If I mention the Bulls, what comes to your mind?
Yeah, me, too.
I think that’s the collective response for most people when they ponder whatever is — or isn’t — going on with this franchise that once was as popular and thrilling and crowd-pleasing as any in modern pro sport.
We’re talking Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and six rings, of course.
But even after that rock ’n’ roll explosion through the 1990s, there was the Bulls team of the early Derrick Rose years, and even the excitement of watching flailing big man Joakim Noah, the Defensive Player of the Year in 2014, and then Jimmy Butler, the NBA Most Improved Player in 2015.
But along about then, something happened. The Bulls hit the wall. Abruptly everybody, it seemed, was gone — either injured, traded, fired or maybe all three.
Remember Tom Thibodeau, Coach of the Year in 2011? Sort of? Not really?
About all that’s still standing is the management combo of John Paxson and Gar Forman and the still-amenable United Center.
I suppose Benny the Bull made it through the wreckage, too, but who knows who’s inside that red fur ball with the white horns and dangling tail? Actually, we know it’s not Barry Anderson, the performer inside for a dozen years starting in 2004. He retired in 2016 after — the dude was highly active — some in-character trouble with the legal world.
These Bulls leave one feeling blank, with no identity or characteristic leaping to mind.
There’s Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, but they seem as cohesive a duo as oil and water. One or the other usually leads the Bulls in scoring, but they don’t often have their inspiring games at the same time.
Who coaches the Bulls?
That would be Jim Boylen, who may or may not be the most forgettable Bulls coach since . . . Jim Boylan in 2008. Not a typo. That Boylan — with an ‘‘a’’ — mopped up after Scott Skiles and Pete Myers.
If the names are confusing, that’s a good representation of this team’s performance on the floor.
They’re 13-24 and in fourth place in the Central Division and 11th place in the Eastern Conference, and they have the 24th-worst record in the NBA.
They’re likely to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
You could nitpick every part of the team — ask why big man Wendell Carter Jr. always seems to be hurt, why guard Kris Dunn can’t score, why forward Chandler Hutchison does so little and how he could be out for six weeks with a bum shoulder at 23.
But the overall analysis is that something is just missing. There is no Luka Doncic or Giannis Antetokounmpo or a phenom rookie such as Ja Morant on this team. But all the players can’t be horrible or inept or lazy or whatever.
You look at the superior Celtics, who are leading the Atlantic Division. Do Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter sound like a great trio to you? But throw in Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum (21.1 points per game at age 21), and you have something solid.
Then you stir in always-underrated point guard Kemba Walker (22.5 ppg, 5.2 assists per game) and — bingo — big time.
So you wonder what in the world Paxson and Forman are doing to make this Bulls team something other than a bland curiosity. Remember, Walker came to the Celtics during the summer in a sign-and-trade deal with the Hornets for Terry Rozier and some minor draft swaps. In other words, basically anybody could have had Walker — even the Bulls.
But that likely wouldn’t have solved anything. Still, it’s impossible to say the Bulls are light-years from success. There are possibilities for this team. But there seems to be no master plan, no distinct philosophy to guide them to the top.
The All-Star Game is coming to Chicago in February, and how weird will it be to have almost no Bulls representation other than LaVine, who says he might enter the dunk and three-point contest?
Meanwhile, Rose says he’ll enter the skills contest, reminding our city of what it once had. It could almost be said that when the young Rose blew himself up with injuries from playing so ferociously, the Bulls sank with him, like sailors on a torpedoed ship.
That’s one way to look at their failure.
Another is to say that somebody — maybe everybody — is asleep at the wheel.