Appreciate This Bulls Team

The Bulls continue their frustrating ways, beating the best in the West and losing to the least of the East, the beasts of the East, and some lesser Western conference teams too. Their impressive wins so far this year include: at Dallas, at Portland and home against Portland, at Houston, at Memphis, at Toronto and home against Toronto, at LA Clippers, Spurs, at Golden State – ten great wins, in total.

Their inexplicable losses include: Celtics, Pacers, at Sacramento, Nets, Jazz, Magic, at LA Lakers, Heat – eight bad losses, in total.

There have also been some losses against the top teams in the East: beat down by the Wizards twice (1-2 season series), beaten by the Cavs twice, beaten by the Hawks twice.

The Bulls started the season 23-10, but have since been an underwhelming 7-9, and now sit at 30-19 (not so coincidentally, these are the 16 games Mike Dunleavy has missed this season). The Bulls haven’t had any long losing streaks during this dip in performance, mostly losing one/winning one, but playing .500 ball is certainly concerning when players and fans alike are talking “championship.”

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The regular season isn’t necessarily of the utmost importance, but it’s a habit-forming and momentum-gaining time. It’s the time where you develop your confidence and chemistry as a team, and you develop a competitive edge against any opponents you may face in the playoffs. It’s a marathon, and not a sprint, as they say. The Bulls are not forming many good habits right now, neither on offense nor on defense. They seem to be losing confidence and chemistry, and they’re going to need an energy boost as they enter the second half of this race. Luckily, the All-Star break is around the corner, and the Bulls may have a chance to gather themselves during these hard times.

But it’s hard to be a fan, too, sometimes. There is expectation to fulfill, pride to protect, thrill to be sought, excitement to be had, glory to be won. There’s play-call examining, stats analyzing, trade theorizing, couch-coaching, screen-yelling, and emotional ups and downs. It’s a lot to handle, even for the casual fan.

A mini slump, like the Bulls are having, can send media and fans alike into a frenzy, calling for drastic coaching and personnel changes, lineup swaps, and endless strategy discussions that would send the level headed fans (and the players) to the precipice of insanity. When the smallest seed of doubt has been planted, whether from within or without, it sinks into the ground quickly, underneath the foundation of a team. It creates a crack in the stone base and propagates throughout. It causes instability and wavering thought that are poisonous to the team. That seed of doubt grows ugly, diseased roots that take hold, digging in around the bedrock, and the plant swells with vigor, bearing forbidden fruit that should not be taken, no matter how near to the ground. It’s these low-hanging fruits that fans and media choose to consume, indulging in their infectious juiciness, blinding the public with their noxious toxins, causing derailed and senseless thoughts that call for toppling the structure that was so stable just a few short weeks ago.

During times like these, a tablespoon of Perspective should be taken, whose antidote will calm the nerves and quell the passion-filled, scornful eyes caused by this dangerous fruit. Take a step back and consider, for a second, what it means to be a fan, reasons why we watch, and what the big picture really is; this is all a necessary remedy for temporary insanity.

That’s why I am proposing not to lose sight of this season, this team, and the purpose of sports.

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The Bulls, to Date

As mentioned, the Bulls have had some great, truly impressive wins, and some poor, truly uninspired losses, but they still stand at 11 games above .500 at 30-19, despite having players in and out of the lineup, injuries to deal with, and match-up issues to address. Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic are the only two rotation players that have not missed a single game this season. Players that have missed time due to injury include:

Pau Gasol: 3, Jimmy Butler: 4, Kirk Hinrich: 7, Taj Gibson: 9, Joakim Noah: 11, Derrick Rose: 11, Mike Dunleavy: 16, Doug McDermott: 26

It seems as though the Bulls are on the verge of being completely healthy, with Dunleavy expected to be back any day now, though he did say he may miss some more time after the All-Star break with a deep bone bruise, and has been day-to-day for over a month. The Bulls have only had their starting five of Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Noah, Gasol for 15 games this season, in which the Bulls are well documented in being 12-3, yet it is a small sample.

Patience is hard to have, especially in a league where so many guys could get injured on any given night, just from landing awkwardly on someone else’s foot, but it’s important to wait and see where the Bulls will be when their starting five is healthy.

League Parity

There are 30 teams in the NBA, and with all the parity this year, about thirteen of them think they have a legitimate chance to win the championship. There will be one team to win it all and one team to have come “oh, so close.” There will be two more teams that could taste the Finals, but will fall just short, and will perhaps be given a pass on their successful seasons, making it to the Conference Finals. Perhaps not. But then there will be four more teams that will not make it out of the second round, and still eight more teams that do not make it past the first. In the West, this could mean four extremely disappointed franchises, having their sights set on a championship, only to be knocked out in their first series. Even worse still, one of these championship-minded teams may not even make the playoffs (see: OKC). There will be plenty of disappointment to go around. And as fans, this is always something to keep in mind. Only one team and their fans will truly be happy.

But, why can’t it the Bulls?

Winning Is Fun

Of course the reason we forget about all of that 30-team, only-one-can-win-it-all mentality is because winning is just so much more fun than losing. Why would we settle for anything less than the expectation of a championship? As fans, we shouldn’t – a championship is always the prize. That evasive gold trophy that so many strive for, yet most fail to achieve, not only year in and year out, but as a franchise. In the history of the NBA, there are only fifteen different franchises to have won a championship since 1959: Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trailblazers, San Antonio Spurs, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Washington Bullets, Seattle Supersonics, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, and Dallas Mavericks. Since 1959… let that sink in for a minute.

Jordan Slam Dunk Competition

Many of these teams have formed dynasties in their eras, crushing the hopes and dreams of all those they faced along the way. This should bring some twisted form of solace to the rational fan when their team doesn’t win, but it doesn’t. Why? Because losing just isn’t fun. Fortunately, the NBA is entering an era of parity – any number of teams can win it all – almost half the teams in the NBA this year are good enough to win, and this is incredibly exciting; however, it makes it that much more soul-crushing when your team doesn’t meet expectations, especially if you’re an early Finals favorite, like the Bulls.

The mediocre performance that the Bulls have been putting forth is adequate for an average team, but is disheartening for this Bulls team, who has been building up to this over the last two seasons, waiting for Derrick Rose to be healthy. And, to use Derrick’s favorite phrase, this stretch has been “frustrating” as a fan. The Bulls are capable of so much more, and they know it. Winning is so much more fun.

These Players Are Special

The Chicago Bulls have a team with dedicated and hard-working players, and that’s what makes them easy to support. If we aren’t rooting for players, then what are we rooting for? Laundry. A franchise name with pretty colors. We’re then just rooting for an organization. So it has to be more than that. It has to be the players that we’re truly rallying behind, and not just the history and the legacy. At least, I like to think so.

This team has Derrick Rose, who came from the South Side of Chicago, the hometown hero, whose family had to protect him from getting into trouble with the wrong people, and had to drag him out of bed for early morning practices. This is the kid who missed what would have been game-winning free throws in college at Memphis to win the NCAA title, but instead of crushing him, it inspired him to be even greater. This is the kid who won Rookie of the Year and awed us with his un-worldly drives; the kid who said “Why can’t I be MVP of the league,” amidst a low rumble of laughter in a crowd unsure if he was serious, but whose sober face read as nothing other than determination; the man who suffered two incredibly taxing knee injuries in back-to-back years of championship-driven seasons, who had to work relentlessly to get back on the court and back into form, and who is now so close to coming full circle from an injury that some players never fully recover from.

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Then there’s Jimmy Butler. The quiet one from Texas, who sings country music songs in the locker room and is the politest man you’ll ever meet. He wasn’t expected to be great; he wasn’t even expected to be all that good. His parents abandoned him as a child, and had to be taken in by a neighbor. He focused on nothing but basketball growing up in order to keep his head straight. He was drafted by the Bulls from Marquette for defensive purposes, but every year in the league has grown tremendously, increasing his minutes-played in the strict Tom Thibodeau hierarchical system. And now, widely considered among the best two-way players in the game, he’s worked on his offense and is an All-Star as well as the runaway leader for Most Improved Player, playing the most minutes per game of anyone in the league (39.8). Joining him at the top is LeBron James, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Carmelo Anthony – the league’s greats.

Joakim Noah. The half-French, half-Swede, nicknamed “Stick Stickity” who worked so hard that he led the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships. He is the heart and soul of the team. He competes. He has energy enough for all fourteen guys, and whose presence is sorely missed when he’s not playing. He is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and earned that right through nothing other than dedication and determination. He says what he wants, and he creates some enemies, but all in competitive spirit, and that’s why we love him. He’s a caring and thoughtful soul off the court, leading kids in the right direction as a positive role model.

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Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich are the epitome of that blue collar, hard hat and lunch pale attitude that we’ve come to love. Taj led the Bench Mob in years’ past and was the runner-up Sixth Man of the Year in the 2013-2014 season. He could be starting on most other NBA teams, but chose to sign an extension with the Bulls to stay as one of the core guys. Taj’s intensity and defensive prowess have earned him the name, “Secretary of Defense.” This is a guy that wants to win as much as anybody and will work hard for it. Kirk is a veteran that has spent most of his career with the Bulls, and leads them in all-time 3-point field goals made by a wide margin (over 1,000-made, compared to Ben Gordon’s 770). He always gives 110%, and even though he isn’t the Kirk of old anymore, it’s his passion that earns him his spot.

Then there’s the newcomers and the relative newcomers: Pau Gasol, the Champion; Mike Dunleavy, the role player who did not miss a single game last season; Nikola Mirotic, the Euroleague Rising Star; and Aaron Brooks, the newest back-up point guard to receive the Bulls resurrection treatment; and finally, the young guns, Tony Snell, Doug McDermott, and E’Twaun Moore, one of whom may become the next Jimmy Butler, earning their coach’s trust and working their way up the ranks.

Rooting for players on a personal and professional level is part of the fun of sports – we see things in them that we see in ourselves, or wish we had ourselves and strive to become. They motivate and inspire us, and they transcend what we thought was possible. We admire greatness, and these players manifest greatness in more ways than one.

The season may not turn around right away; in fact, it’s possible the season may not turn around at all, and maybe a first round exit is imminent. It’s unlikely, but hey, anything is possible in sports. To avoid being a self-loathing, entitled, miserable fan, revel in the good moments, the supportive, the encouraging, and the victories, rather than dwelling on the dread of defeat. Improvement and winning is always the ultimate; but the journey and the viewing is the fun part. Are you not entertained?

The ugly, poisonous plant may continue to spread its spores, or it may be cut down with one swift hack, and the seed can be unearthed. The gauntlet has been thrown, Chicago.

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