I know what I don’t want for the Bulls more than what I do want for them. That might not seem particularly helpful heading into the offseason and beyond, but bear with me here. Sometimes a negative can inform a positive.
I liked the 2021-22 Bulls, a team that showed heart and effort and all those things you want in an NBA club but don’t always get. Its weakness was an unfortunate habit of shrinking in the presence of more talented opponents, which, if you’re ranking weaknesses, is a bad weakness to have. It showed up again in Milwaukee’s five-game dismissal of the Bulls in the postseason. They fell by 30 points in Game 3, and that wasn’t a fluke, wasn’t an anomaly, wasn’t a lone-wolf bad night. It was typical.
Some will argue that the Bulls didn’t have a killer instinct this season, but that would imply they were ever in position to kill anybody in any of those lopsided losses. They weren’t. Moving forward, the temptation is to say they need to acquire an assassin, or at least someone who sticks out his chin and begs to take on the other team by himself.
Yes and no.
Yes to “sticks out his chin” and no to “by himself.”
Look no further than the Bucks, the defending NBA champions, for a template. Now, you’ll argue that Milwaukee has everything it needs in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is 6-11 with a wingspan of 7-4, which means that jumping while dunking is optional for him. He’s almost painfully gifted. You’ll laugh at me if I say that one of the big reasons for his success is that he cares about winning and cares about his teammates. I’m even rolling my eyes after writing that. But it’s true. Call up any of his TV interviews and listen to him. He cares. If he’s acting, then he’s Denzel Washington good. He could have left the Bucks to play somewhere else in 2020, somewhere with brighter lights and more “brand” exposure, but he chose to stay in pleasant Milwaukee and chase a championship.
The Bulls aren’t going to get a Greek Freak this offseason, unless he’ll be hiding at the 18th pick of the first round of the June draft. But Giannis serves a purpose for me. He’s a reminder of what I don’t want for the Bulls. I don’t want a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook. Not those two players specifically because I don’t know any winning team in its right mind that would want either. I don’t want anybody with a me-first, I-second approach to the game. There’s a reason Harden and Westbrook have had incredible individual statistics and haven’t won an NBA title: The way they play the game is antithetical to winning championships.
Their supporters will point to the huge number of assists that both players have amassed in their careers as proof of their desire to involve teammates. But by all appearances, the goal for Harden and Westbrook has been triple-doubles, a statistical pursuit in which assists are things to be collected for one’s private collection, like artwork or sports memorabilia. Teammates are vehicles to help them get from Point A to Assist B. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be making the same judgments on Luka Doncic and Trae Young someday.
Back to the Bucks. It’s not just Antetokounmpo who wants to win. The Bulls could really use someone like his teammate Jrue Holiday, another talented player who doesn’t know the meaning of “can’t.’’ They need more players whom opposing players hate to face. And as detested as Grayson Allen is in Chicago and anywhere where cheap shots are frowned upon, the Bucks seem to appreciate his drive to succeed. He matters.
There’s no doubt the Bulls have to raise their talent level, but how they do it is important. Plenty of gifted players are out there, but plenty of them wouldn’t know how to spell “team’’ if you spotted them all four letters in the correct order. It’s not just Harden and Westbrook. It’s all the players who aspire to be Harden and Westbrook. What I’m arguing for here is team “culture,’’ and I think I’m going to be ill. It’s a sports buzzword that drives me to the brink of insanity. But the Bulls are at a pivotal point. How they proceed could decide whether they turn into winners or remain a team that wilts against quality opponents.
It would help if they stayed healthy next season, but injuries to Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso were not the main reason they struggled at times this season. They need more talent, but the right kind of talent. Fair or not, I still look at LaVine as impressionable. Having DeMar DeRozan, an excellent player who cares about winning, as a teammate was a good thing for the 27-year-old. But if someone without DeRozan’s terrific attitude came along, I wonder which way LaVine would go. In the direction of Harden and Westbrook?
If the Bulls don’t offer LaVine a max contract in the offseason, it would be hard to blame him for going elsewhere for the money. But it’s worth noting that Antetokounmpo chose to sign a new contract with the Bucks in 2020 in hopes of bringing a title to Milwaukee. He did.
Doesn’t LaVine have some unfinished business in Chicago?