Taj Gibson: Bulls lacking defensive 'hungry dogs' from years past

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Taj Gibson summed up the entire Chicago Bulls' season and the Fred Hoiberg era to date, in the span of a 15-second soundbite on Monday night.

After his team's latest defeat, a discouraging 108-91 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Gibson was asked if the Bulls had lost their identity.

"What was our identity?" Gibson said. "Our identity was defense and then we went offense. But you got to look at it, we got a whole different group of guys from previous years. In previous years, we had a lot of defensive guys that [had] dog in them. Now we got a bunch of young guys [with an] offensive mentality. Now we're just trying to figure out a new system."

Gibson was understandably frustrated. The Bulls have now dropped 12 of their past 17 games. They got blown out in the final contest of a seven-game trip in which they went 2-5. Monday's loss was a wash because the Bulls were missing Jimmy Butler (knee injury), Nikola Mirotic (appendectomy and hematoma removal) and Derrick Rose (late scratch because of general body soreness). Not to mention Joakim Noah, who is out after season-ending shoulder surgery.

The Bulls were a tired, depleted team on Monday night and the game was never close. The fact that they still don't have an identity over halfway through the season is a problem and has been a continuous issue throughout the season. But that's not even the single biggest quandary surrounding the Bulls at this point.

The larger problem is that this team continues to lack the leadership that any successful team needs. The Bulls have a room full of solid characters, but they lack the unity and distinct voices that can lift a group out of funks like they are in now.

"It's a great group of guys," Gibson said. "Guys come and do the work. It's just a different group from what we had in the past. We had straight defensive guys, hungry dogs. Now we have guys coming in, offensive-minded, shoot the 3. ... We used to be scrappy. Now we're trying to mold these guys into getting scrappy. Every game is rough because we're still trying to get guys to talk. And you would think talking would be the easiest thing, right? Every day we're just trying to get guys to talk. It's frustrating, but what can you do? Right now, a lot of teams smell blood; you just got to figure out a way to get over it. In this league, nobody's going to feel sorry for you. That's the thing."

Noah used to have the clout within the locker room to rally his teammates. But after being taken out of the lineup earlier in the year by Hoiberg and then getting hurt, he's not even in the locker room these days to try and help his team right the ship as he continues his rehab. Butler has been open about trying to be the team's biggest voice; he has blossomed into a two-time All-Star and signed a max extension over the summer, but that self-empowerment has been met with resistance in some corners of the locker room.

Rose has never been a vocal leader throughout his career, although he has acknowledged recently that he has tried harder to use his voice around his teammates. The problem for Rose is that he has played just 105 regular-season games in the past four years and has not been able to stay on the floor. He missed another opportunity to build more leadership equity on Monday night after a surprise scratch just before game time.

Rose still has respect within the locker room, and made the right decision for the long-term by sitting, but as has been the case for him throughout much of the past four seasons, the optics of public perception have not worked in his favor. There he was on the bench, just after the game started on Monday, as his undermanned team got down 38-20 after one quarter. Rose doesn't have to answer to anyone but himself and owes nobody an explanation after dealing with three serious knee injuries over the past four years, but he did miss another chance to help pull his team through a tough situation.

"There's not a-holes on this team," veteran Pau Gasol said before the game. "Sometimes it is useful that a guy gets on somebody else's [case] just to make him react or do better and not take it personally. There's a fair argument that that's something that could be used and it could be useful, and it is useful at times. But we don't have that type of personality in the team here, in that way. You could approach a guy and say, 'Hey, let's just try to do this better, let's just pick it up, let's try to figure this out.' Communication, it's important. I don't think you really have to say, 'What the F, wake the F up.' Some guys are comfortable using that type of language but I'm not going to do that."

In years past, as much as the front office may not want to acknowledge it now, Tom Thibodeau was the guy players took their cues from. They respected his work ethic and were ready to run through a wall while following his orders in any situation. They didn't need a player to be that vocal leader because Thibodeau assumed that role from the bench. But as Gasol admitted after Monday's shootaround, the Bulls' inconsistencies aren't unique just to Hoiberg's first season. This team has been dealing with the same problems for the past year and a half, dating to Thibodeau's final campaign last season.

Whether Hoiberg is the right long-term answer for the Bulls remains to be seen, but the blame for this season falls mainly on the shoulders of Bulls executives Gar Forman and John Paxson. They're the ones who decided not to shake up the roster. They're the ones who were convinced the roster would be one of the deepest in the league, and they're the ones most responsible for this team's struggles.

The relationship with Thibodeau had soured beyond repair between the coach and the front office and most of his players, but it was still the responsibility of Forman and Paxson to fill the leadership void with the departure of Thibodeau.

Hoiberg has struggled to get his team to carry out the plan the coaching staff constructs for them each game. But several of his players have gone out of their way recently to stand up for him during this team's trying time.

"Fred is a great coach," Gibson said. "He has a lot of mental toughness. Even though he may seem quiet, he's always in here, he's always giving us good talks. He's always giving us praise. He's always just trying to keep us encouraged. Every team goes through a rough stretch. That's what makes these teams good. But at the same time, in the Thibs days we went through a lot, so we had no choice. We went through a lot of this, so we had no choice but to keep rising. It was different personnel back then. We got a totally different new group of guys, young guys that's coming from different clubs, so we have to try and mold them, try to keep pushing forward."

But those new guys -- Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and Mirotic -- just aren't as good as Paxson and Forman thought they would be. That's not Hoiberg's fault; that's on the front office. They are the ones who sold Hoiberg as an offensive guru, a player's coach who would unify a team that had become splintered under Thibodeau. They put an enormous amount of pressure on a first-year coach by saying this team was still talented enough to contend for a title this season. Not only is that not the case, they also built a team that still has no distinctive voice to rally behind.