Chicago Bulls' True Grit Comes from a Motley Cast

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Chicago Bulls' True Grit Comes from a Motley Cast
USA Today

The Chicago Bulls defy traditional ideas of NBA success. They win with a gritty-but-motley cast of characters, belying the notion that you need a superstar scorer to be an elite team.

When you look at the Bulls, there's no reason they should be as good as they are. The Bad News Bulls are as easily definable by their shortcomings as their skills. 

The Toronto Raptors threw away the Bulls' best scorer, D.J. Augustin, in December. 

Carlos Boozer is too slow. Joakim Noah has no post moves. Kirk Hinrich is too old. Mike Dunleavy Jr. is too limited. Jimmy Butler has no jump shot. Taj Gibson has only just discovered a modicum of offense. 

Yet, this group is successful and an honest threat to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. That is because while grit might not show up in box scores, it's a real thing—and one the Bulls have in spades. 

 

What is Grit?

"Grit" can be an annoying word to an objective analyst.  It's too abstract and ethereal. How does one define grit? How much impact can it really have it it's intangible? Who leads the league in "gritty plays?"

There is, admittedly, no way to measure it. It's as impalpable as anything there is in sports. You can't weigh it, count it or express it in a percentage, but that doesn't mean it's not real.

Believe it or not, there are even people who devote their lives to the study of it, and one of the most famous for doing so is Angela Lee Duckworth.

Duckworth was teaching grade school when she realized that her highest-IQ kids weren't always the most successful, or that her most-successful kids weren't always the brightest. Wanting to explore why, she went back to college and got a PhD in psychology, specifically studying the existence and importance of grit.

Her research took her everywhere from the National Spelling Bee to West Point, from "rookie teachers working in really tough neighborhoods" to sales people for private companies. In every case she predicted success based on different factors. 

"In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success," Duckworth said in an April 2013 TED talk. "And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't I.Q. It was grit."

Do you get that? Grit has been proven to be more important than ability. That doesn't mean ability doesn't matter—all the grit in the world won't help me dunk— but it does mean that grit is not only a real thing; it's a really important thing.

So what is grit?

"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals," Duckworth said. "Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint."

In an article for Forbes, Margaret M. Perlis lists five characteristics of grit (in part based on Duckworth's work), and they read like a blueprint of the Bulls. The characteristics are: courage, conscientiousness, long-term goals and endurance, resilience, and excellence.

The quotes at the beginning of each section are from Perlis' article.

 

Courage

"While courage is hard to measure, it is directly proportional to your level of grit. More specifically, your ability to manage fear of failure is imperative and a predicator of success. The supremely gritty are not afraid to tank, but rather embrace it as part of a process."

The "not afraid to tank" mentioned here is ironically the opposite of what NBA fans might think it implies. By that, Perlis means, "not afraid to lose." Grit means you don't let the fear of losing prevent you from trying to win. That is courage.

The Bulls defined this notion with what Joakim Noah did, rather than said, in the immediate wake of his long-time friend and teammate, Luol Deng, being traded on Jan. 6. For three games, Noah imposed media silence.

He saved his talking for the court by leading the Bulls to wins in all three games, averaging 13.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the process.

When he finally did speak to reporters, he expressed his confidence in his remaining teammates, per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:

I just think that all this adversity makes me stronger. It just makes me stronger as a person and as a player. I think I've never been so hungry. We've been through a lot; [Derrick Rose's] injury was really hard. Lu not being here is really hard. But we're going to go out there, and like I said, there's no tank in this team. We're going to grind and make this city proud.

The Bulls have no place for "tanking." They never were going to give anything less than everything for fear of failing. To strive for a championship regardless of circumstances is the very definition of courage, and courage is the predicate of grit. That's the core of what Chicago is.  

Those who advocated losing for the sake of a better draft pick don't understand that. Even if it were correct, it would be like asking the scorpion not to bite the frog

 

Conscientiousness

"According to Duckworth, of the five personality traits, conscientiousness is the most closely associated with grit…Conscientiousness in this context means, careful and painstaking; meticulous."

Something even the most statistically-driven analyst can appreciate is that the Bulls defense is the key to their success. In the four-year span since Tom Thibodeau became their head coach, they have the best league's defensive rating.

Last season, Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote this about the Bulls' defense:

Watch film of Chicago's defense until your eyes bleed/your wife kills you — and I did — and the precision, so close to perfection, is overwhelming and almost beautiful. The Bulls, more than any team I've ever seen — including the Duncan-era Spurs and the 2007-08 Celtics, for whom Thibodeau was the defensive coordinator — just do not make mistakes. 

Nothing has changed this year. There is a fluidity to the Bulls defense. They don't so much "rotate" into position as "flow." They continually glide to the strong side, direct the ball-handler to where they want him to go by properly positioning their feet, and they always close off passing lanes into the paint.

When an opponent passes the ball, the Bulls just move together in perfect unison, like a choreographed ballet. 

That's conscientiousness, and while it starts with Thibodeau, it extends through the organization. The Bulls front office is particular in acquiring players who have the same type of devotion to detail. The players fully buy into the system, taking pride in executing it.

In four years, there's been barely a murmur about Thibodeau's hard-driving tactics. That's because the players have the same mentality, the same desire for defensive perfection.

Whether it's Hinrich's ubiquitous presence, Butler's outright disrespect for his opponent's personal space, Dunleavy Jr. gliding in to draw a seemingly endless number of charges or the versatile defense of Noah and Gibson blocking shots when they're not stepping out to stop ball-handlers in isolation, the Bulls embrace perfection on defense as much as their coach does. As a unit, they come close to executing it.

 

Long-Term Goals and Endurance

"… Achievement is the product of talent and effort, the latter a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one's exertions towards a long-term goal."

A long-term goal is what the "grit" must focus on, and the Bulls have one. Friedell writes:

Joakim Noah and his teammates have a clear goal as they get set to start what they hope will be a long trek through the postseason. It might surprise people around the league given how up and down the Chicago Bulls' season has been, but it's an unwavering desire that permeates the locker room.

Noah and his teammates still believe they can win a championship this season. 

Friedell quotes Noah to validate his statement:

We believe. We believe. Whoever we play, we're going to be a tough out. We're hungry. We want this. We believe in one another. We believe in our system. And we're just taking it day by day -- it's about taking it one game at a time. [Tuesday] it's about getting ready for Charlotte [in Wednesday's regular-season finale], and then when the playoffs come it's one at a time.

They have a goal to win the NBA championship and they believe they can achieve it. Perhaps others don't agree, but that doesn't matter. That's what makes it gritty—you believe.

It's not just about having a long-term goal, it's about having one that you know you can achieve, and strive continually to do so. Striving means practice, practice, practice. 

Dunleavy, an 11-year NBA veteran, told Friedell how the Bulls are different from every team he's been on.

"The way guys come out and practice with intensity each day, the professionalism, the guys sticking after to work," he said. "I've had a hard time finding a basket to shoot at after practice because there's so many guys getting extra work in. I've never been in a situation like that. It's a good thing."

Thibodeau added:

It depends on what your standards are. The first day of camp if you went to all 30 teams, everyone would say, 'Yeah, we want to win a championship.' And then very few teams are willing to make that commitment over a long period of time of putting the necessary work into it each and every day. It's easy to say it, it's hard to do it. I think that's the great value of guys like Carlos (Boozer) and Luol (Deng). They come in every day and they work -- and Derrick (Rose). So we got to get back to doing that.

When some fans argued that the Bulls should have tanked this season, they're not respecting the offseason work, the hundreds of hours of practice, the constant effort to get better to reach that goal.

To have grit is not just to have a goal, but to have the endurance to work and practice tirelessly to achieve it. It's more about what you do between games and between seasons than during games and during seasons. Even to a veteran like Dunleavy, the Bulls have that at unique level.

 

Resilience

"For (Andrew) Zolli, resilience is a dynamic combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence, which together empower one to reappraise situations and regulate emotion – a behavior many social scientists refer to as 'hardiness' or 'grit.' "

Perlis summarizes Zolli, author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, by stating there are three things essential to the resilience aspect of grit: optimism, confidence and creativity.

In other words, you can have that long-term goal, but your ability to reach it depends on what happens when you hit obstacles. When something blocks your road, do you find a way to get over it, through it, around or remove it? Or do you just turn around and go home?

Resilience means when you encounter obstacles, you believe a solution can be found (optimism), find it (creativity) and trust yourself to make it work (confidence).

For the Bulls, that meant re-inventing their offense midway through the season, with Noah making "point center" an actual thing by averaging 7.0 assists a game after the All-Star Game. 

Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated has an amazing piece on Noah, well worth reading (but you have to watch a short video to get access). This excerpt shows the Noah's and the Bulls' resilience:

He genuinely believed Chicago was going to win the championship this year. Then Rose tore his right medial meniscus in the 11th game, and a second straight season was lost to knee surgery. "I mourned," Noah says. "I felt like somebody died." The Bulls were 12-18 on New Year's and, upon emerging from their daze, sent Deng to the Cavaliers for draft picks and soon-to-be-released center Andrew Bynum. Noah mourned again.

"You make a decision in that moment -- you accept your fate or you fight," says Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau. He saw Noah help oust the Nets from the first round last spring despite a case of plantar fasciitis so severe that he could barely walk and some in the front office wanted to shut him down. "Jo doesn't let things fall apart," Thibodeau says. "It's not who he is. He finds a way.

Noah tells Jenkins in that interview, "Everybody knows by now: We decide not to crumble."

"We decide not to crumble." That's a pretty perfect definition of resilience.

 

Excellence

"In general, gritty people don't seek perfection, but instead strive for excellence. It may seem that these two have only subtle semantic distinctions; but in fact they are quite at odds."

Perlis takes great care to distinguish between excellence and perfection. Trying for perfection tends to be pass/fail, but pursing excellence, "is an attitude, not an endgame." It "allows for disappointment, and prioritizes progress over perfection."

The problem with perfectionism is it becomes too results-oriented. To a perfectionist, all that matters is winning a championship. To the gritty player, what matters is doing everything you can to win a championship.

Perfectionists don't allow for growth or progress, therefore they often end up not achieving their goals. Perlis says, "Anxiety, low self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance abuse, and clinical depression are only a few of the conditions ascribed to 'perfectionism.' "

In other words, it makes for big talk, but usually those who are talking it aren't achieving it. Perfectionism tends to be more self-defeating that self-fulfilling. 

The perfectionist will turn failure into an excuse; the gritty will turn loss into opportunity. The perfectionist will be content in an unmerited win; the gritty would take more satisfaction in a loss in which he gave everything. The gritty embrace the process, not just the result.

Right after the All-Star Break, Thibodeau told Friedell

If we listen to what everyone had said from the start, the season would have been over. So now, the last 25 or 30 games, I think we're starting to believe we can be pretty good. And if you do certain things, you've got a chance to win no matter who you're playing against, no matter where you're playing. So just take it step by step.

Don't start jumping ahead, like we've got it figured out or we're this and we're that. No, you have to take a businesslike approach; it's a process of working as hard as you can each and every day, concentrate, play as a team. Who knows where you'll be at the end of the season? The whole point is to strive for improvement, get better, and then take your chance at the end. Wherever you may be, then make the most of it.

Thibodeau gets accused of being a perfectionist, but that's not what he is. He's a pursuer of excellence. One of the reasons the Bulls are the league's grittiest team is they have the league's grittiest coach. 

 

***

The Bulls are more than the sum of their parts; they are the sum of their hearts. They've shown courage in adversity, conscientiousness in executing game plans, resolution in their goal, resilience in the pursuit of it and a love of excellence along the way.

They are a collective personification of grit.  

Perlis quotes Teddy Roosevelt, the "Grand Sire of Grit" with words which perfectly encapsulate the Bulls' season.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strived valiantly; who errs, who comes again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Whether the Bulls "know in the end triumph of high achievement" or "fail while daring greatly," they fought in the arena with everything they have, and their grit has an inspired a city.

 

Statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com.

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