I can’t remember a more depressing Chicago Bulls season.
Derrick Rose blowing out his knee in 2012 was rough. And they’ve had worse records: after Michael Jordan retired in 1998, it took the Bulls four years to win 20 games in a season. But that version of the team was starting over with youth after a historic run of dominance—backsliding was to be expected. This year’s Bulls aspired to be championship contenders, and they missed the freaking playoffs.
On top of that, the Golden State Warriors broke the 1995-96 Bull’s hallowed regular-season win record. And the Warriors did it in style—I can’t remember a team being so fun to watch, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson raining death from the 3-point line while Draymond Green morphed into one of the most unique, versatile players in the league. But I found myself rooting against them as the end of the season approached, cheering for them to stumble at the finish line and leave one of Jordan and Scottie Pippen’s crowning achievements untouched.
The Warriors got it, though. On the last night of the season, a few hours after the Bulls, having already been eliminated from the playoffs, played a meaningless game against a meaningless team (the 76ers, the worst team in basketball this year).
Granted, I grew up basketball-spoiled. The first NBA game I watched was Jordan’s Shrug Game in the 1992 Finals, when he torched the Trail Blazers for six three-pointers, 35 points, and the famous I-didn’t-know-that-was-coming-either shrug in the first half. Which was all I saw—I was only 10, so I had to go to bed before the second half started. But I was still hooked, and I tuned back in to see the Bulls win that year’s championship, and then four of the next six.
So I shouldn’t complain.
The way this year’s Bulls played in the second half of the season, though… No fight, no passion, no drive. They cared so little (or at least seemed to) that I stopped caring to watch them as they fell from second in the Eastern Conference to ninth. Sure, they had injuries. What NBA team doesn’t? They also had the talent to persevere; they just didn’t have the will.
Part of this is on the new coach. Fred Hoiberg isn’t Tom Thibodeau—his voice isn’t raspy at the end of games from yelling out his passion. But Hoiberg wasn’t on the court; Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Pau Gasol were. As Thibodeau used to say when he was down a player, we still had “more than enough to win.” And yet the Bulls found all sorts of ways not to this season, while the Warriors pulled out victory after victory. Steph and co. played like the true heirs to that 1995-96 team, honoring them by digging deep to win games that should have been out of reach.
The 2015-16 Bulls just disappointed.