows no signs of it.
But also, it was worn on May 14, 2015, a night that should’ve spawned the Bulls’ best effort but produced a jarring one, one that started a series of events which has led to where the franchise, the coaching staff and locker room find themselves in today—on the outside looking in the playoff party, as a hungrier and more unified Detroit Pistons team makes a more definitive push toward a postseason berth while the Bulls flail away aimlessly, unable to produce anything more than a moment of peace, let alone optimism.
One can go back to May 14 for Game 6 against the Cleveland Cavaliers last spring to produce the genesis of what you’ve seen for the better part of 70 games this year. On a night where they could’ve come closest to making LeBron James sweat in the postseason by forcing a winner-take-all Game 7, they produced an embarrassing effort as the Cavaliers seemed to give the Bulls chance after chance to send them staggering to the corner with body shots.
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The Bulls were punchless that evening, those old flicks had no snap to them and it turned out they were more bark than bite. It was because that collection of players was punch drunk—like an old contender who looked formidable but it was only in appearance once the bell rang.
Taj Gibson said it best when he pointedly stated opposing teams look forward to playing the Bulls, and that the Bulls are losing to “trash teams”, a statement one can take some form of exception to considering the Bulls’ record is right at the doorstep of mediocrity.
When fans see the Bulls, they see what the Bulls used to be—a tough, rugged team that would push and push until you broke, a squad that had enough competitive character to push through injuries to the best players and give the best teams their best shot.
Hoiberg, upon taking over for Tom Thibodeau, thought he was taking over a team that had its best punch left to give, apparently bolstered by reinforcements and a new style that supposedly was the new wave of where the NBA was going.
But he was mistaken on a number of levels, and perhaps overestimated the positive affect he could have on a veteran team.
Turns out this team was far more fragile than anyone expected or wanted to believe, and with the bully on the block no longer being feared by even the lowest of the low, all have been exposed.
“It’s simple: We have no discipline,” Pau Gasol said in a visitor’s locker room in Los Angeles in early February, after a blowout loss to the L.A. Clippers on a national TV stage.
The Bulls were six games over .500 that day, which could be termed as the “good-old days” considering they would be firmly entrenched had they just held serve from that embarrassing day—which was preceded by several befuddling losses and followed by…more misery to come.
Since that day, there’s been the Minnesota Timberwolves completing a season sweep with a win over the Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks using them as target practice, the Miami Heat doing the same but with more force and even Friday’s opponent, the Orlando Magic, putting a clown suit on the Bulls.
That’s not to mention the games where the Bulls can’t close because getting defensive stops seems to be offensive, and the belief that outscoring teams is the way to go.
Even if the Bulls overtake the Pistons for a playoff berth, or the Indiana Pacers falter, who honestly believes a Bulls team would be a tough out—especially as Jimmy Butler continues to show mind over matter doesn’t matter when your body is telling you to sit?
Well, outside of the Toronto Raptors, the Bulls aren’t feared, nor should they be.
(Remember when Hoiberg was worried about his offense not catching on early in the season while the defense won games? Ahh, the good old days!)
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The injuries have certainly hastened the process, but they’ve often been rudderless many nights, unable to galvanize around one player because they don’t have that one player experienced enough in the ways of leadership or a coach who’s had enough games on the sidelines to read a locker room he didn’t expect to walk into.
But this isn’t all on Hoiberg, as that aforementioned day occurred under Thibodeau, the coach who’s now entering martyrdom with the state of affairs of his former team making him look like the Wizards of Oz.
But the roster itself was packaged and presented as something it could never achieve, at least in present form.
(Remember when the biggest question was whether Derrick Rose could stay on the floor and if he could be what the team needs? Turns out he’s held up his end of the bargain, eh? The good old days)
It was too much to ask of this constructed roster, full of “what ifs” and other question marks that never seemed realistic. Changes need to be made, philosophically, personnel wise and the narratives need to disappear before they come out of the closet.
Whether you believe the higher-ups when they said some time ago they never claimed this was a championship-caliber team or not, it’s irrelevant at this point. Tacitly, it was in the air, and the hope was they could be proven right, and all the naysayers would have to eat crow.
But even they didn’t know this team had nothing emotionally to give, that all the blood had been spilled and life had been sucked out of them en masse.
There comes a moment in a playoff series where both teams realize who the better squad is, and the remainder of the games usually bear that out. In the regular season, there’s games, instances where players look around in the locker room at each other realizing they aren’t what they’re depicted.
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They aren’t what they’re projected.
They aren’t what they used to be.
Perhaps our expectations were too high.
Maybe theirs weren’t high enough.
But with 11 games left, expecting a team that has put together Jekyll and Hyde efforts from October to suddenly turn it on is too much to ask, even if it miraculously happens.
At least the façade has been removed, and all parties can move forward with a clear directive because the 82-game season definitely showed everybody what May 14, 2015 should’ve taught everyone.