Poasting and Toasting’s Seth Rosenthal wrote of the Knicks management philosophy the other week as such: The Knicks are in a desert. The Knicks have a bottle of water. They dump the water in the sand because fuck the water… This goes on for awhile and it's really funny because Seth is really funny and the Knicks as an organization flaming out is really funny and it sounds hyperbolated but it's not and you live in the New York, too, and it's actually sad because despite their horrible record, ticket prices are still inflated beyond market value. Though, I guess, what is market value when you live in a crowded city that always has a demand for room-temperature basketball.
But this isn't about the Knicks. The Knicks are just one example of how to run a team. This is about the Chicago Bulls. They've chosen to run their team another way. They take Seth's bottle of water, and after letting a drop out for the fallen Derrick Rose, divide half of it equally amongst the entire roster. The other half they'll share later in the season. After seeing their favorite son fall victim to injury again, and shipping their longest-tenured son to Cleveland, the Bulls, more than anyone, know just how long a season can be.
The beginning of their year was filled with rusty jump shots and, after Rose's injury, the acceptance that perhaps they just weren't that good. By early January, the Bulls had dug quite a hole and found themselves lumped in with the perennial losers, and conversations about tanking echoed from the United Center to the Wild 100s. With a record of 14-18, the Bulls sent Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an effort to free up cap space. They were, as many teams in the East are, looking toward the future.
The thing about a shitty conference is, obviously, the comparative quality of teams and an average or slightly above average team's ability to not only shine but be entertaining while mired in the tar pit that is mostly the Eastern Division.
At the All-Star break, the Bulls were barely above .500, but they had just started a streak that would see them tally 9 wins in 10 games. And, after controlling the East-leading Pacers for 48 minutes last week, they now are neck and neck with Toronto for the 3rd seed and have a record of 40-31.
But winning is only secondary. Mostly, it's the refusing to lose that makes them so loveable.
As the 3rd quarter was winding down in a game against the Pacers last week, Paul George stripped the ball and took off on a one-man fast break. Kirk Hinrich was trailing him, in what was sure to be another SportsCenter-ready breakaway dunk. Hinrich is 33 years old. George is 23 and has previously jumped over the head of his 7'2″ teammate, Roy Hibbert in a dunking exhibition. Fans on both sides assumed there was little influence Hinrich could wield. With George's basket, Chicago's six point lead becomes four, and we've got ourselves a ball game.
Only that's not how the Bulls operate. Hinrich managed to face George and instead of fouling, stripped the ball from the All-Star and sent the fast break back from where it came, punctuated by a one-handed slam from Gibson. The arena shook with the kind of energy that is inherent to the wind-battered and long-wintered fanbase of everyone’s favorite second city. Paul George was left at his own free throw line, hands up in complaint rather than defense. It was at once, the most Pacers-ish play and the most Bulls-ish play of the season.
One team, imbued with the feeling of “having arrived” no longer meets the opponent but waits for the opponent to meet them and then hopes for a favorable whistle. The other, shattered, emotional, and playing with the ruins of their former self and the discarded components of better teams, is always looking to throw the first punch.
Aside from their rivalry in the Central Division, the Bulls and Pacers are also joined by employing the talents of D.J. Augustin (and Mike Dunleavy, but he’s a Dukie so…). Though, not having quite the turnaround year as the former Pacer now Phoenix Sun, Gerald Green, Augustin has demonstrated a steady if not reliable ability as backup point guard for Chicago, going so far as to drop a career high 33 points last night against Boston. And this past month, his scoring average has tipped nearly 17 points per game. Augustin is far from sixth man of the year material, but working within perma-hoarse voiced Tom Thibodeau’s scheme, he has stepped up more than one might anticipate in that wide and depressing chasm left after Rose’s second season-ending injury.
Basketball is most effective when ran as a team game, and perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than at the United Center, but pride is not an easy skin to shed, and we wonder if a whole offseason of hearing the Pacers shit on their former bench players is providing the necessary inspiration for Augustin. “Not to throw those guys under the bus,” Hibbert was fond of saying before completely throwing them under the bus.
They will hit first. With players as determined and sewn so tightly to the cause as Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Jimmy Butler and a coach like Thibs, there is no way they can’t hit first. They will, however, get hit in return, they will get their share of being knocked down; they aren't that good. But they will never not fight. Whether this translates to post-season success is almost a non-issue. While wins are obviously the biggest cog in the NBA, there is something really great about watching this Bulls team.
Overmatched, undermanned, winners of all the sports superlatives, the Bulls might go down, but not before Noah gives a few rounds of his gun dance and Gibson does a high-stepping celebration from one end of the court to the other.