LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol has been in the NBA long enough to be painfully honest.
"We're not disciplined," Gasol said. "Yep. We're not. That's it. It's true. It's a fact."
The Chicago Bulls are so unpredictable that they have become predictable. When they play well, as they did in an impressive win against the hapless Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night, they are not able to sustain the solid play. Their six-game winning streak a month ago was the outlier, not the rule.
"It's been the story of the year," Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. "The story of the year. If I could put a finger on it, I swear I would. I watch a lot of basketball, and the only thing I can think of is just that effort and sticking with the game plan."
The Bulls' single biggest flaw, aside from the fact that players such as Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic have not proven to be as good as advertised this year after being given plenty of opportunities, is that this group just isn't as mentally tough as it has been in years past. Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has discussed the issue several times during the season and was again frustrated with the lack of passionate play at times on Sunday. To blame the issues on Hoiberg, the first-year head coach, wouldn't be fair, because the troubles the Bulls are having with inconsistencies are the same ones that started to creep up last season in Tom Thibodeau's final year at the helm.
The Bulls' problem is they don't seem to have any clue how to fix the problems. More than halfway through the season, this is who they are: an inconsistent bunch of athletes who still don't appear to enjoy playing with one another.
"We're letting guys do whatever they want to do out there," All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler said. "Not putting bodies on people, not rebounding, letting guys get to their strengths. That's the will if you want to. Defense is all about toughness. When we're not guarding anybody, we don't look very tough."
Stop me if you've heard that before.
Bulls players are sick of talking about the problems, but not enough to create change from within.
"You've just got to keep talking about it," Hoiberg said of trying to build up the mental toughness that hasn't been there all year. "That's what you got to do. You've got to fight through it. Again, I've been saying this all year. I hate to sound like a broken record. We are a really good team when things are going well. We can go out there and play with a swagger and a confidence. But we lose that, we lose that when things aren't going well. They scored 69 points in the second half. You ain't beating anybody when that happens."
Hoiberg isn't stupid. He can talk about building up toughness all day long, but that has to come from a player's spirit. That has to be built up over time with trust and hard work. The Bulls haven't shown the ability to take the next step in their development, and there's only so much a first-year coach can do with this kind of flawed roster. Joakim Noah (left shoulder surgery) and Mike Dunleavy (back surgery, but expected to return soon) are missed, but it doesn't change the fact the Bulls are missing championship ingredients that can't be quantified. Discipline and mental toughness are two keys for any great team and those happen to be two things the Bulls haven't had all season.
"Every game you have to be aware and conscientious that there's an issue," Gasol said. "And you have to put forth an effort into it on a daily basis to change it. Sometimes it's hard to break up habits, it's hard to break up patterns, but you have to be on it every single day. Once you relax and you go back to the old habits, the old patterns, and you fall into the same trap over and over."
The Bulls continue to prove they haven't learned their lesson, because they keep falling into the exact same trap.