sports 3 days ago

David Haugh: For different reasons, seasons can't end soon enough for Blackhawks and Bulls

Chicago Tribune — By David Haugh Chicago Tribune

Feb. 13-- Blissfully, baseball beckons Tuesday in Arizona as Cubs and White Sox pitchers and catchers reported for spring training-and just in time for the winter co-tenants of the United Center.

For different reasons, this season cannot end soon enough for the Blackhawks and Bulls.

The Hawks suddenly stopped being competitive, with Monday's 6-1 loss to the Coyotes, the NHL's worst team, offering the latest evidence of neglect. Meanwhile the Bulls started showing promise, upsetting some so-called fans and observers who incessantly advocate losing to improve their team's NBA draft position.

It will be a glorious day for the local sports culture when the Tanking Society of Chicago disbands. Its mantra: Losing isn't everything, it's the only thing. Now, even Hawks fans have bookmarked Tankathon.com on their phones and computers. The developments surrounding both teams make me long for April, when the Bulls change the subject and the Hawks potentially change direction in the name of accountability.

Start with the Hawks, once the standard for sports excellence in our city who suddenly have lost six straight games. This is the opposite of the way the Hawks typically respond in February under coach Joel Quenneville. Typically they flip the switch on, not off. But in the shadow of the Grand Canyon, the Hawks hit rock bottom by getting blown out by the Coyotes. And with 25 games after Tuesday's meeting with the Knights, the best team in the West, maybe calling this rock bottom is optimistic. Things still can get worse.

The Hawks have too much talent and too many stars to play as pathetically as they did against a bunch as bad as the Coyotes. Inconsistency is understood and even expected for a team with 13 players under 25. Ineptness isn't, not given a core that won three Stanley Cup championships remains such a vital part of the team.

That core includes goalie Crawford, who provided an update on his status after Monday's morning skate. From the video of Crawford answering questions to reporters, he hardly sounded confident about how he felt or when he might return. Remember, Crawford hasn't played since Dec. 23. He means as much to the Hawks' ability to compete at a high level as anybody in an Indianhead sweater. With nothing at stake as the Hawks arrive in Las Vegas with their point total closer to the Coyotes than the Knights, they would be wise to delay Crawford's return until next season. Take the offseason to completely heal, Crow. That isn't tanking the season as much as taking care of a 33-year-old with a head injury.

Putting Crawford back in net only would expose a player suffering from vertigo-like symptoms to unnecessary harm and risk making a bad health situation worse. When it comes to head injuries, caution prevails at all levels of sports. The Hawks know this. If they indeed are rebuilding, then in the coming years they will need a healthy Crawford fully recovered from whatever hindered him during this most frustrating of seasons.

As for the Bulls, any frustration about their season involves seeing widespread reaction on social media after victories more than viewing the games themselves. The nonstop dialogue about tanking has grown tiresome, diminishing the quality of sports conversation about an exciting young team worthy of a different kind of discussion. The rhetoric reflects contemporary thinking for those who comment on pro sports but remains counterintuitive to those who play and coach them-the competitors in the equation. In the Bulls' last two victories, Zach LaVine made clutch plays in the closing seconds to make the difference between a win and a loss. How dare he compete.

Against the Timberwolves on Friday, LaVine outplayed former Bulls All-Star guard Jimmy Butler, drawing a foul on a 3-point attempt with 18.4 seconds left and then hitting all three free throws. Against the Magic on Monday, LaVine stole an inbounds pass with 15.2 seconds left and went on a breakaway dunk to break the tie for good. Nobody who understands and appreciates competition should find fault in a core player coming through in the clutch for the Bulls two games in a row. There was nothing bad about that trend, regardless of what it did to the standings or projected draft order. When did the NBA draft become foolproof, by the way? Even generational drafts include misses. The people rooting for the Bulls to lose now surely will be the first ones to boo the first-round bust later. Enough already.

LaVine has played 13 games after missing the past year because of an ACL injury. His 35-point outburst against Butler and his former team unofficially announced his Chicago arrival as the Bulls leader of their next phase of winning, which could begin sooner than expected. Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn will share the leadership burden with LaVine, a responsibility all three have shown they can handle. These aren't journeymen or aging veterans helping the Bulls win games and extend their stay in NBA purgatory. These are young, talented players progressing ahead of schedule, the future of the Bulls making the present more palatable. The identity of these Bulls invites more real basketball fans to pay attention. They share the basketball, push the pace, spread the floor and play with effort on most nights.

The Bulls are fun to watch; just cover your ears if they keep winning. The Hawks might require covering your eyes if they keep losing. Is winter over yet?

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ABOUT THE WRITER

David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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