Commentary

No tank talk from Bulls

Loss of Rose, Deng won't stop Noah & Co. from giving their all -- and it shouldn't

Updated: January 14, 2014, 9:52 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- As Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau charmed the media Monday morning after the team's pregame shootaround, the United Center court was almost empty.

On a bad team going nowhere, there would've been nothing but rookies and tumbleweeds.

But there on opposite ends on the floor, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler continued to work on their shots with assistant coaches before Monday night's loss to the Washington Wizards.

Noah worked up a sweat in the paint with Ed Pinckney, while Butler, who missed the team's last game with a thigh bruise, lofted arcing, wet jumpers with Adrian Griffin.

In the NBA, talk is cheaper than a 10-day contract. But it's obvious these Bulls can't fake a season. Noah, especially.

No, the road to the third seed in the East goes through the red-hot Bulls, who had won five straight games going into Monday night, with a list of sub-.500 teams on the horizon.

Yes, the Bulls are standing in front of your metaphorical tank like a human-chain roadblock.

"There's no tanking, and that's it," Noah said in an impassioned media session Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah, D.J. Augustin
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY SportsJoakim Noah will do his best to keep the Bulls focused on keeping a winning attitude.

That's Joakim, the self-described hippie leading the anti-tank protest.

Personally, I hate the pro-tanking talk that has permeated the city's sports fans, polluting the air waves like soft rock.

Everyone knows the truth. The only way the Bulls are going to finish out of the playoffs is the old-fashioned way: Thibs works the players so hard they wind up leading the league in MRIs.

Let's be clear here: The front office shouldn't apologize for trading Luol Deng for "financial flexibility" and a possible, protected first-round draft pick. With Derrick Rose out for the second straight season thanks to another franchise-crippling knee injury, the Bulls made a realistic, albeit discordant, roster move. Given the Byzantine nature of the salary cap, at some point the Bulls have to retool for the near future.

And there has to be a church-and-state division in any organization between planning for the future and living in the present.

It's not realistic that players and coaches agree on everything the front office does. But it's up to the front office to make championship moves in the offseason and it's up to the players and coaches to give an honest effort in this season.

While some will argue about free-agent pitches and draft picks, I prefer to spend the remainder of the season enjoying the on-court product. To be fair, that's a statement I wouldn't have made two weeks ago.

But the addition of point guard D.J. Augustin and the tenuous good health of the core Bulls have made it semi-enjoyable to watch this team again. Added to that is the joy I take watching the pro-tanking crowd fret about dastardly victories.

That's why I love Noah's attitude right now. You should, too. Yes, you, the nihilist who wants nothing but misery this season, in order to lock up a spot in the draft lottery.

After the Bulls' third straight win since the Deng trade, Noah spoke about the value of competition for competition's sake and the existential purpose of a season without Rose.

"A lot of people say this is a business and all that, but this game is more than a business to me," Noah told reporters after his 19-point, 14-rebound effort in the win over Charlotte. "I put everything I got into this. I feel like Lu was the same way, so it was hard for me to digest. But that's just my perspective, that's just my side of the story."

Noah is the right guy speaking up at the right time.

With Deng gone, Noah is the voice of the Bulls, whether he likes it or not.

"I think everybody can be a leader," he said Monday. "You bring it on the defensive end, you make a hustle play, you work out hard. I think that's all leadership qualities. You don't have to be vocal to be a leader."

Still, it's nice to hear someone put words to actions. Noah isn't going to be able to take a week off from media duties anymore. That's good news for reporters.

I thought Noah's homage to the Sarcastic Clapping Family of Southampton (of "Saturday Night Live" fame), directed at Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers in last season's playoff loss to Miami, was his best nonbasketball performance, but his quotes Saturday were even better. Not that he's planning to make it a regular show

"Just comments, man," he said Monday in a more muted media session. "That's just how I feel."

While the absence of Rose makes a championship impossible and the nightly product unreliable, there is something to be said for a team competing hard because that's their job and their passion.

And corny as it might sound, part of it is a duty, to the league and to the fans, to put out an honest product. Others might disagree, but there is value in competing hard for the sake of competing.

The Bulls are an entertainment property. They exist to entertain basketball fans, mostly in Chicago through ticket sales and, indirectly, through television and radio.

Now there are plenty of smart, forward-thinking fans who are more than comfortable with throwing away a season for a chance to land a top-five draft pick in a likely top-heavy draft class. I can't blame them.

But forget those people.

"We just want to represent," Noah said Saturday. "When I come to the game, I see the guy selling the newspapers on the streets. [It's] cold outside . When he sees me driving by, he's excited. You know what I mean? He's excited. He's like, 'All right. Let's go Bulls! Get it done tonight!' I feel like I play for that guy. Like when I look at the top of the arena, and I look up top and I see teams call timeout, and I see the guy who looks this big and he's up cheering up and down, jumping up and down, that's the guy I play for."

The Bulls' front office made a strong statement to their present team, some would say a one-finger salute, by trading a two-time All-Star without any concrete return.

And Noah & Co. have made a strong statement by winning three of four games since the deal.

Does proving people wrong, even perhaps in their own organization, motivate Noah and the Bulls?

"I think, maybe a little bit," he said Monday. "I think just in general, when you go through hard things as a group, it's all about how you deal with it. We're showing that through adversity, you can keep fighting and control what you can control."

The Bulls can't win a championship without Rose, but there is nothing wrong with following Noah's lead until Rose comes back.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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