CHICAGO — All season, the Chicago Bulls have needed a wake-up call of sorts. They’ve been winning (they’re 14-8) but not convincingly, dropping winnable games to mediocre teams.
At halftime on Monday night at the United Center, it looked like the Bulls may have been headed for their biggest embarrassment yet. They trailed by five points to the 1-24 Philadelphia 76ers, a team with only a handful of players on its roster who can be considered legitimate NBA contributors. The Sixers had largely only been in the news in recent weeks for rookie Jahlil Okafor’s off-court behavior and some shake-ups to their controversial #Process.
A loss to this team would have been a worse look than usual for the Bulls. Needless to say, things were tense in the locker room at halftime.
"It was very vocal, to be honest," Bulls forward Doug McDermott said after that game. "[Joakim Noah] was very heated, and [Pau Gasol] actually talked up, saying we've got to step on teams' throats like this, you know, that aren't winning this year. Other teams see this film of us lollygagging the first half, and they're not scared of us. So we really wanted to change that around in the second half, and I thought we did a much better job."
The Bulls eventually pulled away and earned their largest win of the season, beating the Sixers 115-96.
It’s not a great state of affairs for a team with title aspirations when a blowout over a glorified NBA D-League team comes with a sense of urgency, but here we are.
The victory over the Sixers was the Bulls’ third in a row, following their first three-game losing streak of the season. Despite that turnaround, and their overall solid record, this is not a team that has the look of a title contender, or even a conference finals team.
Twenty-two games into the season, the Bulls are still figuring out their identity under new coach Fred Hoiberg, and with the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff race rounding into shape, they don’t have much more time.
Under Tom Thibodeau from 2010 until last season, for all the justifiable frustrations with his minutes and rotations, the Bulls played with an urgency that has lacked this season. That urgency died near the end of Thibodeau's tenure as their playoff run flamed out, which was a major factor in the decision to make a change. Now, they’re adjusting to Hoiberg’s laid-back coaching approach and trying to adapt to a new team identity that’s a complete 180-degree turn from Thibodeau's Bulls, and it’s not going well.
The players know it, too.
"We obviously have an issue right now with playing with the right energy,” Noah said. “I think that it's definitely something we need. This team has an identity of playing with intensity and the right energy. That's been our identity for a while now. I think it's up to us to find that, play hard the whole game."
They’ve been saying that for a while now, and there’s no easy fix.
Hoiberg has tweaked the starting lineup, swapping Taj Gibson in for Nikola Mirotic at power forward, but he has yet to find a perfect formula in the Bulls’ big-man rotation.
There’s plenty of time to tinker, but with Kyrie Irving set to make his season debut any day now, and the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors putting together strong stretches, the Bulls’ path to the deep playoff run that this roster is built for is fraught with obstacles.
Other than Mike Dunleavy, who continues to be out for the foreseeable future with a back injury, the Bulls have, for once, been relatively healthy.
Derrick Rose has had no issues with his surgically repaired knees, which makes his offensive struggles all the more concerning. Noah has provided valuable defensive energy off the bench, but the move out of the starting lineup may have permanently shaken his confidence. Small forwards Tony Snell and Doug McDermott have been inconsistent, and Mirotic has struggled in his second season.
Other than Jimmy Butler, there have been relatively few bright spots.
And there’s nothing to point to that would suggest better days are ahead. Dunleavy, a solid shooter and average defender, will help whenever he returns, but other than that, there’s no waiting for anyone to get healthy.
If this stagnation continues, it could be the impetus for the Bulls' front office to do something it has done so rarely in recent years: make an in-season move. With Noah and Gasol slated to become free agents this summer and next summer, respectively, and rookie Bobby Portis showing promise in limited minutes, the Bulls are at a point where making a move to shake things up could make sense.
But for now, this is the team the Bulls are, for better or worse. And there isn’t much time left for things to improve before the long-term future of this core is thrown into question.