The Mess in Chicago

Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times writes:

So there was Ben Wallace, $60 million waste, laughing on the bench Tuesday night in Orlando. The Bulls were on their way to another hapless, character-less loss, and Big Bum was having such a good time that you wanted to stuff him in a Goofy suit and point him to Disney World.

He wasn't the only quitter and slacker in a 102-88 defeat, the latest stinker in a pathetic season of quitting and slacking. The laughter apparently led Joakim Noah, coming off a teammates-approved suspension for screaming maniacally at assistant coach Ron Adams, to confront Wallace in an episode that required Luol Deng to separate them.

Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune confirms the story:

Falling to 14-22 and hardly competitive, several Bulls players on the bench late seemed relatively indifferent to the result. It was perhaps a worse message than the events of the evening, which were discouraging as well.

Apparently it led to a dispute in the locker room as rookie Joakim Noah complained about the attitude on the bench and argued with veteran Ben Wallace. One witness said Luol Deng had to step between them to ease the tension.

ESPN's David Thorpe was at the game, and heard the same thing. In talking to several Bulls players, he heard again and again that what's lighting Joakim Noah's fire through his week of squabbles is his fascination with winning. (Which is totally consistent with Florida coach Billy Donovan's interpretation of the situation.) He's distraught that not all of this teammates seem to care as much.

Like any young person, he might express it imperfectly, but that fire in Joakim is the reason to have him on your team.

Will it work? Is Noah succeeding in firing up his teammates? Is this leadership? Even if Noah is the perfect leader, does anybody want to hear it from a rookie? I don't know the answers to any of that. The reports from the Bulls these days are so acerbic. (Case in point.) The mood seems so negative. This could be the kind of squabble that good teams just go through. This could be the maturation process of a team taking place -- only in an era where every little stumble is public knowledge.

This could also just be a case of irreconcilable differences.

In any case, I remain convinced that the Bulls roster has plenty of talent. If those players can somehow or another focus on playing the best possible basketball, they can be a lot better than they are now.

Can a rookie be the one to get the team focused? Will someone else emerge? We'll see.