The Bulls right now play a form of basketball that reminds one of Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king assigned to roll a boulder, again and again, to the top of a hill for eternity. Though the Bulls continue to have the worst record in the National Basketball Association, entering this workweek at 6-30, it’s simply not true that they show no signs of progress. The Bulls show signs of progress in almost every game. They may be prone to stupid mistakes that are a product of youth, their average age being the youngest in the league, but they have reached a point where their young players make more good plays than bad. Moment by moment, overcoming slips and slides, they roll their boulder up the side of the hill. Yet when things go bad for the Bulls–and they go bad at some point in almost every game–and the boulder starts to roll back, they seem powerless to stop it. The one boulder seems to turn into many, and the Bulls run down the hillside trying to dodge them like Buster Keaton at the end of Seven Chances.

The Bulls showed some large-scale progress at the turn of the calendar year. They closed out 2000 and opened the new year by winning three of five games, climaxing with a last-second win on a buzzer-beating shot by Elton Brand at the United Center. That victory reawakened memories of the Michael Jordan era for the first time in years, especially as it came against Jordan’s Washington Wizards, the team he now runs and partly owns. Brand was fantastic, not only scoring 30 points but finishing with a career-high eight assists, the last one coming on a pass out of heavy pressure to Bryce Drew for an open three-pointer that appeared to give the Bulls the game at 96-93 with ten seconds to play. Drew, however, committed an ill-advised three-point shooting foul on Chris Whitney on Washington’s next possession, and Whitney sank all three free throws, setting up Brand’s final heroics on a long turnaround jumper off the inbounds pass.

Brand has established himself as the Bulls’ leader and go-to guy, but while it’s good to see a 21-year-old player with the maturity to become the team’s main media presence–he stays long after games, win or lose, to answer reporters’ questions, while other players scoot out the locker-room door–I’m not sure it will be to his long-term advantage to be the team’s offensive crutch. That’s the role Jordan was given at a similar stage in his career–first by coach Kevin Loughery, then by Doug Collins–and it helped him develop his unbounded potential. Jordan, quite simply, was a work in progress, and giving him the ball night after night and telling him to win the game just built the unbridled confidence he displayed in later years. Brand strikes me as a very capable player, but no Jordan. He is now what Bulls fans hope he will be one day on a championship team: a role player, a meat grinder, a power forward who goes out night after night and puts up 20 points and 10 rebounds–and a pretty rare player in that regard, something not to be squandered.

Watching the Bulls play the Dallas Mavericks early last week, in their first game after the upset of the Wizards, I found myself wondering if the team wasn’t somehow warping Brand by leaning on him so much: throwing him the ball when the 24-second clock was about to expire, making him the main priority on every possession, and assigning him to play center and guard bigger players like Christian Laettner and the 7-foot-6 beanpole Shawn Bradley. Jordan was tested by fire and benefited from it, but Brand faces a similar test simply because he’s the best player on a bad team.

Anxieties like mine betray the Bulls fans’ dilemma, because right now Brand should be the least of their worries. I went to the Mavs game looking for signs of progress and saw some. Doubters might say the Bulls put together their three-of-five streak against weak competition–Jordan’s Wizards, for instance, are next worst to the Bulls, with a mere seven wins entering this week, and the other, better teams were probably distracted by the holidays. Yet the Bulls do have a nucleus of young talent, and they demonstrated it against the Mavs just as they have in spurts all season. They’d had several days to prepare for Dallas, and right away they showed they had a game plan to deal with the Mavs’ penchant for crosscourt passes. Ron Mercer stepped in front of one and keyed a fast break that ended with Ron Artest rattling in a jumper from outside as the Bulls drew first blood. Artest played his usual active defense, and though he couldn’t stay with the Mavs’ Dirk Nowitzki–a 6-11 forward who poses matchup problems for every team in the league, as he looks to be the product of German genetic engineers who somehow got hold of Bill Walton’s DNA and enhanced it with blond hair and a three-point shot–he helped the Bulls take the lead briefly in the second quarter. But Brand was the key player, taking it right at Bradley with his quickness and even running the fast break after reaching out and stabbing an errant Dallas pass. With the awkward concentration of a determined dad trying to win a picnic sack race, Brand dribbled down in the middle of a 3-on-1 and dished to Artest for a reaching, long-armed jam.

But with the Bulls leading 39-34, it all fell apart. Their double-teaming defense left Howard Eisley open for a three. A Mercer turnover led to an easy Dallas lay-in, and Michael Ruffin muffed the inbounds pass, yielding another Dallas three to put the Mavs up 42-39. It wasn’t over. Artest committed a turnover, and with Mavs flying all over the place Ruffin was left cowering under the boards as Nowitzki tipped in a rebound to make it 44-39.

“Take care of the ball!” yelled an exasperated fan behind me. “Awful, just awful,” he moaned.

Then Marcus Fizer, who’d helped the Bulls to their lead by coming off the bench to pour in a couple of nice outside shots, got called on an atrocious rookie foul–that is, a call that automatically goes against the rookie–by Hue Hollins (yes, one and the same) when Laettner blocked him going to the hoop on the fast break. At halftime it was 55-50 Mavs.

The second half again found the Bulls working at cross-purposes, fighting with themselves as they tried to get that boulder moving again. Artest, in his second year, has become one of the Bulls’ most frustrating players, playing energetic defense when he’s left to his instincts, but looking clueless and befuddled–like a grocery-store delivery boy trying to juggle too many bags–when he finds the ball in his hands in the Bulls’ offense. But just when one was ready to call on coach Tim Floyd to yank him–a tactic Floyd has already tried by pulling him out of the starting lineup–Artest picked off a pass and went the distance for a layup, then took it right at Nowitzki and finished with a scoop that trickled in over the front rim to get the Bulls back within one.

The Mavs pushed their lead to 80-72 after three quarters. Mercer didn’t help things when he tomahawked a jam and the ball bounced off the back rim. The Bulls’ sole noteworthy free agent signed this summer–in an act of desperation by general manager Jerry Krause after he was rejected by better players, even as he was waving piles of money at them–Mercer was having an atrocious night. He was outclassed at both ends by Proviso East alumnus Michael Finley, who scored 30 points while helping to hold Mercer to four on 2-of-12 shooting. Even so, the Bulls crawled back, and Fred Hoiberg’s three pulled them within a basket at 83-81. Then things went bad for the final time that night. The Mavs’ Steve Nash hit a three to make it 86-81. Ruffin somehow lost track of Bradley, who scored an easy hoop to make it 88-81, and then fouled Nowitzki to present him with a three-point play that put the Mavs up 91-81 with just over five minutes to play. Dallas coasted home, while Brand humped it up and down the floor to get his usual ten rebounds and a few extra points, finishing with 23 in a 104-91 loss.

“We played decent for about 40 of the 48 minutes, and had two four-minute stretches that just absolutely killed us,” said Floyd, astutely summing things up afterward.

The Bulls, I’m convinced, are not as bad as their record. They have a solid nucleus in Brand and Fizer and Artest (if he ever gets his head together–he had six turnovers all by himself that night)–but at the moment there are two huge holes: point guard and center. At center the Bulls have journeyman Brad Miller, a bench player on any playoff-bound team, and Dragan Tarlac, a ballyhooed product of Krause’s European scouting trips who has yet to settle in. Bust or slow learner? It’s too early to say about Tarlac, though one can point to the Mavs’ Nowitzki as someone thrown out there until he learned to play who came out pretty well. Drew plays the point like an accountant, so transparently figuring the angles that opponents can figure right with him, while rookie Khalid El-Amin has moments and no consistency; neither has the composure to keep the team together when it gets frazzled. That leaves 20-year-old Jamal Crawford, who looks better than either in pregame drills but evidently isn’t ready for the NBA; the sooner the Bulls resign themselves to letting him play and learn from his mistakes, the better.

That lack of a floor leader led to a series of collapses in the games after their meeting with Dallas. The Bulls blew a 19-point lead–11 points going into the fourth quarter–against the Hornets in Charlotte, then came home to blow a ten-point lead with just four minutes to play against the same team. Last Sunday a late eight-minute scoring drought led to a 90-81 loss to the Miami Heat, the Bulls’ 30th loss of the season. The Bulls are still pushing that boulder. Here’s hoping the young players don’t find their confidence crushed in the avalanche.