What are the Bulls and Blackhawks selling, and is anyone buying it?
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Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a world in which down is up.
All we’ve been hearing from Bulls coach Jim Boylen is how important it is for his players to learn to play hard. That might be his goal, but I don’t know why anyone else in the greater Chicago area should care if Shaquille Harrison is embracing the concept of maximum effort.
The Bulls are awful, they should be awful and I wish they had expended more energy on being awful enough to have the best chance of getting Duke’s Zion Williamson in the June draft.
The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are again within teasing distance of the playoffs, and it is being met with the kind of bated breath normally reserved for overtime in the Super Bowl. We were subjected to the same counterfeit suspense at this time last season, and they lost nine of their last 13 games. Remember when suspense had to do with whether the Hawks were good enough to end the season with a Stanley Cup parade?
To sum up, the bad Bulls are selling effort, and the middling Blackhawks are selling plastic pins and needles.
Who needs two?
Franchises obviously have to sell something. They’re in the business of making money. But if you have a discerning bone in your body, you don’t really care that Robin Lopez is a terrific teammate or that Boylen is building a culture or that Ryan Arcidiacono dives for loose balls. You want to know what the Bulls are doing to get Williamson, who will be the top pick in the draft. And the answer is: not enough.
But the real problem here is that the Bulls clearly believe that what they’re doing is the right thing. It’s not just lip service. They really think that laying down a foundation of hard work is more important than lying down and losing a bunch of games in order to have the best chance of getting Williamson. The definition of insanity is taking that stand with a coach and many players who probably won’t be here in two years.
There’s also something vaguely condescending about the approach. It says that the players aren’t self-starters and that, no matter where they were before, they didn’t work hard enough. And it says that fans aren’t savvy enough to figure out that effort is a far cry from talent.
Looming over everything and everybody is Williamson’s enormous shadow. The Bulls should have found a way to shut down some of their top players about 20 games ago, just as they should have found a way to keep Nikola Mirotic on the bench before trading him last season. Instead, they went 12-2 after Mirotic returned from his Bobby Portis-induced absence, and they ended up picking seventh in the draft. Who needs Luka Doncic, anyway?
While the Bulls are rebuilding, the Hawks are skating in place. The playoff situation only makes it look like they’re going somewhere. Because we love races, any kind of races, we get caught up in the drama. It’s like politics. We’re forced to pay attention to the poll results, not the issues. It’s that way with the Hawks, who want us to gawk at their push for the postseason, where, they’ll tell you, anything can happen.
With 13 games left (including Wednesday’s matchup against the Maple Leafs), the Hawks are six points behind Arizona for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. That sounds a lot more exciting than the Hawks’ record heading into the game: 30-30-9. If there’s anything less dramatic than a .500 record, I don’t know what it would be. A village zoning meeting, maybe.
Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are having great seasons, and with Corey Crawford back in net, it’s not hard to get caught up in the idea that good times might just be around the corner. But it ignores the reality that the Hawks have been on a downward trajectory since their last Stanley Cup in the 2014-15 season. And it ignores the reality that the Hawks have given up the second-most goals in the NHL this season, primarily because their defensemen, as a group, are givers, not takers.
Ignoring reality is what both franchises want you to do. If you have that ability, I envy you. You can watch a Bulls game and find deep satisfaction in effort. You can see a wonderful future that includes Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine. You don’t care about Williamson. You’re living in the now, and you see a group of kids working hard.
Likewise, you’re able to watch a Hawks game and see the playoff carrot at the end of the stick. Maybe Crawford will get hot. Never mind all the issues that brought the team to this point. The postseason has curled a finger and is beckoning you.
Both teams are using diversionary tactics. Has anyone looked away long enough to notice?