The Bulls are a team worth thinking about and making one’s own during the dregs of mid-March. They’re much better than they should be — they had the audacity to beat Miami Sunday — and are interesting in terms of the way each player has reimagined himself since Luol Deng was traded away in early January. Joakim Noah has to shoulder the load on defense and offense, so he’s fleshing out underutilized elements of his game like someone speed-learning German for a business trip. Taj Gibson, it turns out, does an excellent Cyborg Taj Gibson impression. D.J. Augustin is confused; he’s not supposed to score like this. Jimmy Butler is good in mysterious ways and produces stat lines that border on kitsch. I could go on down the rest of the perilously thin roster.The Bulls are a fascinating undermanned-yet-overperforming ant farm of a team. The only thing that’s boring about them is the way people valorize their toughness and perseverance.
Here are some other things one could say about the Chicago Bulls: They pass and move on offense. They’re five guys on a string on defense. Their star — the healthy one, anyway — is gladiatorially effortful. Their coach has a system and an overworked tax lawyer management style and his players, who apparently love him, continue to demonstrate that it works. They are an example of what a team can achieve with an uncommon amount of commitment, discipline and other assorted Woodenisms.
These are certainly not the only things one can say about the Bulls — there’s a lot of rich personal growth going on and not a little organizational dysfunction — but these are the things that are brought up continually, often in an argument about blue collar exceptionalism that posits scrappitude as the one true basketball principle. In the preamble to a recently published and impressively comprehensive piece about Joakim Noah’s many talents, Mike Prada wrote, “It’s a testament to the indomitable, inexplicable Chicago Bulls that it’s nearly impossible to discuss them without resorting to cliché.” On some level, I agree with Prada, but it’s not actually difficult to conceive of the Bulls in terms other than Hustle and Desire and Moxie. It’s just that the dominant narrative about the Bulls is that they’re heroically gritty — they play the game The Right Way and all that — and due either to intellectual laziness, fear of swerving away from the discourse or a sincere inclination toward basketball orthodoxy, nearly everyone engages only with that barren angle.
You should watch the Bulls, not because they’re a team of superior character, but because all that claptrap about them being hard-workin’ underdogs is true, just not in the way rhapsodic traditionalists claim. Virtue buries meaning in trite sentiment the way overexposure obscures the details of a photograph. The Bulls actual on-court performances give lie to the way most people talk about them. They are an ugly, ordinary team, in a lot of ways, which is why they lose games whenever they operate at less than full capacity. To my eyes, the story of their season is consummate professionalism as a way of avoiding constant beatdowns. It’s less prideful than desperate. Have you ever had to work incredibly hard at something because you were deathly afraid of being terrible at it?
Improbably, the Bulls have been… not exactly soaring, but the kind of avoidance of anticipated failure that looks and maybe feels like soaring. You wouldn’t know it from the way they comport themselves, but they’re not joyless. I get the sense Thibodeau really loves yelling, and Noah really loves putting on his enraged, windswept marionette schtick. They locate joy in the doing of the thing — an exhausting, aggrieved-looking style of basketball — and the doing of the thing doesn’t allow for typical expressions of joy. If this sounds like writing, it’s because I’m projecting. If it sounds like your job, it’s because you care about it. Isn’t every vocation worth loving also excruciating?
This sort of throwing of thoughts against the wall is what the NBA’s regular season is for, at least to me. It’s a space apart from the epic finality of games that matter more, where there’s room to let the imagination wander. To turn the Chicago Bulls into a church or a bullet point in a useless argument is to needlessly narrow a conversation that can go just about anywhere. Virtuousness is awful because it’s an artificial stakes-heightener. When you ascribe it to something, you are immediately talking about truth and beauty and metaphysical good. You can perhaps see why this is a silly thing to invoke when discussing a basketball team, but it’s also just a boring way to think about ultimately inconsequential things, which, because of their inconsequentiality, allow you to go wherever your daydreams and half-baked theories take you.
Anything we do as often as an NBA nerd watches basketball has to take on significance — we need to feel like we’re not wasting our time — and because of that, the most simple instinct is to make basketball seem like it asks questions about right and wrong, good and bad. But it just doesn’t. The language of virtue is nonsense when applied to sports. The Bulls are a team worth thinking about and making one’s own during the dregs of mid-March. That’s significant enough.