CHICAGO — “It doesn’t even seem like basketball.”
That’s what Chicago Bulls forward Doug McDermott had to say Wednesday night following a 113-90 blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks. He was only talking about the second half of this particular game, when the Bulls let a manageable five-point halftime deficit slip away. But there’s no better way to describe the place this team finds itself in heading into the All-Star break.
The loss to the Hawks came on the heels of a two-week road trip in which Chicago lost five of seven games, all in increasingly predictable fashion. After seemingly every loss, Bulls players harp on their lack of defensive communication and overall effort, yet the problems persist.
As they approach the break, with one week left until a trade deadline that will most likely find them standing pat, they’re faced with a harsh reality they’ve been just good enough to put off confronting before now: This team, as presently constructed, is not good enough to win a championship or even seriously compete for a deep playoff run.
Injuries are part of it, sure. Joakim Noah is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Nikola Mirotic is gone at least through the break (and probably longer) after complications from a recent appendectomy. And, most crucially, the Bulls received news Tuesday that Jimmy Butler’s strained knee will keep him away three to four weeks.
But health doesn’t entirely explain away what has been, from the beginning, a deeply flawed roster out of step with the high-energy, fast-paced offensive system that head coach Fred Hoiberg wants to run.
The ugly falling out last spring between Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front-office brain trust of John Paxson and Gar Forman had plenty of fault on both sides, and it was ultimately time for that relationship to end.
But at this point, this much is clear: Management let its personal distaste for Thibodeau cloud its judgment to such a degree that it talked itself into running back last season’s roster virtually unchanged, with the hope that simply switching coaches would be enough to vault this group from Eastern Conference also-rans to true title contenders.
“We have way more talent than we did the year we went to the Eastern Conference Finals [in 2011],” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We just had guys back then that played for each other and were willing to do what it takes. We’ve got good guys. The thing about it is, we all get along with each other. But sometimes you need a lot more than having a like for each other.”
It’s not for a lack of talent that this team has struggled. This roster was a LeBron James game-winner away from taking a 3-1 second-round series lead over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that ultimately went to the NBA Finals. And that was with a hobbled, oft-injured Derrick Rose. This year, Rose has been mostly healthy and, at least since Christmas, playing his most consistent basketball in four years.
Despite that, 52 games into the 2015-16 season, Chicago enters the All-Star break just two games above .500 and a mere half-game ahead of the eighth-seeded Charlotte Hornets in the standings.
It’s unlikely to happen, assuming Butler’s recovery stays on schedule, but it’s within the realm of possibility that the Bulls miss the postseason. That’s certainly a more realistic scenario than any in which this roster is seriously challenging the Cavaliers or Toronto Raptors deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“It’s obviously extremely disappointing, this stretch we’re in right now,” Hoiberg said after the loss to the Hawks. “We had some winnable games in a row we didn’t close out. And to come back here this last game…it’s almost as if guys got satisfied with, ‘We’ve got the break coming up.’
“As a team, we’ve got to find ourselves. I challenged them, whatever they’ve got to do over the break, look themselves in the mirror and find a way to get committed to this thing where we can come out and go on a run.”
That’s been the Bulls’ modus operandi all along: Just get healthy and bet the talent of this group against any it’ll face in the playoffs. But even putting aside last week’s injury to Butler, Chicago has lost 13 of its last 18 games and hasn’t won a home contest since Jan. 7.
The return of Butler to the lineup will help, but this team’s struggles go far beyond health, and that’s becoming impossible to ignore.
All indications are that the Feb. 18 trade deadline will come and go without any activity from the Bulls. The injuries to Noah and Mirotic have made it harder for Paxson and Forman to justify parting with Gibson or Pau Gasol, unless they were getting back an unusually high return.
But Gasol can opt out this summer, and despite his All-Star production, it would make more sense to get some kind of long-term value at the deadline than let him walk for nothing after the season.
But to do that, management will have to take an honest look at this roster and admit that title contention isn’t in the cards. And that’s not a step anyone in the organization is ready to take yet.
“I’ve seen what we’re capable of,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully, we’ll get healthy. That’s a big start. If we can get healthy, if we band together and compete, then we’ve got a chance because we’ve proven we can do it.”
The Bulls have certainly proved that they can win some regular-season games. But there’s been little to suggest a ceiling beyond that.