"We had a great run for 10 years," Forman said a few days after Rose was dealt to the New York Knicks. "The last decade we've got the best record in the Eastern Conference. We've put together a group that we thought was highly competitive and probably had a chance to get to a championship level. The injuries obviously derailed us quite a bit, especially the last few years. And then last year there were just so many of them. But we've got to put this back together now, going younger, more athletic and building it back up moving into the future."
Younger and more athletic.
It was Forman's mantra throughout the summer. Even after signing veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, Forman was convinced that the young core of players he compiled over the years would help bridge the gap between the Rose era and the unknown future. After being criticized around the league for signing Wade and Rondo, Forman repeatedly brought up the fact that there were 10 players on the Bulls' reworked roster who were 25 or younger and had three or fewer years of experience. Under second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, the "younger" and "more athletic" roster would find its way and learn from veterans like Wade, Rondo and Jimmy Butler.
Now 28 games into what looks like another lost season, the Bulls head into a Friday matchup against the Charlotte Hornets with one of the worst benches in the league, made up entirely of the young players whom Forman sold so hard. Most concerning for the Bulls' front office is that in the midst of offering an honest assessment of the flaws of his own team and its recent failings, Rondo delivered the most biting criticism of the roster's construction.
"Being honest with our own team, our personnel and our makeup, we have to get back in transition," Rondo said. "We're not going to be probably the most athletic team out there on the floor every night. Out of 30 teams we might be [in] the bottom three [or] four in athleticism, but I think you can make that up with intelligence."
Rondo didn't offer his opinion in a critical way; it's just that his assessment is the same one that many around the league share after watching the Bulls for two months. The "young" and "athletic" Bulls aren't really athletic at all.
The frustration fans are feeling is exacerbated because the Bulls continue a troubling trend of playing well against good teams and poorly against bad ones. After a nice start to the season, the Bulls come into the Charlotte game having lost seven of their past 10 games. They also have the worst fourth-quarter stats in the league, underscored by a poor performance in a Wednesday loss to the Washington Wizards in which the Bulls shot just 7-for-24 from the field. The frustration was palpable within a quiet locker room, with Wade saying the Bulls were relying too much on Butler late in games and that the late-game offense was too predictable.
Hoiberg said Thursday that the Bulls needed "more movement" late in games, but also pointed to the poor defense they exhibited down the stretch, a feeling Rondo shared as well.
"It's tough to get in a flow or rhythm in the fourth quarter when you're taking the ball out of the net every time down," Rondo said.
Rondo said the Bulls watched tape of Wednesday's loss and tried to fix the offensive flaws that have hampered them late in games. But the larger issue is the one he had already addressed. Forman sold his team's athleticism, but there really wasn't much to sell.
Hoiberg, Wade, Butler and Rondo can all discuss ways in which the Bulls can improve in small glimpses, but the larger flaws are on full display each night. Not only have younger players like Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Bobby Portis, Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant and Isaiah Canaan not shown much athleticism, they just haven't been very good. They aren't the players that Forman and the Bulls wanted them to be. And despite their youth, the ceiling for improvement doesn't appear to be very high.
"You have to make that up with game-plan discipline," Rondo said of his team's lack of athleticism. "And that's what we have to do, the little things, the intangibles to compete and get back in transition in the fourth quarter. Some guys, including myself, it starts with me. I can't crash a lot. I got to get back, get the defense back, get us set. So I'll take a lot of the blame and figure it out. Try to watch some more film and help guys get back and get this thing rolling."
Watching more film might not be enough. The Bulls' issues appear to run much deeper than their record shows. Aside from Butler, around whom are the Bulls building for the future? Rondo likely won't be back. Taj Gibson is a free agent at the end of the season and will generate interest from several clubs. Wade has an opt-out clause at the end of the season if he wants to leave. Veteran center Robin Lopez is signed for a couple more years, but will never be viewed as a game-changing player. Forman and the Bulls publicly stated a direction, but still haven't chosen a path for the future.
After listening to Rondo's comments, and watching the Bulls play this season, the questions of league observers and fans aren't centered around generating offense in the next week or two. The questions are focused around the Bulls' long-term future and the roster issues that have become more pronounced as the games go along. Forman's stated goal of becoming "younger" and "more athletic" has failed badly on the second element. Not only did the Bulls not get more athletic, they didn't get better.