Follow a team as omnipresent as the Chicago Bulls for long enough and you'll quickly realize the news cycle is a vortex, a place where nuance gets shredded, context has an finite shelf life and the background noise can obscure real strengths and weaknesses hiding in plain sight. Things are rarely quite as good or as bad as they seem, whether the Bulls are fattening up on a weak conference with D.J. Augustin as their best guard or lacking a certain exuberance the first game back home after a long road trip. An 82-game season ebbs and flows, if only because there's so much variance at every turn.
What's happening to the Bulls right now could be summed up like that, just a slump in a season that has otherwise seen the Bulls finally find an offense, develop young talent and earn big wins home and away. The margin for error in the NBA is small, and there aren't many teams who can win games without two starters, particularly when one is your most reliable outside shooter and the other is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. In a marathon regular season, everything can be rationalized. It makes it hard to know when you're watching true decline.
That's the question everyone in and around the Bulls is asking right now: how worried should we be? The team has lost six of its last eight, and most of those defeats have not been particularly close. A struggling Jazz team thumped the Bulls at the United Center by 20. A floundering Magic team came into Chicago and won without two starters of their own. Even the wins seem like they wouldn't have been possible without a completely unsustainable career-night from Pau Gasol or a game where Derrick Rose couldn't miss from three-point range. Sometimes your gut makes the decision for you, and right now, it feels like everyone knows deep down the Bulls are kind of bad.
If there's one thing that has always defined this team since Tom Thiboduea arrived, it's urgency. There's an urgency to win every regular season game possible, even if it means playing Jimmy Butler 60 minutes to get a triple overtime win in Orlando. There's an urgency to never take a play off, because laziness is the root of bad habits. There's an urgency to show you're only as good as your last possession. This is what the Bulls have been about and this is what makes the current slide so damn excruciating to watch.
For the first time, the Bulls aren't winning because their effort exceeds their talent; they're losing because their apparent lack of energy is drowning out what should be the most balanced team of the Thibodeau era.
If the foundation isn't cracking for the Bulls, the individual pieces might be. The on-again-off-again practice is not something you expect from a franchise that prides itself on professionalism. The barbs from players about "lack of communication" sounds like a mindless cliche until you realize it probably isn't. Thibodeau's IN THE CIRCLE bluster seems like something that could only come from a man left questioning everything he knows.
The thing you need to remember about professional basketball is that everything is connected. You can defend Kirk Hinrich by pointing to two-man numbers or saying a player who takes only four shots in a game shouldn't be at the center of such vitriol. That would be fine if defenses weren't totally content abandoning him to plug other holes. With zero points in two of his last four games while averaging almost 30 minutes per game, opposing defenses know he's not a threat until his three-pointer starts to drop. There was a reason the Bulls never lost when Keith Bogans scored six points or more during Thibodeau's first year here.
That's not to blame it all on Hinrich -- far from it. The Bulls need him this season, but they also need him to be better. He can be. The larger issue is that there's more Hinrich right now because injuries have taken out Mike Dunleavy and Doug McDermott, and the roster only has so many pieces. When everything is connected, two or three missing links in the chain can make for a tough gap to bridge.
What's inarguable is the main source of the Bulls' recent despair, and that's the defense. Thibodeau has become one of the most revered coaches in the NBA because he created a defensive system everyone has since stolen. You can't object with the results, as the Bulls have had a top five defense every year he's been here. Well, now the Bulls are No. 12 in defense and in the month of January, they're sporting the sixth worse defense in the NBA.
According to Synergy Sports, the Bulls rank No. 28 in the NBA in defending the pick and roll with the ball handler finishing. Last season they were No. 8.
What's different? Has Thibodeau's style finally run its course? It feels like there's too many professionals here for that. Would Gibson and Butler suddenly fail the grit test? It unlikely. Instead, there's basketball reasons. It's hard to build a good defense around 35 minutes of Pau Gasol when he's zoning the rim instead of defending his man. It's difficult to be a force on both ends of the floor the way the Bulls are asking Butler to be, particularly when he's playing 40 minutes a night. While the focus is always on Rose's offense, his defense has a lot of room for improvement, too.
In previous seasons, this is the part of the schedule where the Bulls flex, and everyone gets delusional about title aspirations. This year, the Bulls are using the same stretch to collapse. Will we remember in this May if Noah and Dunleavy return and the Bulls look closer to the team they were in December than the team they've been in January? Or is this slump exposing real flaws?
In an 82-game season, it's always tough to know. You sit back and watch with your hands over your eyes, because it's all that's left to do. Things will get better here, but they might not get better soon. The Bulls play the Spurs and Mavs over the next two nights, and still have to face the Suns and Warriors this month. Maybe the scariest thing is that rock bottom is still a few weeks away.
Thankfully, seasons don't end in January. There is still a light off in the distance, the Bulls just need to work hard and find enough luck to eventually get there. The story of this year isn't over, it's simply hit the part where the protagonist can shake adversity. Now it's up to the Bulls to decide their way out.