Let’s start in a sober place since the title of this post likely gives off the distinct smell of a much needed breathalyzer test: the Chicago Bulls aren’t likely to be great. In fact they might not even be good! But for the first time in what feels like a very long time, this team is going to be fun. This is the cyclical nature of all things not named the Knicks, and if you look carefully—I’m about to tell you where—day is finally breaking on the collective horizon of Bulls fandom.
I used to travel a lot, backpacking across a continent for months at a time. Mostly for pleasure, but also to take in the world while unfolding my socially-stunted wings. In the earliest days, I learned of the concept of chasing “shoulder season”. It’s not the high-season when a great city is racked with tourists and high prices. Nor is it the low-season ghost town, devoid of both energy and joy. “Shoulder season” is catching a place at peak ripeness, when the pendulum is in perfect balance for the briefest of moments.
Think the best part of fandom is year-in-year-out title contention? Try talking to a strung out Warriors fan after withering in the national spotlight for the last five years. They look like young parents: the joys have been beyond measure but good hell they look exhausted.
And of course it’s hard to argue bottom-dwelling is anything other than Satan's fiery butthole. Rooting for LOLs and lottery balls is interesting for about seven minutes a year and then it’s disappointing, boring and, if you’re not careful, you’ll end up a cynical golem that forgets why you liked sports in the first place.
Which brings us to the 2019-20 Chicago Bulls and the shoulder season of fandom. If you—quite understandably—took a little time away from following the team these last few shadowy years, here are 13 reasons why now is the perfect moment to reclaim your seat at the table.
1. Neil Funk is retiring
This is not what you think it is. I’m not here to trash Neil on his way out the door. Some may forget, but when the Jordan Bulls were in the latter half of their dynasty, Funk did the playoff radio play-by-play and was objectively fantastic. I remember sitting in my buddy’s car outside an Evanston coffee shop smoking Camel Lights while listening to Funk call the 1997 NBA finals. It seems indefensible now to not be glued to a television for every waking second of one’s favorite team’s run to glory. But in my defense, there had been a lot of those runs of late and sitting in a car smoking cigarettes seemed like a really important thing to do at the time. Anyways, if you don’t remember or weren’t around for it, I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you, Funk was a world class announcer. His joyful KABOOMS at the end of long possessions when the Bulls would can a three are something I will never forget.
So it’s been more than a little upsetting these last few years as Neil appears—to me—to be embittered. To be fair, long periods of unwatchable basketball peppered with injurious moments of deflation will do that to a guy. Thus, I’m glad this is his last year, but not because I’m dancing on his broadcast grave. Rather, his evolution from KABOOM Funk to FUCK THIS OTHER’S TEAM’S PLAYER HE’S A BUM Funk makes me realize how scarred I’ve become since the Bulls disbanded the greatest team of all time*.
*not interested in litigating this. Go argue with your vacuum cleaner.
2. Wendell Carter Jr., franchise cornerstone*
Wendell Carter is exactly what the Bulls needed. An athletic defensive cornerstone with plenty of potential on the other end and—I realize this is a lot to heap on a 21-year-old—a born leader. Council of one!
It’s been almost a calendar year since we’ve seen him play basketball, but it feels like people are forgetting how good he was. Carter is a plus rim defender, solid shooter with growing range, and adept inside passer. He’s a thoughtful and insightful voice in the locker room and a vocal presence on the court.
Most importantly, he gives the Bulls a backbone on the defensive end, where wins have gone to die over the last two years (25th and 28th in defensive rating). Lauri Markkanen becomes a much better defender with an athletic rim protector beside him. Kris Dunn—should he remain on the team—is a plus perimeter defender. Otto Porter Jr. is a solid wing defender and can even guard the 4 in certain lineups. With that framework in place, Zach LaVine might even be viable on that end of the floor. All of that Rube Goldberg goodness begins and ends with WCJ, and this is the year it gets realized.
* good health is a critical element for WCJ and the team writ large. It’s not exactly a hopeful season preview sell to bring up that the Bulls have had horrific injury luck for 2+ years so we’re burying it in this footnote.
3. Zach LaVine leap (really high) year!
Save for some recent bluster babble about his beloved mid-range game (eek), LaVine has shown real signs of figuring things out on the offensive end of late, and to a larger extent making the leap towards harnessing his incredible athletic gifts. After last year’s All-Star break, Zach began driving to the hoop, racking up free throws and turning down both of his pet shots: the “18 on the shot clock off the dribble why not three” as well as the “sprinting to the right jump from the wing sideways fadeaway land in the third row long two”. The hope here is that last year’s March wasn’t just a case of us huffing league-wide tank fumes and that this is actual basketball growth that he can springboard off of—very athletically—into this season.
4. The super fun happy slide multi-ball handler offense
The multi-ball handler offensive approach is a necessity given the Bulls’ lack of a primary creator, but I appreciate both the innovation and the ethos behind it and am generally excited to see how it plays. Further, it’s meant to let the Bulls run out early and often. I think we can also infer that whoever excels—please let there be at least one player—might get weighted more “touches” as the season goes on. Overall it feels like smart, reasoned coaching which we haven’t necessarily seen in recent seasons. Which brings us to…
5. The Jim Boylen Experience
I too find myself rolling my eyes at some of Jimmy Windsprints inspirational quote press conferences, and last year provided some patience-testing moments to put it kindly. But there are a number of promising signs afoot at the outset of his first full year at the controls. I love the Chris Fleming hire as lead offensive assistant and the Brooklyn system he came from. The preseason results clearly portend a modern NBA offense residing at the United Center, which is as shocking to write as I’m sure it is to read. Defensive coordinator Rodney Rodgers’ specialty is reportedly developing big men, and WCJ is just sitting there waiting to be great. Also gonna hang my hat here: I like Jim Boylen the person. Seems like a genuinely good guy! Why can’t we root for that?
Not just the overall depth of talent on the roster but the depth of watchability. Just a few years ago, Jerian Grant, Cam Payne and Michael Carter-Williams were the Bulls’ guard depth after Rajon Rondo. Sweet merciful hell. It’s upsetting to look at that even now. 2019? Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacano. It might not be a murderer’s row but at least you don’t get bummed out just reading the names out loud. The biggest issue in the frontcourt is how to divy up the minutes between Thaddeus Young, Markannen, WCJ and to a lesser extent Luke Kornet and Daniel Gafford, to say nothing of smallball lineups with Lauri at the 5. Doesn’t that all sound fun to watch? Wing depth remains an issue but this is a positive column so pre-congrats to Otto and Zach for their upcoming All-Star level play over 82 pristine healthy games. Speaking of which….
No one’s died yet! Yippee skippee!
8. Denzel Valentine isn’t just back, he looks good this preseason.
If there can be a bright side to a sprained ankle-turned-surgical reconstruction that cost him almost two years, it’s that Valentine’s game has never been predicated on athleticism. He’s the same crafty passer, and it’s not unreasonable to think his streaky good three-point shooting can still become something more consistent. When last we saw him—it’s been awhile—he was shooting almost 39% on five attempts a game. The Bulls need creators. Valentine averaged 3.2 assists per game. That would be good for fourth on last year’s roster and something the Bulls desperately need. Also, I’m curious to see if his wild careening drives to the basket still let me break out Toonces the Driving Cat gifs.
9. No more discount sale shopping in free agency
Goodbye bar napkin rosters. Dwyane Wade, Rondo, and Jabari Parker are where they belong (read: elsewhere) and the nostalgia tour has been officially cancelled. Everyone on the 2019 Bulls roster MAKES SENSE with the added bonus that I didn’t HATE THEM when they played for their previous franchise.
10. A new scoreboard!
It is absurdly large and bizarrely disjointed—were the pieces built by six different companies and then assembled onsite?—but it beats the shit out of the hovering malfunction it replaces. It also includes a brand new sound system sure to drown out your every waking thought. Who likes thoughts anyways?!
11. An All-Star game!
If the worst should happen and the Bulls suck, at least we all get to hedge our bets with a national spotlight of shame for ownership. Win-win!
12. Ernie Grunfeld single-handedly gave the Bulls a boost on his way out the door in Washington.
Jabari Parker and the right to overpay Bobby Portis - which the Wiz declined to do - for Otto Porter Jr. was by itself the best trade of the GarPax era, a relative mega-heist despite Otto’s bloated salary. But letting Sato walk to Chicago for just $10 million a year is going to end up being the biggie. It turns out he is very good at many basketball-related activities and if that weren’t enough, he has an unguaranteed third year on his deal. His asset value doubled the day he signed his name to paper. Thanks Big Ern!
13. The Bulls are finally of an age and experience level to compete for a playoff spot.
I’ll leave you with this one: young teams don’t win in the NBA. There are outliers, like a certain OKC squad that had three future MVPs on it, but as a general rule young teams get knocked around until enough critical pieces have gained the requisite experience to win consistently. The Bulls were the third youngest team in the league last year. They remain quite young overall given the presence of 19-year-old Coby White and 21-year-olds Daniel Gafford and WCJ. Lauri Markkanen is in a critical third year, LaVine is in his sixth, Otto his seventh, and the veteran additions of Thad and Sato give this team the age and experience necessary to find a foothold in the league and start stacking W’s. It doesn’t guarantee a thing, but it does give them a fighting chance to be worth rooting for.
Welcome to the sweet spot of fandom. Let’s hope it tastes as good as it looks.