To Hell with Tanking: What We Learned from Chicago Bulls This Season

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To Hell with Tanking: What We Learned from Chicago Bulls This Season
Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls ended their season when they couldn’t get a defensive rebound to save their lives against the Washington Wizards.  It was a disappointing way to conclude, but the very fact that it was disappointing made this year a success.

It might seem like an oxymoron that a disappointment proves success, but with the Bulls it became a reality this year. That's the way these Bulls rolled. 

It was a season with enough ups, downs, twists and turns that Six Flags could name their next ride "See Red."

 

Hope

The Bulls were electric during the 2013-14 preseason, going undefeated. They beat the Indiana Pacers twice, and they topped the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Those were quality wins.

Derrick Rose was looking like he hadn’t skipped a beat. Jimmy Butler seemed like the perfect fit alongside him in the backcourt, and they were poised to be one of the best young backcourts in the NBA.

Butler and Luol Deng were an elite defensive tandem—good enough to slow down Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in a series with the Miami Heat. Deng finally had a serviceable backup in Mike Dunleavy Jr., who could play three positions and stretch the court. 

Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson were one of the best power forward pairings in the NBA. Joakim Noah was injured during most of the preseason, but his all-around play had him grouped with the top centers in the league.

Positions 1 through 5, these Bulls were equipped to challenge for a title.  For once, Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ owner, was putting his money where his mouth was. The Bulls were going well over the cap, ready to drop close to $90 million, one of the highest payrolls in the league.

There was a palpable sense of hope in the locker room, per Sean Highkin of USA Today, who quotes Boozer on the Bulls' expectations: 

Everyone's geeked for this year. A lot of promise, but a lot of expectation, too. We're up for those challenges. We put those expectations on ourselves every year. It's an exciting time in Chicago.

 

Hope Meets Reality

Hope and reality had a tough meeting in the first game of the season. It was more like a speeding car meeting the trunk of a tree than two basketball teams battling it out. The Miami Heat came out on the night they received their championship rings and played like champions.

The Bulls played like grazing cows. 

They were awful. Rose wasn’t ready for regular-season speed; Mario Chalmers was, swiping the ball from Rose at will. Noah was still hobbled from his injury and was ineffective. Nobody was hitting shots.

It was a harsh acknowledgement that the Bulls had a long way to go, beginning with Rose needing a long Rust-Oleum bath.

The Bulls won their second game, thanks to a miraculous last-second shot by Rose, but then they got sucker-punched by the Philadelphia 76ers in their third. Before they regained their senses, they were dealt an uppercut by the Indiana Pacers in the form of a 17-point blowout.

Four games into the season, the difference between the Bulls and a 0-4 start was a miracle. Suddenly, things weren’t looking so peaches and cream.

 

The Bounce

Just when it looked like the Tauros were going to crash and burn, they got their act together and went on a five-game winning streak. They steamrolled their opponents by an average of 15.2 points. Among their victims were the Pacers, who fell by a margin of 16 points at the United Center.

This was the team everyone expected to see. Rose was starting to shake off some of the rust. He was still struggling to find his trademark tear-drop floater, but the three was starting to fall, to the tune of a 40 percent rate for the win streak.

Then came the first bit of bad news. At the time it just seemed like a cloud on a sunny day; Butler had a turf toe injury. It turned out to be a rain cloud portending a storm that would devastate the Windy City Bovines.

The Bulls fell in Denver—an annual ritual—but that was alright. It was just one loss. Bulls nation was okay.

Then the Bulls went into the Moda Center, formerly known as the Rose Garden—a name change that was ironic considering it’s where Rose’s season died.

And with that, the collective hearts of the Bulls were smashed into a billion pieces.

 

The Lowest Depths of Hell

What happened to the Bulls after that was brutal. They got obliterated, torn, shredded and annihilated. They went on a 3-12 spiral, and the record barely tells the beginning of it.

They lost to good teams, like the Los Angeles Clippers by 39 and the Houston Rockets by 15.

They also lost to teams ranging from bad to miserable, including the Utah Jazz in overtime to conclude the road trip.

Such “powerhouses” as the Milwaukee Bucks, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the New Orleans Pelicans, the Detroit Pistons and the Orlando Magic—all lottery teams—took turns smacking the Bulls in the chops.

They collected injuries like stamps. Joakm Noah, Butler, Deng and Kirk Hinrich all missed games.

The only starter who didn't get hurt was Boozer. That was the cruelest sort of torture by the basketball fates; it was like water boarding a man dying of thirst.

From Nov. 24, the game after Rose was injured to Dec. 19, the Bulls had the second-worst winning percentage in the NBA. They had the fourth-worst margin of victory, minus-6.2.  Their offensive rating was just 94.1, the worst in the league. Even their normally elite defense was struggling to be average. They were 12th in defensive rating for the span.

Along the way, the Toronto Raptors waived D.J. Augustin, and the Chicago Bulls picked him up with little fanfare. They just needed another point guard with Rose out.

On Dec. 19 they were tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference, sitting outside the playoffs. A certain Bleacher Report writer (who will remain nameless because I don't want to expose myself) was jokingly trying to get #puckerforparker to trend on Twitter.

Tanking was a real debate in Bulls nation.

Then, with Hinrich out, Augustin got the start on Dec. 21 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had a solid game, with 18 points and 10 assists. More importantly, he helped the Bulls clear the 100-point barrier for just the third time since Rose went down.

For the duration of the season, he would be the Bulls' leading scorer.

Beginning with that game, the Bulls started to claw back, winning five of seven.

By Jan. 6 they had climbed to sixth in the East, and there was hope they could salvage something from the season. Bulls fans were daring to hope again.

But, that night the news that Chicago's longest-tenured player and two-time All-Star, Deng, was being traded for picks and cap relief broke.

It was as though the Bulls had dug out from the the pits of hell, and just as they were putting their hands on solid ground to pull themselves completely free, general manager Gar Forman came and kicked them in the face, trying to send them back down.

 

To Hell With Tanking

Noah had different ideas. With one hand, he clinched the turf on the rim of the chasm they'd dug; with the other he held his team.  Buoyed by the inspiring bellows of his coach, Tom Thibodeau, he pulled them up and out. 

The very first thing the Bulls did after the trade was go out and win. The second thing they did was win again. Then, just for good measure, they won yet again.

They were doing a really horrible job of tanking, and it was only then that Noah talked for the first time since the trade. He had words that shamed some Bulls fans but inspired all of them. As reported by Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:  

There's no tanking. None of that. We're going to go out there and give 150 percent. When people in Chicago say 'Chicago Bulls,' I want people in Chicago to be proud of that. Even if there's four guys hurt, guys are hurt, no matter who's out, we're going to go out there and we're going to give 150 percent, win or lose. I know people in this city are proud of that…

… We know this is a city that ... even when I come to the game, I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. [It's] cold outside -- when he sees me driving by, he's excited. You know what I mean? He's excited. He's like, 'All right. Let's go Bulls! Get it done tonight!' I feel like I play for that guy. Like when I look at the top of the arena, and I look up top and I see teams call timeout, and I see the guy who looks this big and he's up cheering up and down, jumping up and down, that's the guy I play for. To me, that's what this city represents. There's a lot of hardship in here, a lot of adversity in this city, and I feel like when I play basketball I want people to be proud of their team.

It worked.

After New Year’s Day, no team in the Eastern Conference had a better record than the Chicago Bulls. Thibodeau re-imagined the offense to run through Noah, making him a "point center." After Deng was traded, Noah averaged 13.7 points, 12.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists. And by the bye, his defense won him Defensive Player of the Year.

Gibson blossomed, started playing all the fourth-quarter minutes for the Bulls and may have finished second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting (though the official results haven’t been released).

The Bulls weren’t blowing teams out. They were grinding them down. It wasn’t unparalleled talent that was winning; it was an uncompromising heart.

Bulls fans dared to believe. They started to think, “Hey maybe we can get to the second round.” With the Pacers struggling, some even felt that the Eastern Conference Finals were a realistic possibility.

No one thought the Bulls were going to win a title. But who cared?

What Bulls fans loved was a team that showed up every night and left everything on the court. Never once did you think, “If they’d only tried harder.” Fans only cared for this team that made you want to cheer for them, even if it meant they weren't going to be neither lottery bound nor championship contender.

Chicago secured the No. 4 seed and then promptly lost to the Wizards in five. They simply didn't have the offense when they needed it. The return of Rose should help, but we learned that just relying on him wasn't enough. 

It was only revealed after the series that Noah had a knee issue. Days later, it was revealed he had arthroscopic surgery, which will take eight to 12 weeks to recover from, per Friedell. 

It was like Noah or the Bulls to not make excuses, though, even if they were valid. 

The early departure was saddening. The season was not a disappointment, though. 

 

***

Through all of this year's adversity, the Bulls did the one thing they could do. They kept trying. And we learned from them as a result.

We learned that sometimes the prize is in the fight, not the victory. We learned pride is in the effort, not the result.

Most fanbases motivate their teams. This team motivated its city. The Bulls tried so darned hard, the fans were obligated, even empowered, to cheer.

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The end-result pragmatists will complain and say the Bulls should have tanked. The fans learned that tanking stinks, but effort is aromatic.

The very fact that fans were disappointed in the first-round exit spoke volumes about how the perceptions changed over the season.

They were lifted by the never-ending efforts of Noah and Gibson, and they were helped along with the sparky play of Augustin and the guts of Dunleavy.

It doesn't matter that they didn't win. It does matter that we actually thought they could.  

This offseason the Bulls can add talent, and they are well poised to do it this summer with two first-round picks, potential for free agency if they use the amnesty on Boozer and the pending arrival of Nikola Mirotic.

And, don't forget, there's the return of that Rose guy. 

Talent can be drafted, traded for or bought. 

What you can’t buy is heart, especially if you already lost it. The Bulls might not be the best team in the league, but they were the most valiant, and that’s good enough for Bulls fans to “see red” and be proud.  

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