Disappointing first half as Chicago Bulls head into break

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CHICAGO — Inconsistent, disappointing, and troublesome are all words that come to mind when defining the Chicago Bulls’ first half of the season. At 27-25, the Bulls have underachieved and not met the expectations set forth by management, coaches, fans and themselves.

Heading into last year’s All-Star break, the Bulls were 34-20, 12 games over .500. Fast forward to present day and the Bulls are only two games above the even mark with virtually the same roster.

Despite the tumultuous season, the Bulls have managed to be victorious over some of the NBA’s most elite teams. Among those wins are two victories over the eastern conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers. Other wins include victories over San Antonio, Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers, and two wins a piece against the Thunder, Raptors and Pacers.

Let’s not downplay the fact that the Bulls got off to a solid start. It wasn’t always pretty but enough offense and timely defensive stops propelled the Bulls to a 22-12 start. It was at this time when most publications had them ranked as a top 10, and in some cases a top five team in the association.

The sign of a good team is being able to protect home court, maintain at least a .500 road record, and beat the bottom feeders. Of those three criteria, the Bulls have managed to be successful in only one. They own a 16-10 record at the United Center, even though they’ve lost their previous five home contests. The problem, however, is the 11-15 record away from the Madhouse on Madison. That won’t cut it. So far as beating the teams they are suppose to beat–they have underperformed in that category as well.

In a season full of impressive wins, there have been a number of disappointing losses. The Timberwolves, Suns, Nets, Knicks and Nuggets are just a few of the games the Bulls would have liked to win. In fact, the aforementioned teams have combined to go 90-181 in the first half of their respective seasons.

Losing winnable games isn’t the only problem either. Injuries have had their way with Fred Hoiberg’s club. Of the 15 players on the Bulls active roster, 10 of them have missed time this year due to injury. The only players to have not missed a game due to medical reasons are rookies Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio, Tony Snell, Cameron Bairstow and Taj Gibson.

Injuries are nothing new for the Bulls as they have had more than their fair share the past couple seasons. The problem is former head coach Tom Thibodeau found a way to do more with less, and that hasn’t been the case for Hoiberg.

The Bulls’ deluge of injuries began on the first day of training camp when Derrick Rose suffered an orbital fracture after taking an elbow to the face from teammate Taj Gibson. The injury limited him to only 10 preseason minutes before the start of the regular season. As it turns out, Rose’s injury was a sign of things to come.

Joakim Noah, who is arguably the emotional leader, will likely miss the remainder of the season with a left shoulder separation. Noah played in only 29 games having injured that shoulder on two separate occasions. Mike Dunleavy Jr. has played in just three of the team’s first 52 contests as he recovered from offseason back surgery.

Jimmy Butler, the league’s reigning Most Improved Player, is going to miss extended time due to a left knee strain. While available for the majority of the first half, Butler will miss the next three to four weeks. Nikola Mirotic is out until after the All-Star break with an emergency appendectomy and a hematoma removal.

The overall health of the Bulls roster hasn’t been too kind. Under normal circumstances, not having a full compliment of weapons isn’t ideal, but when you factor in Hoiberg being a first time NBA head coach, it makes things that much tougher.

Speaking of Hoiberg, he was the Bulls’ prize pick up this offseason. General Manger Gar Forman and John Paxson, President of Basketball Operations, decided to keep last year’s team intact. Firing Thibodeau, hiring Hoiberg and drafting Portis were the only significant moves the front office made. The overwhelming consensus amongst those in charge was that Hoiberg would be a better fit for the team and his personality would mesh better with the Bulls brass.

As far as we know, the relationship portion of that theory has worked out fine, but on court production simply hasn’t been there.

So who’s to blame? The sad reality is, there’s plenty of blame to go around from top to bottom. All parties are culpable to some degree. In a perfect world, the Bulls offensive production would resemble that of the Golden State Warriors offense. The current personnel doesn’t exactly fit the scheme, which falls in the lap of management.

As far as coaching is concerned, Thibodeau earned the reputation of being the hard-nosed, demanding coach, while Hoiberg’s demeanor is laid-back and reserved. A relaxed demeanor is not going to bring the best out of this year’s Bulls team. That assessment was validated when Butler made comments earlier in the season clamoring for Hoiberg to coach the team harder.

It’s rare for a player to publicly say they want to be coached harder. Butler’s early season comments and frustrations are an indictment in itself.

Despite the lack of personnel moves, by management and the demeanor of the coaching staff, the players are the ones who should be held most accountable. Fact of the matter is, the men in uniform haven’t produced. It’s up to the 15 guys in uniform to get the job done on a nightly basis.

At times this season, the Bulls have struggled to play hard, play for each other, and find the resolve to pick up victories when they need them the most. Going 2-5 on a crucial road trip followed by a blowout loss at home against Atlanta is evidence of that.

Players must take the next seven days to reflect and figure out how to elevate their individual play. This goes beyond making a trade and asking Hoiberg to be more demonstrative.

Thibodeau use to utter the moniker, “we have more than enough to win with.” That is no longer the case.

The good news is there’s still plenty basketball left to be played. The manner in which they’ve played has led to the current result, which is most troubling. However, the eastern conference is still wide open as only 3.5 games separate the 3-9 seeds. None of this will matter if the overall play doesn’t improve. The room for improvement is there. Will the Bulls accept the challenge, elevate their play, and strive for the excellence? We’ll soon find out beginning Thursday, Feb. 18 against the eastern conference’s best.

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