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Bulls reeling, looking for answers with no clear leader

POSTED: Dec 22, 2015 10:31 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Nets vs. Bulls

Brook Lopez scores 21 points and grabs 12 rebounds to lead the visiting Nets past the Bulls, 105-102.

— The minute someone stands up in a group and says "I'm the leader here," they lose at least half the room. Maybe more.

That's a fairly incontrovertible law of the locker room, demonstrated across sports and decades. And the higher one climbs in level of play (high school to college to pros), the more it seems to apply. What someone might be able to pull off at Hickory High -- that Big Man on Campus, chest-beating thing -- is likely to be met, say, in the NBA with side eyes and some "yeah, right" smirks among adults who often don't feel they need to be led.

That's why Jimmy Butler's stab at leadership over the weekend on a Chicago Bulls roster sorely in need of it fell so flat. Besides calling out new head coach Fred Hoiberg for not coaching "harder" after their loss at New York Saturday, Butler continued to self-nominate as the Bulls' alpha dog, a campaign that began during his breakout 2014-15 and has continued this season.

To Butler, it apparently is the next logical step in his onward and upward progression as an NBA star, from undervalued No. 30 pick in 2011 to starter and key contributor, all the way to All-Star and recipient over the summer of a max-salary contract (five years, $92.3 million). Checking off boxes as he developed, Butler has been so open about his desire and his responsibility to become the -- or at least, a -- Bulls leader that he frequently has broken the fourth wall, talking about the leadership he's trying to show in nearly the same moment he's saying or doing something to show it.

But after Chicago's blasé loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday -- a team that played and traveled Sunday, a bunch that had won just once on the road to that point -- it was starting to look like maybe the Bulls' problem isn't a lack of leaders.

Maybe it's a lack of followers.

It's fine for Butler to stake out a position of leadership, but in a locker room of diverse personalities, multiple talents and various levels of experience, it could be that too many Bulls belong in the get-the-hell-out-of-the-way category rather than followers. Several of them can lay some claim to authority and predominance -- that's what led Hoiberg to talk Monday evening of the team's "leadership by committee" -- yet most have an asterisk that undercuts their clout one way or another.

Butler's grab at the reins seems forced or rushed or just generally self-conscious. Derrick Rose is the only former NBA MVP in their midst but his operative word these days is "former," for Rose (eight points, 3-for-11 shooting, a minus-9 against the Nets) has been a below average performer in 2015-16. He was sidelined and absent for so long prior to this season, and his personality is best suited to leading by example, leaving him especially unpersuasive these days.

We all have to take it personally. This has to hurt. If it doesn't hurt, then we have a problem that might not be correctable.

– Pau Gasol

Pau Gasol is too cerebral and mature to breathe fire or throw towels, despite the championship pedigree he brought from the Lakers. And let's face it, talking in a difficult December about playing out his option next summer isn't the way to cement commitment in a locker room any more than Rose's comments about 2017 free agency back on media day.

Joakim Noah was the guy on many nights, a combination pulse monitor-slash-jumper cables of the Bulls' emotions and energy. But the free-spirit center is two years removed from his greatest impact, slowed last year by a bum knee and turned sideways this time around by his move to the bench. A frustrating situation only got worse Monday when Noah suffered a left shoulder sprain; he left United Center in a sling and faces the unknowns of an MRI exam Tuesday.

Injury: Joakim Noah

Joakim Noah leaves the game late in the third quarter with an apparent shoulder injury. Stay tuned to for updates.

The rest of the Bulls in Hoiberg's rotation -- notably Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Aaron Brooks and now rookie Bobby Portis, who looks to get Mirotic's minutes while Mirotic gets Tony Snell's -- would slot in smoothly enough, if the pecking order up top were more definite. But for now, the responsibility and the authority in the locker room remain diffused. Blurred.

What the Bulls did Monday -- taking lightly a Nets team that, even if it deserved to be disregarded, was talented enough to do something about it -- has been happening all season. Happening all the way back to last season, in fact, when the organization's insistence on ousting former coach Tom Thibodeau over 82 games gave the players a "Get out of accountability free!" card.

A wannabe contender such as Chicago, with so high an opinion of itself, can only play down to the competition so many times before it becomes one of those mediocrities.

"It continues to be an issue," Gasol said. "So when we have good teams coming in, everybody's ready, everybody competes and gives everything they have. When we have OK or not-so-good teams, the energy, the attitude, the approach is totally different.

"I think it can be improved. To what point, we'll find out. We'll see. We all have to take responsibility. We all have to take it personally. This has to hurt. If it doesn't hurt, then we have a problem that might not be correctable."

It clearly hasn't been hurting enough, or often enough, or enough of them, for it to get fixed.

Hoiberg, put in an awkward position by Butler's remarks that he might be too "laid-back" for what the Bulls currently need, met privately with the fifth-year wing player for an hour Sunday. Both of them spoke to the players at Monday morning's film session and both of them did some clarifying for reporters after the shootaround.

Hoiberg assured the media that he gets hot from time to time, demands plenty from his players behind closed doors and even threw a chair once (likely while at Iowa State). Butler tried (and failed) to frame his Saturday comments as not calling out Hoiberg, then settled for asserting his veteran's status -- not his new contract -- as his credential for leading.

But the night's most interesting comments on leadership came from down the hall. Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins didn't hesitate one bit when asked about the invaluable intangible.

"I say this all the time: Leadership is about going out and doing your job," the Nets coach said. "If you have 10 guys, 12 guys who go out and do their jobs every time they're on the court, people are going to follow that."

Then again, if you have 10 or 12 guys doing their jobs every night, you don't need anybody to follow. If the Bulls were all pulling the sleigh the way they should be, no one would be talking about which one of them gets to be Rudolph.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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