Surprised by sub-.500 Bulls? Derrick Rose is too

CHICAGO -- Fred Hoiberg's words are still jarring two days later.

"Obviously, what I'm saying right now, my message isn't getting across," the Chicago Bulls coach said in his brief remarks Saturday. "We're going to sit in a room and hopefully get it figured out [Sunday]."

The Bulls held a team meeting Sunday. They talked about getting themselves back on track. Then on Monday, they followed those words by losing their fourth straight in a 102-100 decision to the Atlanta Hawks that dropped them a game under .500 for the first time in two years.

Is Derrick Rose surprised?

"I mean, who's not, man?" said Rose, whose Bulls are 2.5 games behind the Detroit Pistons for the eighth spot in the East. "[It's] the story of the year. Who's not?"

Rose's question should be followed with another: How did it get this bad?

The belief within the organization was that the Bulls could be title contenders this year. By changing coaches -- from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg -- while not making any significant changes to the roster, the front office hoped the 43-year-old former Bull could be the major difference-maker and help get the team over the LeBron James playoff hump.

We have learned throughout this slog of a season that they were wrong.

Hoiberg's single biggest mistake came early in the way he handled Joakim Noah and demoting him from a starter to a reserve. But the larger issue for the Bulls moving forward is whether Hoiberg is the right long-term fit for this group.

Hoiberg's admission Saturday was stunning in its honesty. Many wondered whether the Bulls players have tuned out the rookie coach, but the argument could be made that they never really tuned him in. After five years of getting their orders barked at them by Thibodeau, many of these players grew tired of Thibodeau's voice and methods. The front office believed Hoiberg could unify the fractured group.

They were wrong. The Bulls have not adjusted to Hoiberg's laid-back style. Hoiberg was sold as an offensive guru, but the Bulls' offense has gotten worse under his direction.

While Hoiberg deserves plenty of blame, executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman deserve more blame than anyone because they put this roster together and left it in place. The erosion of focus and effort that took place in Thibodeau's final season has gotten even worse under Hoiberg.

The Bulls looked disjointed at times early in the season. They look disjointed almost all the time now. It has become clear in their play that they don't enjoy playing together. From listening to some players, it seems that was an underlying theme of Sunday's meeting.

"How we need to stick together," Bulls All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said of his biggest takeaway from the meeting. "If somebody says something to you, don't take it personal because it's for the betterment of the team."

The front office made a big miscalculation in failing to acknowledge how much this group took its cues from Thibodeau. As much as he wore on his players' nerves, they respected him and followed his orders. The Bulls don't seem to have the same respect for Hoiberg. Although many players like him on a personal level, and Rose and Taj Gibson have stuck up for him, they don't respond to his charges.

Without Thibodeau's presence, and with Noah's role diminished after Hoiberg's decision, the Bulls have floundered. There is no unifying voice.

"My biggest takeaway was if we have any chance of [making the playoffs] and having a good end of the season, we're going to have to do it together," center Pau Gasol said. "We can't be individually trying. We just got to work together on both ends of the floor, and that's it. That's what it takes. I think that was the biggest take from [Sunday's] meeting."

Does Gasol believe the group was receptive to the message?

"I think so," Gasol said. "I think today things were a lot better. The feeling out there -- working together, working as a unit, scrambling, hustling more than we have the last three games. So let's see if we can get some continuity on that subject."

It's not fair to expect continuity to form with nine games left in the season. The Bulls showed a little more heart Monday and didn't quit on themselves like they did in an embarrassing defeat Saturday in Orlando. But this group has never prided itself on moral victories. The only things that were supposed to matter were wins in the playoffs. Now it's very likely the Bulls won't get there.

It's a massive fall from grace for a team that always expected more from itself. If that fall means more hard truths have to be faced, then it's better in the long run for an organization in desperate need of a reality check. Forman and Paxson know the roster needs adjusting this summer, and by all indications, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf is committed to allowing them the chance to fix it.

But the bigger question in the short term is whether Hoiberg is the right man for the job. If he can't find a better way to get through to his players, that answer will become obvious.