Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season. In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated. I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root. I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.
When I was growing up, roughly the md-late ‘60s until the early ‘80s, it seemed like the Gods of the sporting world were playing some sort of cruel joke on Chicago and the fans of its sports teams. Teams in the other major metropolises, Los Angeles and New York, won titles, often in dashing fashion. Teams in other major Midwestern cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee (and by extension Green Bay) won titles. But all fans of the White Sox, Cubs, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks knew was disappointment and often bitter ones. Only the 1971 and ‘73 Blackhawks made it to a Finals. The White Sox of 1967, the Cubs of 1969 and ’73 and the Bulls of ’73 and ’75 bowed out earlier and in far more ignominious fashion.
That’s what makes the current Chicago sports scene such a jarring delight. The Cubs are World Series Champions and seem poised to spend the next several seasons at the forefront of the championship conversation. The Blackhawks have won three titles since 2010 and the most dominant sports team of the decade. Three of the Hawks four non-title seasons have ended in one goal losses in a Game 7. In other words they are a reasonably good bet to go all the way until they are eliminated. The Bears and White Sox after tolerating several seasons of mediocrity have finally embarked on full scale rebuilding efforts that during the current phase, talent accumulation has gone really well.
Which brings us to the Bulls, after five years in contention, they were mediocre last season and they are mediocre again this season. In other words, to borrow Bill James dichotomy, they aren’t selling their fans hopes or wins. And this situation is in stark contrast to the other four Chicago teams. It’s created a contentious environment where dust ups turn into major drama.
The drama obscures the fact that the Bulls don’t fit into the conventional cycle of team building. They are trying to rebuild from the middle, a difficult feat that only among NBA teams only Utah, Houston and Indiana have done particularly well. The reasons why they have chosen this path is simple: for one the team has a superstar already in Jimmy Butler and he’s still in his prime so why not try to build around him. Secondly the team is enormously popular. The Bulls, struggles and drama notwithstanding lead the NBA in attendance and have led the NBA in attendance for seven straight seasons. They have finished first or second in attendance every season since a 23-59 team in ’03-’04 finished third. That team could bask in the shadow of Michael Jordan and six titles in the ‘90s. A 23-59 team now has no such luxury.
The Bulls suffer in comparison to the Cubs and Blackhawks as they simply aren’t anywhere near as good. They suffer in comparison to the Bears and White Sox as the organizational game plan isn’t anywhere near as clear. And they suffer via their own bad free agent signings and poor ability to communicate with the media.
It would have been inconceivable for me to think this 40 years ago, but it’s possible that we’ve reached a moment where Chicago sports fans are spoiled. Two teams are winning and two teams have clear rebuilds. It makes the fifth team, the Bulls, look very bad by comparison.
In reality, the current Bulls are well within the tradition of Chicago teams like the Dave Wannstedt era Bears, the early ‘90s Cubs, or just about any White Sox team that didn’t qualify for the postseason. But all of those teams seem like ancient history now. The current situation narrows both the window for demonstrating a clear vision and for making progress. The upcoming trade deadline will demonstrate whether or not the front office gets it. The odds aren’t good but I certainly never thought I’d see the day where the White Sox would engage a wholesale rebuild. The Bulls don’t need to do that, but they do need to show attention to the standings and not the bottom line.