Nothing Better To Do

The middle of the NBA, and the bottom of the playoff pack, is supposed to be the worst place to be. The Bulls and Mavericks seem not to care.
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Fans have the luxury of allowing themselves the NBA that they want to watch—a league that shows them an array of awesomeness, and whichever things they most want to see. NBA teams, on the other hand, must live in a narrower and more binary world—for them, every NBA season is finally about wins and losses. But this season, more than any in recent memory, has seen discussion of the value of competitive sports’ most basic unit take on a new and newly complicated aspect. Winning a regular-season basketball game, in the eyes of several smart general managers and many more barroom long-traders, is increasingly seen as an out-of-date accomplishment. Nice enough, if that's what you're into, but kind of pedestrian as far as goals go.

For the non-contender, at least according to this view, celebrating the win reflects a pitifully, poignantly Twentieth Century outlook. That is, it betrays a misunderstanding of the value of high lottery picks, of a franchise’s natural cycle of want and plenty, of the basic tenets of post-Presti team-building. For tank-minded followers of the Sixers and Bucks, each night’s loss is rough medicine, choked down so that they can dream more sweetly about Wiggins, Parker, Embiid, Exum, and Randle.

Executives and fans in places like Washington and Toronto, meanwhile, espouse winning’s restorative effects. They point to John Wall and DeMar DeRozan—look how happy they are!—like parents trying to sell their friends on a preschool. They wince at draft talk. They revel in their young squads giving their all, even if, come June, all they’ll receive in return is a shellacking at the hands of Miami or Indiana. They are very consciously building something, not hoping to inherit.

Then there are the tired, heel-digging ignoramuses in Dallas and Chicago, a pair of teams that stubbornly insist upon doing things their own way. The Mavericks and Bulls, both understaffed for any real playoff run, are neither tossing away games nor incubating key youngsters. They are winning just to win, playing hard because good basketball feels better than bad basketball. They are not doing what the new conventional wisdom would have them do, and they are doing every watcher of early spring hoops a tremendous service in the process.

***

With a second left and the game tied at 111 in the fourth quarter of last Tuesday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rick Carlisle watched Dirk Nowitzki hoist a shot from a couple steps back of the three-point line. The last few minutes had been hard on the Dallas coach, who sweated through his barely-there hair as Monta Ellis hit a gummy midrange jumper, as Derek Fisher made the last of his three three-pointers, as Dirk pump-faked past Kevin Durant on one possession and jab-stepped and fade-awayed him on another, as Durant replied with a brutally easy three, and as Jose Calderon made a three of his own, with 26 seconds left, to tie the game.

During all this, cracks showed in Carlisle’s normally stolid demeanor. He generally affects the post-stress enlightenment of the high school teacher decades into the job, responding to missed calls or bad bounces by turning the corners of his mouth down and tipping his head back in a little what are you gonna do? nod. But, late in this game, Carlisle had started to pace. He then locked his fingers behind his head, before finally, in the closing seconds, starting to chomp his lower lip.

So he seemed to take it hard when, after starting off ugly and looking increasingly good as it neared the basket—the familiar story of the Nowitzki J—this shot collided first with the front rim and then backboard and fell off to the side. This meant five more minutes in which his flimsy vets would try to match up with the thoroughbred Thunder, and five more minutes of trading baskets with Durant, who had hung 37 already.

The Mavs, though, were untroubled. They torched Oklahoma City in overtime, performing Carlisle’s clever sets with a practiced comfort. Calderon came off a staggered screen and made another three, his sixth. Nowitzki caught the ball in the mid-post, disappeared over his right shoulder into the air just next to himself, and leaned back to hit that coinflip jumper. When Ellis, with a minute left, stepped around a pick and spotted Nowitzki open crosscourt—so open that the resultant three was academic—Carlisle could breathe easy. Nowitzki pumped his arms and mouthed expletives muted by crowd noise, the LED display ringing American Airlines Arena flashed GHOSTFACE DRILLA and DIRTY DIRK. One hopes Carlisle permitted himself a grin.

The win did little to help Dallas in any micro or macro sense. The Mavericks stayed stuck in eighth place in the Western Conference, fourth in their own division, and will need sequences even more fortunate than that to claim just a game or two from the Thunder or Spurs in a first-round series, should they even make it to the Playoffs. If, in the next couple years, the Mavs build themselves into a contender, they will not look back on this game as a parable of collective resolve. Their roster, in such an instance, will have undergone change significant enough to make the memory irrelevant. Or, if not quite irrelevant, prematurely quaint—oh, that win, by that other team.

***

The night before Dallas beat Oklahoma City, the Bulls hosted the Pacers. If Carlisle has learned to ride out the bumps intrinsic to NBA coaching, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau still palpably feels each one. Stuffed sausageish into his suit, with hair that gets both shape and substance from copious product—"styling" doesn't seem the right word, here—Thibodeau responds to Chicago mishaps as if touched by an electric prod, shouting a pained “No!” in his infamously hoarse voice and flinging his thick hands upward.  

Thibodeau, at once a staunch ideologue and adaptive pragmatist, believes entirely in his basketball—built on mad defense and, in Derrick Rose’s absence, distressed offense—and will sidestep circumstance to enact it. Carlos Boozer makes thirteen and a half million dollars a year, so Thibodeau starts him, but he cuffs him to the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Taj Gibson. Management trades Luol Deng, so Thibodeau plays Jimmy Butler 46 minutes per night. His is the least compromising ball in the NBA, and the regular-season win is his gold.

This evening, the on-court Bulls matched their coach’s vision nearly exactly. Joakim Noah foresaw and stuffed a Roy Hibbert jumper early on, sneering in Hibbert’s face as the ball fell out of bounds, and for the rest of the game Chicago was after Indiana, jumping in passing lanes, reaching after dribbles, finally forcing 15 turnovers on the night. They trailed by one at halftime but ran away in the second half, with Gibson scoring fifteen of his team-leading 23 and Noah sending out his passes from the elbows. Their pick-and-roll defense moved like metal shavings to a magnet, and Thibodeau looked as close to pleased as he gets, leaning back with crossed arms in the calm-but-watchful pose of some old Windy City tough.

This sequence may have pleased him most of all: late in the third quarter, Paul George stripped Boozer and sprinted the other way for a presumed layup. Kirk Hinrich—as Thibodeauan as they come, with goggles protecting his eyes, a wrap on his left pinkie, and a watery face that, midplay, looks like a post-punch pugilist’s—caught him and swiped the ball away. Mike Dunleavy scooped it up and passed ahead to Butler, who crashed into a tangle of Pacers and lifted a layup. The shot missed, but Gibson controlled and flushed it, stomping in celebration as if he had a current running through him.

The Bulls ended up winning by twelve, 89-77. They stayed stuck in the third spot in the East, and are presently slated to meet the Pacers again in the second round. They looked tired and glad as they left the court. Noah’s bun melted on his head, Butler’s and Gibson’s shoulders drooped, and Thibodeau showed the kind of pride that people with strict standards feel when those standards are met.

***

What is scarier, to fans of these teams, than their likely absences from mid-May basketball is the chance that they’ll be ousted by the same time in 2015 and ’16. The Mavs are rickety, the Bulls stretched thin and reliant on a point guard who will have played only a handful of games in two years when he returns, as whatever version of himself he will be. One team belongs to Durant’s conference, and the other to LeBron’s. Neither has a clear path to immediate improvement.

Next to a championship, though, relevance—a reason to believe, a reasonable expectation that the team could both win and be worth watching on a given night—is the biggest gift a team can give to its faithful. These teams will not win a championship anytime soon, not in their present circumstances or with their current rosters. But, under a sharp offensive mind and a growling defensive savant, the Mavs and Bulls manufacture their own reasons to watch, every night. In April, and in general, that still counts for a lot.


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