There’s only so far the Bulls can go without top talent
BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media May 2, 2014 7:42PM
Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal (fighting for the ball with Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler) had an obvious edge in talent at his position against the Bulls. | AP
Updated: June 5, 2014 6:34AM
My friend George Frazier came from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and thus was an eyewitness to the playground artistry that made Connie Hawkins a basketball legend despite his unfounded implication in a point-shaving scandal. It cost ‘‘the Hawk’’ a college career and kept him out of the NBA until he was 27.
As Marquette students (heh-heh) in the Al McGuire era, we were thoroughly enamored with basketball. And from the day he arrived to play small forward for the then-Warriors, George regaled us with stories about Hawkins. Coincidentally, it was the same year a court decision finally nullified Hawkins’ banishment from the NBA, allowing him to join the Phoenix Suns.
So, at George’s urging, we pooled our meager funds and bought decent tickets to see Hawkins and the Suns play the Milwaukee Bucks, eschewing the ‘‘Buck Night’’ nosebleed seats the team made available to entice underfunded fans (like us) to the Milwaukee Arena.
Hawkins is a Hall of Famer for style as much as substance, but he’d left much of his high-flying game in the remote rec centers and on the hardscrabble blacktop courts where he had been eking out a living while awaiting vindication in the gambling case. He couldn’t summon it for a fourth game in six nights on the road and managed, if memory serves, a rather pedestrian eight points on 4-for-10 shooting, leaving us to wonder what all the fuss was about.
The moral of the story: Championship effort isn’t an every-night given in the NBA.
Not then and not now, even though charter flights, four-star accommodations and a slightly more forgiving schedule have eased the rigor of an 82-game regular season a bit.
The Bulls might be the exception that proves the rule. It’s their history.
You’d have a fight on your hands if you ever accused the Jerry Sloan/Norm Van Lier Bulls of giving less than their all. Come playoff time, though, when everybody’s trying, a team with, say, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in its lineup usually is going to prevail.
We could count on one hand the number of times the Bulls mailed it in during the Michael Jordan era, such was the ferocity of MJ’s competitive drive. And, unlike their put-up-your-dukes predecessors, MJ’s Bulls were talented enough to win whenever the spirit moved them, including on those desultory midwinter road-trip nights or during a playoff grind, when everybody’s trying.
By collecting 48 victories with Derrick Rose for only 10 games and Luol Deng for 28, the Bulls offered prima facie evidence this season of effort trumping talent — until it didn’t.
Those fans who cried hallelujah when a late-season seedings shuffle spared the Bulls a first-round meeting against the Brooklyn Nets weren’t paying attention. The Washington Wizards’ long and lithe free spirits were a nightmare matchup for the athletically challenged Bulls. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza gave the Wizards a painfully obvious edge at three positions, and after watching Nene have his way with a worn-out Joakim Noah, I’m not sure there’s a Bull who would start for surprisingly deft Wizards coach Randy Wittman.
Tom Thibodeau can wring every last ounce of effort from his roster, and he’s not going to close a talent gap of that magnitude. Especially during the playoffs, when everybody’s trying.
They share a city, a building and a season, so it’s inevitable to think of the Bulls in terms of the Blackhawks, even though basketball/hockey is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Still, the most obvious reason the Hawks still are playing and the Bulls aren’t is talent.
With Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, the Hawks have a five-star lineup that ranks in the top echelon of their profession. The Bulls have the reigning defensive player of the year and a leading scorer who was rescued from the bone pile.
The Hawks have Andrew Shaw to fill the complementary role Jimmy Butler would play for a contender. The Bulls need Butler to be a star. No offense to my fellow Golden Eagle, but that ain’t happening.
I don’t know if Carmelo Anthony is the answer or if he’s even available. I do know the Bulls need a true scorer who can find a good shot or get to the free-throw line with the shot clock winding down.
Watching the Bulls bust it for 82 games is almost uplifting at a time when cool is the rule and the almighty dollar is the holy grail throughout sports.
It’s also a tease.