Too much losing makes a fan base incoherent. When player development, building through the draft, and front office moves that the team “wins” by discarding helpful veterans for theoretically more useful future draft picks and project players and salary cap space become the markers of progress—instead of wins—things just turn a little too abstract for the yeoman fan. And, make no mistake: if you care about any team that is not currently a winner, you are a yeoman fan; not a galactic, pristinely brain-groomed genius, for letting your concerns become less earthly and more defined by the word “asset.” You come to a team again and again because you want it to win, and every time they lose again, you lose again—a little more of your pride, a little more of your capacity to see how they might one day succeed.
Sometimes, it gets bad enough that there’s no going back. Certain followers of the Philadelphia 76ers display this by continuing to deify a five-year “process” in which the franchise intentionally lost as much as possible, in order to increase their odds in the NBA Draft Lottery. This did eventually net them two All-NBA players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but there were casualties along the way: the hearts and brains of many who, by the time those two came around, were no longer capable of sports fan normalcy, and found more frustration than relief in a return to playoff contention. Another example is specific fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves. After missing the playoffs for 13 straight seasons, the team made them in 2017-18. But amongst their supporters on social media, the year is referenced mostly as a kind of a dark era, defined by the perceived mismanagement of then-coach Tom Thibodeau — despite the fact that this was, objectively speaking, the team’s most successful season since 2004.
Fans of the Chicago Bulls are, today, dangling within this fan abyss, and it’s unclear whether it’s too late to ever pull them back. Their franchise technically went through a longer gap in playoff appearances in the early 2000’s, missing the NBA’s elimination bracket for six straight seasons. That era was marked by a very special, ultimately flavorful kind of indignity, because fans were still fat off the feast of the 1990’s, which saw Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson put together one of the most impressive decades in the history of organized sports — a time so full of winning that it was potent enough to, inversely, cause its own form of fan incoherence; a bloated chauvinism that Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and, elsewhere, New York Yankees and New England Patriots fans are apt to exhibit.
But the Bulls’ inability to return anywhere close to their 90’s zenith has made for a unique fan mindset, caught in between both kinds of incoherence. Many are just tuned out, coasting on the Jordan years and the smaller glories of 2010-2015. But for those who are watching, too ensconced in the unreadable mess before them since then, most are importing way too much meaning into every 2021 crunch-time possession that Coby White manages to not commit an unforced turnover. Sometimes, he really does manage to not do this, and sometimes Lauri Markannen manages not to completely fall apart in the face of a replacement-level pick and roll. Even so, the Bulls usually lose. A surprising amount of the time, Zach LaVine plays offense so well that it can overcome these and other, related issues of inexperience — but, this season, that has still only been about 40% of the time.
That mark is, shockingly, good enough to grant the Bulls a berth in the NBA’s dubious new “play-in” format for the playoffs, which technically extends the field to four extra teams, making for a total of two thirds of the league that get the chance to play elimination games. If not for the mercy of the lopsided conference system, the Bulls would be out; they are, at the moment, the 21st best team in the league, or one spot away from the would-be cutoff of the 67th percentile. A slew of trade deadline moves may improve the Bulls’ fortunes next season, but for now they are flailing in the uncomfortable margin between mediocrity and being abjectly bad, triggering a stressful fight-or-flight mechanism in the minds of fans who are, optimistically, looking at a mere — and arguably unearned — playoff series appearance as their most realistic form of short-term glory.
This is a description of one the most unique forms of fan angst that has ever existed. And because Bulls fans have become so literate in losing, and are so removed from success, it is hard for them to see the seeds of something better. With each loss, the tweets of Bulls beat reporters fill with more nihilistic, doom-entranced replies from followers of the team who have begun to view the year-old management crew as skeptically as they did the previous regime. There is nuance to be had here, though; there is hope, depending on what your expectations may be. By converting theoretical value (three young project players, two draft picks) into actual value (two proven veterans), the Bulls have made it clear that what they’re after is something more concrete than a can of potential kicked so far down the road that it’s too blurry to even describe.
Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis have not yet made the Bulls a better team. They also haven’t had time to practice with their new roster, and they join it in the throes of a season that, because of COVID-19, is shipwrecked in nearly every way. Unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets, duct-taping various Hall of Famers together on the fly, continuity matters more than ever, and right now the Bulls have less of it than just about anyone. And they are, still, relying each game on at least 50 minutes of action from a young Lost Generation of players, made into NBA misfits by the combination of bad tutelage from the modern era’s worst coach (Jim Boylen) and the developmental stultifications of a pandemic. These are problems with no immediate or clear solutions, but indications are that the Bulls are not committed to anyone they inherited, save for maybe LaVine.
It would be wrong to say that the basketball future is bright in Chicago. It is, at best, a lot easier to put your hands on, but it’s mostly still hazy. The front office’s very busy trade deadline still felt like only one big step toward a different vision for the team, which will likely become much clearer this offseason. The trade for Vucevic surprised even the most plugged-in of reporters, so it’s safe at this time to conclude that we don’t really know what Chicago’s new management group is up to, or will be up to. Fans may lose their minds before they’re given firmer ground to stand on, but that’s primarily because it had already been too long since they were allowed to feel the earth under their feet, shown a legible blueprint for basketball success. Now that the text presented to them is increasingly coherent, it’s time for Bulls fans to learn how to read the game again.