As he sat in the bleachers of the Chicago Bulls' gleaming new practice facility last Wednesday, ready to unburden himself of all the frustrations surrounding what he calls perhaps his "last chance" at glory in Chicago, Joakim Noah first offered a note of caution.
"I don't want to paint this gloomy picture," he told ESPN.com two days after a blowout win over the Philadelphia 76ers that was somehow dispiriting. "We have issues. But it's early. There is a lot of skill here. Even with all our issues, we are second [now sixth] in the East. We are still trying to figure out who we are."
And that right there, that mixture of hope and uncertainty, is why these Bulls are so interesting in what feels like the final go-round for the remnants of a growling, defense-first pulverizer that has pushed LeBron James as hard as anyone in the Eastern Conference. There is a powerful team buried in here somewhere, but the longer they fight among themselves and struggle to score, the more it feels like the Bulls won't uncover it.
You see the work and the emotional strain: the slog of every possession for the league's 27th-ranked offense, the players barking at each other, the coaches searching for the right lineup combinations, the hiccups that happen as new pairings experiment. Almost 30 games in, the Bulls are still figuring out basic things about themselves. They're 15-11, with the point differential of a .500 team.
"I mean, what is the identity of this team?" Noah asked, a few days before going down with a shoulder injury. "It's hard to say. Our identity has always been: You come to Chicago, you're in for a war. It's not like that right now. I don't care what the numbers say. Just watch the games. There are 25,000 people in the building, and it's dead quiet. It has never been like that. It's tough to see the building that way. And it's on us. You bring the fire, and they will love you here. But if you're coasting, playing this low-energy game, I'm not sure we can win like that."
There are no energy issues on defense. The Bulls rank second in points allowed per possession, smothering the rim and the 3-point arc using Tom Thibodeau's leftover system. The strain is on the other end, where the Bulls are trudging between different styles, often within the same game, amid a wrenching adaptation process that touches on the coaching change, from Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg, and the shifting hierarchy within the team.
At the start of the season, Hoiberg introduced chunks of a fast-paced, pass-happy motion offense. Several key players found the fit awkward and asked Hoiberg, who maintains an open-door policy, to put some Thibodeau-era sets back in, according to team sources. Opposing scouts have also noticed this.
"Fred put in a lot of ball movement, but we have a lot of guys who hold the ball a lot," Noah said.
Pau Gasol went public with his request for more post-ups, Derrick Rose has run the offense for years, and Jimmy Butler, fresh off signing a max contract, has asserted himself as the team's best overall player and No. 1 option on offense. The play of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has overshadowed Butler's continued two-way greatness. He is a legitimate top-20 overall player, perhaps top 15, and will serve as Chicago's foundation as a smart front office turns the roster toward a new identity.
But his rise has engendered some minor hard feelings within the team. There is a sense that Butler relishes the trappings of stardom a bit too much, and that he doesn't do enough to support his teammates, as a playmaker or a cheerleader. The Bulls have been unusually vulnerable to infighting when things go bad during a game. They are not a team that socializes together off the floor.
"We just get so frustrated," Noah said. "It has been the weakness of our team so far. There has to be more camaraderie. More of a sacrifice for each other."
Hoiberg said he sees it, too.
"It's human nature," he told ESPN.com. "We talk about it. I think we've gotten better at it. You have to play through adversity."
The problem goes beyond Butler, but the Bulls want more leadership from him.
"Jimmy gets the ball a lot, and he's deserving," Noah said. "The next step for him is to take a leadership role, and making more plays for his teammates. We need more fluidity on offense."
Hours after making that comment, Noah approached Butler privately with the same message.
"Yeah, he talked to me about being a better leader," Butler told ESPN.com. "It wasn't anything I didn't already know. I try to lead by example, but I have to speak up sometimes."
Teammates noticed a happier, more supportive Butler during the Bulls' feel-good win over Memphis that night.
"That might have been our best win," Noah said after the game. "Jimmy was so encouraging, getting everyone hyped up. It's crazy how different it can be here from one game to the next."
The good vibes didn't last. Chicago has lost three straight, and after a loss to the Knicks on Saturday, Butler declared the Bulls "need to be coached harder at times." The comment wasn't about Thibodeau, but it did get at a simmering internal feeling that Hoiberg hasn't put his stamp on the team, and that players are pounding the ball on offense.
But it could also be that Chicago simply doesn't have the personnel to field a top-10 offense unless Mike Dunleavy Jr. gets healthy and Rose finds a level somewhere between his MVP peak and the bricktastic shadow of himself he has been this season. The front office is confident that will happen. Rose suffered an orbital fracture in training camp, and he spent two weeks in October holed up in a dark room, doing almost nothing, team officials said.
"Right now, it's like preseason is just ending for him," said Gar Forman, the team's GM. "We will see an uptick on offense."
Forman bristles a bit at the notion Chicago is a disappointment so far.
"Anytime there is a change, it takes time," he said. "We see the glass half full. And changing coaches was not about boosting the offense."
There are some signs of progress. Hoiberg appeared to have figured out the right big-man pairings after swapping Nikola Mirotic out of the starting lineup. Noah and Mirotic developed a nice chemistry off the bench, and Noah becomes a dangerous passer again when Mirotic and Doug McDermott are screening for each other off the ball.
I've argued before that Hoiberg should explore Mirotic and Noah as his starting combination, leaving Gasol to punk second-unit big men in the post, but Gasol appears to be the only big on the roster judged above a backup role.
"We really haven't ever discussed that," Hoiberg said.
The team worries Gasol might check out, or lose confidence, if they demote him.
Still, I'd be surprised if Hoiberg doesn't tinker with the starting lineup again before the season is done, perhaps giving Mirotic another shot. Slotting him at small forward in Tony Snell's place, as Hoiberg did in Tuesday's game, is a stop-gap for getting Bobby Portis minutes that also highlights Dunleavy's value. Mirotic hasn't shown the ball-handling or speed to thrive as a wing player. If Noah picks up where he left off after returning from injury, he might deserve another look at starting alongside Gasol.
Before Tuesday's lineup switch and injury drama, Hoiberg had been raving about his revamped second unit. McDermott has worked hard with Jim Boylen, the team's associate head coach, to improve his defense to the point that he's playable.
"Everyone was attacking me," McDermott told ESPN.com. "I'm a competitor. It was pissing me off."
The Mirotic-Noah bench mob can run a spread pick-and-roll attack, with Noah slicing to the rim, picking out shooters, and chasing down offensive rebounds.
Note how that play starts with Noah waving Mirotic to the right corner and out of the way. Mirotic sometimes clutters the paint by hanging nearby for dump-offs, part of the learning curve as Hoiberg juggles the rotation, searching for the right mix.
"It's just about finding a feel for when to space to the corner," Hoiberg said.
Rose doesn't get to play much with this group, and, really, all the hand-wringing over sacrifice, selflessness, big-man combinations, and bench lineups is just nibbling around the edges. If Rose is good again, his partnership with Butler can work. If he's not, the Bulls are toast as a contender.
It's easy to agitate for more ball movement when Gasol, Butler and Rose share the floor, but the lack of outside shooting makes it tricky to make it happen. It's tough to gain traction when defenses go under every pick. Great passing sequences start when one offensive player draws two defenders, and Chicago's starting guards have trouble engineering that in the pick-and-roll.
Everyone knows Rose has lost his jumper. Defenses duck beneath every pick, walling off the paint and removing the need for a second defender to help on Rose. Butler is a better shooter, but not quite good enough to dissuade defenses from the same tactic.
"Yeah, they continue to go under," Butler said. "It makes it harder for us. But I haven't been shooting the 3 well."
When the pick-and-roll stalls out, Butler defaults to one-on-one play. It's easier for him to draw help working alone or in the post, but that kind of action grinds the system to a halt.
Hoiberg said he would love to find a faster path to the rim.
"The biggest thing for us is trying to find a way to get downhill and into the paint," he said.
The complete disrespect for Rose's jumper makes it harder for Butler to get anywhere. Rose is a liability off the ball. Defenses ignore him to muck up Butler's drives and double Chicago's post-up threats.
Toss in two big men who operate best inside the elbows, and you have the recipe for lots of ugly possessions in a crowd.
Getting some breathing space was the idea, after all, in starting Mirotic over Noah at power forward, a controversial decision that annoyed Noah and rankled others on the team. But Mirotic hasn't lived up to the hype -- yet. He's shooting 38 percent overall and has hit just 32 percent from deep since entering the league. He'll be 25 soon, and he has had enough time to adjust to the longer NBA 3-point shot. If he doesn't heat it up, Mirotic's place in Chicago's future is murky. If he's not the power forward of the future, how does he fit with McDermott and Butler on the wing? And if he is a power forward of the future, can he play alongside Portis?
All of these questions will impact how Chicago approaches free agency and the trade deadline. It's hard to find workable minutes for five rotation big men. They already have to be wary of exploring the market for Mirotic and Gibson, two of their most appealing chips, with Gasol and Noah set to hit free agency this summer.
For now, the Bulls try to fake spacing, and sometimes it works. They'll fan Gasol out for corner 3s or have Gibson hang just inside the corner along the baseline. Gibson and Gasol work a nice high-low, and Gasol will cede the lane for Gibson to bully small-ball power forwards.
Chicago ranks 10th in total passes and in drives per game, but all that activity stops short of the most profitable territory. Only eight teams take fewer 3s, and only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Brooklyn Nets, coming to you directly from 1988, drive and kick their way to fewer corner 3s. Only 6.1 percent of Chicago's shots have come right at the rim, the seventh-lowest such share in the league, per SportVU data tracked at NBA Savant.
Even when the Bulls barrel to the basket, they finish at a comically bad rate. The Bulls have hit just 53.1 percent of their shots within the restricted area, on pace to be the lowest rate since the NBA began tracking precise shot location data in 2000, per NBA.com. Rose and Noah have been among the worst rim finishers in the league. Rose isn't even close on some of his patented transition rushes. He often gets all backboard on desperate flings, and knee injuries have sapped his leaping ability.
Maybe the Bulls just need to work harder. Teams without killer shooting can still open cracks in the defense. Those cracks just tend to be narrower, and it might take four or five actions to smash open one big enough to exploit. If Rose's defender is loading up on Butler, Rose has to be an active kick-out option, ready to slice into open space the instant Butler dishes him the ball.
"We need to attack those seams," Hoiberg said. "When we struggle, guys start thinking too much instead of reacting. We need more movement."
Butler rejected screens more often than any ballhandler in the league last season, per Synergy Sports, but he's making more of an effort to scoot around them this season and ignite those drive-and-kick sequences with Rose.
If defenders go under the first pick, Chicago has to be persistent. Set another one right away, closer to the rim, and force defenders to toggle back and forth around a thicket of bodies.
"There are ways around it," Butler said. "Flip the screen, or set another one. There are ways to make things happen."
All that work wasn't necessary when Rose was blazing by defenses and dunking all over people. Rose used to dunk all the time. When he dunked in shootaround on Wednesday morning, it was an event, team sources said, perhaps the first time anyone could remember him dunking all season and a signal he was ready to flash back into the past that night.
There were four or five games in last season's playoffs in which Rose looked like maybe 75 percent of his old self. Combine that Rose with a healthier chemistry, and the Bulls believe they have the talent and the fight to give LeBron another run.
If that doesn't happen, the front office has positioned the Bulls to pivot into a new sort of team without plummeting down the standings. The jury is still out on swapping the picks that became Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic for McDermott, but at least it appears McDermott will be a productive NBA player. Minus the Marquis Teague whiff -- Thibodeau and his staff lobbied hard for Draymond Green, coaches have told me -- the Bulls have nailed the bottom of the first round.
They could rebuild in a pinch behind Butler, Mirotic, McDermott, Portis, Snell, all their own first-round picks, and a top-10 protected pick the Sacramento Kings owe them.
"Bobby Portis is no joke," Noah said. "He is the future."
Alternatively, they could gather those assets and flip them for a star. The rumor mill has already linked them to DeMarcus Cousins, though the Bulls deny having interest in him. The Bulls probably can't compete with the trove of draft picks the Boston Celtics could offer, and they've always preferred to build through the draft and free agency, anyway. They are a patient franchise. They are not going to cash in their chips for a star on the wrong side of 30.
Even with Rose on the books for next season, they could open about $22 million in cap room, enough to fit a max deal for a guy coming off his rookie contract, though not for a veteran free agent. They could keep Gasol's cap hold on the books and still have about $13 million in space for a solid veteran. Noah's cap hold would vaporize all their room, and it's unclear where he'll be next season.
Chicago snagged Gasol at a below-market rate, and with their state-of-the-art practice facility, they believe they can be a player in free agency. Off-loading Rose could give them almost $45 million in room, and rival executives believe the lure of the old Rose remains enticing enough that Chicago could actually get something for him. The Bulls aren't ready to go there yet, and probably won't be until the summer, if they ever consider a break-up with their home-grown MVP.
The players who have been here long enough to remember going toe-to-toe with LeBron in the 2011 conference finals aren't ready to talk about the future quite yet.
"Could this be our last chance?" Noah asked. "Yeah, no question. We just have to play for each other, right now. That's the most important thing. Everything is fixable."
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The struggles of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Caldwell-Pope has slumped to 30 percent from deep, and defenses are starting to take an extra step or two away from him to clutter the Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond lob-fest. Caldwell-Pope's defense is essential to Detroit, especially when he envelops opposing point guards so that Jackson can catch his breath, but the Pistons still feel one player and some shooting away from being a frisky playoff team.
That player really shouldn't be a wing with Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson and Jodie Meeks to absorb 96 minutes, and depth issues at almost every other position. But with Meeks still recovering, expect the Pistons to sniff around available wings as trade season heats up, perhaps using Brandon Jennings and a protected 2016 first-rounder as bait. This franchise is desperate to feel the playoffs again. Keep an eye on Eric Gordon once the Pelicans punt the season.
2. D'Angelo Russell's cross-court passing in transition
Memo to disgruntled Lakers fans: Russell is 19, having played 27 games for an awful team that enabled the Kobe Bryant freak show for the first 15 or so of those games. Russell's shooting has been shaky, and he hasn't shown the sort of hoppy athleticism you'd love to see from a high pick -- the kind of "holy crap!" plays Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis flash every night.
But writing Russell off as a bust is insane. He has good size and wonderful court vision, especially in transition, where he has a knack for threading laser-beam diagonal passes on the run and on target.
3. The impatience of J.B. Bickerstaff
Bickerstaff's intolerance for bad basketball has been delightful. The Rockets have spent the whole season in a morass of bad habits, miscommunication, and lazy transition defense, and Bickerstaff knows the team is too talented for that garbage. He'll call Popovich-esque instant timeouts in the first minute of quarters, especially against bad teams, and he even tossed in a hockey line change when the Houston starters sputtered to open the second half against the Lakers last week.
Bickerstaff's harping hasn't brought any sort of sea change, but his willingness to call out lollygaggers is refreshing.
4. Non-shooting fouls on busted lobs
Defenses are getting smarter about shoving big men about to leap for lobs on the pick-and-roll.
Referees typically call this a non-shooting foul, and defenses are happy to absorb that in exchange for preventing a dunk, especially if they're not in the penalty. Some refs miss the shove altogether.
Should this be a shooting foul? The player who catches the lob doesn't have the ball yet, but he's very much in the act of shooting a particular sort of shot.
By the way: Steven Adams, the villain in this clip, has quietly become a dangerous lob dunker. The Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll, with Durant spread to the weak side to make his defender the assigned helper on Adams, is killing teams right now.
5. Blake Griffin, switch machine
Doc Rivers told me during training camp he was hesitant to bake much switching into his defensive game plan, but the Los Angeles Clippers have gotten braver about unleashing Griffin on wing players after some screening action. Griffin has the wheels to chase little guys, and it's a good way to snuff the enemy's last real chance at penetrating late in the shot clock.
One downside: The Clippers rank 27th in defensive rebounding rate, and switching Griffin outside takes their second-best leaper away from the glass. When that happens, the Clips' wing players need to amp up their gang rebounding around DeAndre Jordan. This is one area in which Lance Stephenson could help.
6. The play-acting of Chandler Parsons
As misdirection becomes a bigger part of NBA offenses, players have to become actors. They have to sell. And wow, does Parsons sell the idea that he's popping up to set a flare screen for Deron Williams at the left elbow, complete with a raised hand for dramatic effect: "LOOK AT ME SIGNALING FOR THIS PICK!" One half-second of hesitation from Andre Roberson, and Parsons zips in for an easy bucket.
If only he could have been so persuasive during his six-week bender with DeAndre Jordan. (Sorry.)
7. The Carmelo Anthony moonwalk
The triangle offense is built on repetitive patterns, and defenses get lazy assuming the Knicks will jog through the same paces on every possession. New York knows this, and they get good looks by veering against expectations.
Watch Anthony start a classic triangle cut around Robin Lopez, one that would normally end with Melo catching the ball in the pinch post on the left block, only to moonwalk back to his original spot for an easy triple.
Derek Fisher has called this a few times coming out of timeouts, and it usually works.
8. Mascots reading newspapers during opposing starting lineup introductions
This will never get old. For peak comedy, mascots should use a beach chair, or maybe an old man's recliner, something that indicates complete nonchalance. And please, don't ever ditch the old-school, unfolded newspaper for an iPad or smartphone. It would ruin the gag.
9. Zach LaVine's turnaround 3s
This is a brutally difficult shot.
You almost admire the guts. LaVine has made progress this season at both guard positions, but he jacks two or three insane shots almost every game. He's on the verge of being a dangerous offensive player, especially on the wing alongside Ricky Rubio, if he can iron some of these bad judgments out of his game.
10. Andrea Bargnani, popping long 2s like an addict
Remember when Andrea Bargnani at least pretended to be a passable 3-point shooter? Now he exists to enter silent, meaningless Brooklyn games, catch passes, and barf up long 2-pointers almost the instant the ball hits his hand. He is the new Byron Mullens, the big man who triggers his shooting motion before he even grips the rock.
Bargnani has somehow taken just nine 3s all season, the sad end-point of a yearslong decline in his 3-point accuracy. He's a better shooter from 20 feet, but he's making only 42 percent of his long 2s, and defenses don't pay him much attention. The threat of his jumper certainly isn't opening up anything better for the Nets, even during a recent uptick in his play. The Nets are worse when Bargnani is on the floor, and he barely ever passes. Bargnani averages just 0.7 potential assists per game, per SportVU data, one of the lowest marks in the league for any rotation player.
He is the NBA equivalent of the unshaven, dumped male lead in a bad romantic comedy: disheveled, sad, going through the motions of life like a half-there shade.