Bulls face an identity crisis in the wake of Jimmy Butler's critical comments

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

CHICAGO – Sliding into head-shaking lapses in effort, struggling to adapt to a new scheme while fending off the fatigue from the previous regime, the Chicago Bulls are a team in transition, sputtering along as they seek a new identity with a familiar cast of characters. The Bulls' problems have been masked by superior talent, which has allowed them to win enough fool's-gold games to remain relevant in an improved Eastern Conference. So far, the experience has come with little satisfaction as the victories have been joyless and losses have generated more doubt about their ultimate destination.

Jimmy Butler criticized Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg for being too laid back. (Getty Images)
Jimmy Butler criticized Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg for being too laid back. (Getty Images)

Despite a disappointing surrender to LeBron James and Matthew Dellavedova last postseason, Bulls vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman decided to make one more run with a roster whose longtime core – fueled by Joakim Noah's spirit and the hopeful return of Derrick Rose's ghost – might've already exceeded its expiration date. They replaced the heavy-handed Tom Thibodeau with the more easygoing Fred Hoiberg, were encouraged by Rose finishing a season healthy for the first time since winning the MVP in 2011 and banked on the continued ascension of Jimmy Butler.

Some resistance and rheumatic pain should be expected before any resurgence, considering all of the factors in play for the Bulls. But Butler's criticism of Hoiberg for being too "laid back" and not coaching the players hard enough – 25 games into the season – after Saturday's loss in New York revealed the uneasy shift from Thibodeau and how moving forward might also eventually require more dramatic change with regard to personnel.

Frustration and confusion have consumed a team with a rookie NBA coach trying to strike the balance between imposing his system while being flexible to established veterans; a point guard with hazy vision in one eye and an even hazier outlook in regaining his footing as an elite player; a relentless rising star who wishes the team had more like-minded go-hards; and an emotional leader – perhaps exhausted from years of overuse – who has been reluctantly pushed into a reserve role in a contract year.

"We're searching, but I think we're growing," Noah told Yahoo last week. "Guys' roles are changing. Just got to get used to it and come with the right attitude. It's tough sometimes to get out of yourself for the team and I think that's where we're at right now."

Rose still a Rose?

The Bulls' identity crisis begins with their most recognizable player, Rose, whose days as a dynamic, athletically overwhelming talent appear to be behind him despite being an age – 27 – when most stars are in their primes. Rose seemingly turned a corner last postseason with a handful of flashback performances. But this season, he has been sporadic and lacked that joyful passion that resulted in him becoming the youngest MVP in league history.

While an incredible honor, that award also serves as a curse, with Rose's attempts to return to that status interrupted annually by some unfortunate injury. After a second straight summer of decent health spent focusing on regaining his explosiveness, Rose broke the orbital bone in his face on the first practice of training camp and returned before the season opener despite double vision in his left eye. His eyesight has improved slightly – "It's still healing," he told Yahoo – but his play has remained confounding and inconsistent. Rose claims the hurdle hasn't been physical or mental, but one that comes from adjusting to more skilled teammates.

"It's just that you're playing with new guys," Rose told Yahoo. "On top of that, I'm a point guard, I can't just come down and shoot 25 times on this team. We have a great team. All the teams that we've had in the past – don't get me wrong, no disrespect to my old teammates – but this team is a little bit more talented as far as scoring, so it's a little bit different."

Derrick Rose is averaging 13.7 points and 5.4 assists. (Getty Images)
Derrick Rose is averaging 13.7 points and 5.4 assists. (Getty Images)

Over the years, the Bulls brought in or developed more weapons to relieve Rose of the scoring burden. But his absence allowed others – such as Butler, and before him, Noah – to assume more prominent roles. Rose has also encountered a dilemma in which he is chasing a former self that would struggle to thrive in an evolving game that has diminished the influence of inefficient volume scorers. Though finishing at the rim was once the gift that separated him from the rest, Rose has either been too passive or unable to attack with the same ferocity – he has yet to dunk this season. Rose is putting up career-low shooting and scoring numbers but remains confident he'll assert himself soon enough.

"That's going to come," Rose told Yahoo. "I'm not worried about myself. I know how hard I work. How much I put into my game. Once that comes along, it's going to be pretty scary."

Rose's humble rise to stardom made it easy for Bulls fans to invest their dreams in the Englewood native, which has complicated the relationship because he has never concerned himself with conforming to what others expected him to be, moving on his own terms without considering the backlash. Since a media day comment about being a free agent in 2017, Rose has avoided making many controversial sound bites through the first two months of the season but his behavior remains heavily scrutinized.

"I think people always have things to say about him," Noah said.

Rose has been playing through an injury that has hampered his vision, but states he just wanted to maintain his conditioning as opposed to pushing back against criticism of his durability. He removed the protective mask for reasons of comfort. He cut his hair – an unkempt bush closely cropped at the sides – earlier this month to the more familiar low fade from the early years of his career.

"I was like, yes, take it back to 2010-11. We need that back," forward Taj Gibson said, explaining his reaction when he saw Rose show up to practice with the haircut.

But Rose laughs at those who want to place any deep, symbolic meaning in the new, old look. There's nothing complex about that decision. "I swear I wasn't thinking like that. I just wanted the wave game," Rose said. "I've got a brush and I want waves again."

Rose still gets announced last in pregame introductions – "from Chicago'' – but Butler has usurped him as the team's best player without any formal baton passing. Adamant denial of any friction from both sides hasn't exactly dissolved the perception but Rose has conceded that Butler has been the Bulls' most consistent and reliable player. Rose has willingly deferred, often to a fault.

"Jimmy's been playing his ass off, it's just, is it going to be me? Is it going to be Pau [Gasol, to step up as a second option]," Rose told Yahoo. "I think it's going to be me and Jimmy both, but we'll see."

"Everybody is not Golden State"

Butler worked his way up from defensive stopper to two-way all-star but has long sought more responsibility on the team, especially since agreeing to a five-year, $90 million contract last summer. Refusing to be complacent after getting paid, Butler has demanded more urgency from himself and his teammates and assumed a role as vocal leader that once belonged to Noah. Butler has earned the right to speak up, but he also has the security of being locked up longer than both Noah and Rose. His comments about Hoiberg reflected a desire for more accountability and a push to not settle for less than greatness.

Joakim Noah has been moved to the bench. (Getty Images)
Joakim Noah has been moved to the bench. (Getty Images)

"When guys aren't doing what they're supposed to do, you've got to get on guys, myself included," Butler told reporters in New York. "You got to do what you're supposed to do when you're out there playing basketball."

Noah disagreed that the Bulls needed a more demanding coach after grinding out some physically taxing seasons under Thibodeau, including one in 2014 that ended with him needing knee surgery. After recognizing how Noah and Gasol failed to function as a starting frontcourt, Hoiberg made his first difficult decision by turning Noah into a reserve. But Noah has remained publicly supportive of Hoiberg even after he was benched and watched his minutes diminish.

Paxson and Forman are firmly behind Hoiberg in the first season of a five-year deal after a solid run in college at Iowa State.

The Bulls have been slow to fully embrace his style but at least one veteran admitted that by the end of Thibodeau's five-year run, the players were just "tired, from everything."

Thibodeau exhausted all he could out of the Bulls, but after overachieving in the regular season, they usually flamed out in the postseason – mostly because Rose wasn't around – and never reached the conference finals after 2011. Hoiberg was hired to recharge the team but is still seeking a rotation he can trust, having already replaced Noah with Nikola Mirotic and Mirotic with Gibson as starting power forward.

"There's new philosophies out here, we're all learning each other – even though the group is similar we have a different leader. We have a different general," Noah said. "I think our new coach is very open-minded, listening to the players. I think there is still room for improvement but I think there is a lot of firepower on this team."

The talk most of last season was about winning a championship. Another "C" word has now taken greater immediacy for the Bulls – consistency. Their vacillating focus has led to some troubling losses but Gibson believes it would be wrong to overreact with so many players trying to accept and understand roles.

"You've got a good group of guys. You don't have any bad apples. Everybody's eager to do whatever it takes for the team. Nothing happens overnight, nobody's perfect, but we've got to keep working," Gibson told Yahoo, before smiling and saying, "Everybody is not Golden State."

At this point, the Bulls would be satisfied with some encouraging signs that aren't just prolonging a ride that has already run its course.

More NBA coverage: