CHICAGO -- Fred Hoiberg knows his team has issues. When asked after Saturday night's 102-93 overtime loss to the Timberwolves whether he thought his group was having more problems on the offensive end or defensive end, the usually easygoing coach responded quickly.
"Both," he said.
With that he thanked reporters and made his way back to the locker room after a few short minutes with the media. It was as outwardly frustrated as the 43-year-old has appeared in his first few months on job. The exchange was notable given that Hoiberg almost always gives off the vibe of being the coolest guy in the room. The performance he had just witnessed, one that included the Bulls scoring just one field goal in the last 6:33 of regulation and no field goals in overtime -- the first time that's happened in the organization's 50-year history -- left him searching for answers, like everyone else.
What seemed to anger the basketball lifer more than anything else was that his team appeared to go through the motions throughout much of the game. Seven games into the season and Hoiberg isn't sure which one of his teams is going to show up on a nightly basis.
"I'd like to think when I played this game a million years ago one thing I did is I'd run through a wall every time I stepped on that floor," Hoiberg said. "And we're not doing that on certain nights for whatever reason, and we got to fix it. We got to fix it."
His players agreed with that assessment, even if they didn't know how to fix the issue.
"We don't play hard sometimes," Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. "Effort. It was another one of them games. Relying [too much] on offense. There's multiple ways to put it. But it is a problem, you did get that right."
This isn't a new problem for the Bulls. Lost amid the ongoing storyline of Hoiberg's first season is the fact that this group struggled with the same problems last season under Tom Thibodeau. Some nights, especially on the big stage against the best teams, the Bulls would show up. Some nights, against lesser opponents, the Bulls would go through the motions and not give a quality effort.
The difference now is that the Bulls don't know what their identity is, or what they want it to be. In five years under Thibodeau, the Bulls developed a reputation as being a hard-nosed team that was ready to get into a defensive street fight almost every night to protect a victory. While that wasn't always the case last season, this group still knew what its DNA was.
After just seven games into this season, it would be naive to think that Hoiberg and his group knew exactly what they wanted their identity to be, but it is strange to see this group of players struggle so much to execute at various points throughout the game.
"I don't know," Butler said when asked what he wanted this group's identity to be. "I think we got to figure it out. Our identity could be -- we just got to go out there and play harder at the end of the day. That's where our identity is going to start, is how hard we play on both ends of the ball. You can blame it on a 5 o'clock start, you can blame it on us being excited about the last win we had, but at the end of the day we came out with low energy and it stayed that way throughout the whole game."
Butler's response sounded a lot like something his old coach would have said: There will always be excuses if a player or coach allows it -- but there shouldn't be an excuse for not going out and working hard. As a 10-year NBA veteran, that's what is frustrating Hoiberg, the former player, as well. But while Hoiberg seems focused on cleaning everything up, his players believe that their team's problems reside mostly on one side of the floor.
"It's defense, man," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "I think they scored over 50 points in the paint. If you get any team that type of looks or them type of drives where they're hitting the paint or they're kicking the ball back out or just hitting the paint period, you're putting yourself in a lot of trouble. So we just got to work harder on the defensive end. And like I always say, communicate a little bit better because we didn't switch a couple of times and they got open shots."
Aside from the effort, what has to scare Hoiberg and the Bulls' front office is the communication that Rose described -- or lack thereof. On both ends of the floor, but especially on the defensive end, the players routinely seem to be dealing with missed assignments or mixed signals. Every group goes through growing pains with a new coach, but not every coach steps into a situation in which a team has created such a niche for itself on the defensive end. The players know they can be better, but they don't seem to know what buttons to push to make it happen.
"We get all the shots we want on offense, no problem," Butler said. "We got guys that can score the ball. It's all energy, though. On the defensive end, if you're out there moving around, being in the right spots, maybe the ball will fall in your hands every once in a while. We're hugged up a lot of the time on the weak side, not getting into our coverage when we're supposed to be there, then it just trickles down the line and it's like a domino effect. Slippery slope."
The Bulls are sliding down the wrong side of that slope right now, but as frustrated as the players were about Saturday's result, this group is hopeful the ending will be better than the beginning.
"We're learning each other," Rose said. "It's only six to seven games in and we're trying to get more familiar with each other. Coach is doing a great job putting us with different groups, lineups, so I think this is the worst you could probably ever see us play. And hopefully in a couple of games you'll be able to tell a difference."