Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Trades

Professional sports leagues exist mainly in transactions now. The NBA’s star reporters are not hard-bitten beat reporters doggedly pursuing leads to confirm whether athletes are taking it one game at a time but sentient twitter accounts able to send out news of a trade a fraction of a second before anyone else and because of this we get to watch them go on television and read their phones, and other leagues are clearly chasing this high. I can think of two reasons why it seems like following professional sports has become infatuated with transactions: one is because sports media like everything else is driven by twitter and twitter is fueled by trade rumors and people impersonating Adrian Wojnarowski to spread misinformation and athletes posting the Auspicious Eyeballs Emoji and the other is that almost every team stinks and needs some new players in there dammit.

The transactions markets have become faster and more fluid in sports leagues for various reasons but in many cases appear to trend towards star talent clustering together.  In the NBA, that means superstars can assert their leverage to demand trades to move to one of a few contending teams where their intentions can be divined by a host of amateur detectives constantly monitoring who they follow on instagram and then posting their red string corkboards on the internet.  In baseball, it is the owners driving the movement as only a handful of teams are willing to pay for stars and the rest are selling theirs off furiously in trades, not even for hauls of super prospects but for semi-anonymous minor leaguers as the entire sport gears up for a brutal labor battle that seems likely to shorten or even end the 2022 season.  And the NFL is a land of chaos anyway because NFL contracts have no meaning and are written by Jerry Jones drunkenly firing a pistol at several pieces of paper that have paragraphs that start with "whereas."  In recent years, though, superstar quarterbacks have begun to figure out they can move around with more intention than most players, although never to the Chicago Bears because they are not stupid.

So let's take a look at where this whirlwind of moves have left three Chicago teams that are in various stages of oblivion, either hurtling towards it, trying to climb out, or just sort of making themselves at home.
It is opening weekend for the Cubs and while the team and the city are thrilled to have people back in Wrigleyville vomiting on each other and screaming “you’re such an asshole GAVIN” into each other's mouths even though we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, the vibe around the Cubs is funereal. The Cubs have already dealt Yu Darvish for three teenagers and Kyle Hendricks’s pre-pubsecent doppelganger as Tom Ricketts has cited “biblical losses” in revenue which means that a number on a spreadsheet has told him that he and his family are in some abstract and meaningless way slightly less wealthy. They have already jettisoned beloved World Series hero and icon of Midwestern beefiness Kyle Schwarber and refused to pay a reported pittance to retain Jon Lester-- both of them are now on the Nationals. And they have made clear that some combination of the Cubs’ star free agents Javy Baez, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo could be dealt or depart in free agency when their contracts end. Theo Epstein resigned so he would not have to be the one to hit the plunger and blow everything up.
At some point after the Darvish trade, the Ricketts family got pummeled enough in the media that they managed to miraculously find several millions of dollars just lying around as one does and they brought in Joc Pederson and Jake Arrieta. Pederson’s career batting line is nearly identical to Schwarber but he costs slightly less and he has never to my knowledge blown out a knee and then made a seemingly impossible comeback to hit .412 in the World Series including a hit that became the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning to end the longest championship drought in the history of professional sports, but to be fair he hit very well in Spring Training. Jake Arrieta was for a few years the greatest pitcher I have ever seen and is now grizzled and washed up and clearly a replacement for Lester as the Old World Series Guy who will treat fans to having his beard dripping with sweat instead of Lester turning the color of an iron rod when it is put into a forge by a medieval blacksmith as either of them would labor to get outs in a humid August start to get them within 4 games of the vile Cardinals who of course were paid $50 million to take Nolan Arenado.
I am not upset that the Chicago Cubs will be mediocre and disappointing this season because that is the default setting for the Chicago Cubs. But trying to follow them this season, with the impending destruction of the team lingering over every game, with them playing on a Fox or ESPN broadcast and having to listen to the announcers yammer about it the entire time, and with the trade deadline coming to take everyone away does not sound like the most pleasant way to follow baseball.

The Bulls on the other hand decided to depart from two influential models of team building.  The first one is the belief that NBA teams should constantly be tanking and in a neverending process of flipping draft picks in a way that requires putting on an ill-fitting suit and bloviating about "assets" and while your assets are appreciating, depreciating, or being packaged to move for other heretofore unowned assets, the team playing games on your regional cable sports channel goes around getting its ass violently kicked in front of the whole world.  The other model is how the Bulls had been operating which was doing a half-assed and dumb version of this but never actually making any trades and allowing the team to be run and coached exclusively by maniacs with oddly shaped heads. 
Instead, the Bulls' new brain trust decided to do something somewhat unorthodox and push its chips in now for all star center Nikola Vucevich because Zach LaVine has ascended and the Bulls are ready to try to contend for the play-in game in an awful conference.  They gave up two first-round draft picks, young center Wendell Carter, Jr., and the bloated remains of Otto Porter, Jr. in return for Vucevic and washed-up forward Al-Faroq Aminu.  They also acquired tattooed Luke Besson movie villain Daniel Theis and some other players that might or might not be useful.  

It is not unreasonable to question the wisdom of cashing in so many draft picks for Vucevic and remaking the roster for a team that might not top out as anything more than a low-seeded playoff team, but I can't remember being this excited for a Bulls trade because they had done something.  The Bulls now had two all stars and also I never had to watch Luke Kornet again.  I was incredibly excited for Vucevic's debut until several minutes into the game when the Bulls got completely annihilated by the Spurs.  And then wasted by the Warriors as LaVine hobbled ineffectively with an ankle injury.  And then they lost again to the Suns.  The Bulls have not won a game in the Vucevic era and remain clinging to the last spot in the play in.  

But Vucevic is not a rental, and the Bulls can still build around him and LaVine.  They have not made the playoffs since the Three Alphas era, which was only four years ago but that is also the number of teams Jimmy Butler has been on.  And they have Patrick Williams, who is extremely young but can do this.


 There is an endless debate about the merits of tanking in the NBA versus trying just to be decent knowing there is no chance of competing for a championship against whatever superteams exist, and while I can understand the arguments of both sides, I can't understand people who consume basketball as a bloodless collection of "assets" when there are 82 games a year and many of them are played in Chicago during months when it is really unpleasant to be outside.  Also they severely understate the worth of a player like Denzel Valentine, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite Bulls because he is an avatar of chaos and the only player with any personality even though he is objectively not very good at NBA basketball but is willing to stomp around the court like godzilla after draining a three pointer early in the fourth quarter.

For four years, Bears fans have taken their decades of quarterback-induced neuroses and channeled them directly at one unassuming young person from Mentor, Ohio.  Mitch Trubisky's first public appearance in Chicago after being drafted as the Quarterback of the Future was at a Bulls game when they showed him on the jumbotron and an entire stadium booed the shit out of him before he sheepishly appeared on the court to accept a jersey from Benny the Bull.  
It was not Mitch Trubisky's fault that Ryan Pace traded up to draft him over two vastly and obviously superior quarterbacks, one of whom to me looks like the best player to ever play quarterback in the history of football.  Nor was it his fault that he played for the fanbase most insane about quarterbacks in the entire National Football League.  It was probably his fault at least a little bit that he never learned how to competently read an NFL defense but to be fair that seems really hard.

I still have no idea how I feel about Mitch Trubisky.  Every time he started, even when his limitations were painfully apparent and it became clear that he would not become an even average, competent quarterback, I still rooted for him to finally figure it out.  And I laughed when he would reach back and do something profoundly oafish which was more likely while the cameras cut to a slow motion shot of him dejectedly ripping down his chin strap. I felt a little bad for him when he became a sort of living meme culminating in him getting an ironic Nickelodeon Valuable Player award by internet smart-alecks after performing incompetently in a playoff blowout.

It was hard to get a read on how to feel about Trubisky because he did not really display anything resembling a personality in public, and so he became this blank canvas upon which the derangement of NFL fandom got its full expression.  By the end of his run with the Bears, the best description for his job was as a mascot.  Locally, he inspired endless speculation, causing grown adults to go on searching soul journeys when calling into sports radio to mispronounce his name.  Nationally, he was only Mitch Who Was Drafted Over Patrick Mahomes, that's it, that's the punchline.  Now he's gone, off to Buffalo, bound only to pop up in case of an injury to Josh Allen where he will once again ascend to meme-hood whether he is good, terrible, or merely mediocre.

The Bears got rid of Trubisky, promising fans better days at quarterback and tantalizing them with visions of maybe Russell Wilson suiting up and after all of that they dropped Andy Dalton on us.  Andy Dalton.  Dalton might be the least inspiring, least interesting veteran backup quarterback to put on a team other than Nick Foles, who at least has inspired a number of bawdy ballads in Philadelphia.  Andy Dalton.  The Bears told their fans they would show them an exciting, romantic space opera and instead sent them a tediously detailed tome outlining the mechanisms of an intergalactic trade dispute.  Andy Dalton.  If you were to sum up the entire history of Bears quarterbacking over the past half century you could conceivably describe it as "Andy Dalton."  He's pudding.  The Bears have chosen not to move on from the executive who made possibly the worst quarterback draft pick in the twenty-first century and let him pick the next quarterback and what he came up with is Andy Dalton.   

I believe that the Mitch Trubisky debacle has finally caused a sort of psychic break in Bears fans where they are no longer interested in rooting for a team with a good defense and an Andy Dalton-style quarterback who hands off and tries not to throw egregious interceptions and just want to watch a single good quarterback once regardless of the rest of the team.  I would root for a two-win team that just lost shootouts week after week and didn't even have linebackers if it meant I could watch a quarterback do one of those demoralizing drives where they just hit open receivers one after the other to the point that it doesn't look like the other team is even defending them that I have to see done to the Bears constantly and have never seen from the other side.  I've seen the Bears win with insane, unfathomable defenses, incredible special teams, bruising running games, and that one season where they won exclusively from Mike Brown returning interception touchdowns in overtime.  I don't think I am uniquely deranged, and that there are others like me.  Without a competent quarterback, there is nothing to root for except for the Packers to not have a hall of fame quarterback for like a year.

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