Every time we go back to the Bulls they’re a different team. That’s the great thing about them. It’s also the aggravating thing–for their opponents but also for their fans.

The Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team through 13 years and six championships. They were Toni Kukoc’s team when he was suddenly the only championship Bull left, then Elton Brand’s team when Jerry Krause made him the top pick in the NBA draft early in the Bulls’ lean years. Then Krause swapped Brand for high school phenoms Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler. The Bulls should have become their team but they didn’t seize the opportunity. John Paxson replaced Krause and drafted Kirk Hinrich as his point guard of the future, and the Bulls became his team as much as anyone’s. But when Ben Gordon followed and established a reputation for late-game heroics they were Gordon’s team. Argentine import Andres Nocioni put his stamp on the Bulls with his hard-nosed play, especially during last season’s playoffs, but they were never really his team; Hinrich took back the leadership role in the Bulls’ drive-and-dish offense.

More recently, Luol Deng, a flowering third-year player at the age of 21, has shown signs of making the team his Bulls. But actually it’s Paxson’s team. Hinrich, Gordon, Deng–and until his recent injury, Nocioni–all battle for supremacy, but in the Bulls’ fluid style of team basketball the chemistry is in constant flux. Deng becomes ascendent for a few nights, then Gordon gets hot, and then Hinrich finds opportunities as opponents concentrate on the other two (or three, when Nocioni is playing). Lovely as it is to watch the Bulls shift in form from week to week, they are maddeningly inconsistent.

They looked ragged at the start of the season, when they were trying to work newly acquired center, defensive specialist Ben Wallace, into the mix. They lost every game on their annual fall west-coast swing and fell to 3-9. Yet their core talent was obvious, and I wrote that by the end of the calendar year they’d probably be on their way. It didn’t take that long. They won 12 of 13 games and ended December at 19-12.

Yet they opened the new year by losing five of six. They won three straight, lost two, won three, lost four of seven on another west-coast jaunt, then lost two more. Those defeats sent them into last weekend’s All-Star break 29-25, in fourth place in the intensely competitive Central Division but sitting comfortably in the sixth playoff spot in the NBA’s generally weak Eastern Conference.

Coach Scott Skiles made it clear the pause wasn’t an occasion to reassess; the time for that had already passed. “The break is not the halfway point anymore,” he said. “We only have 28 games left, and after the break everything picks up very quickly, and before you know it the season’s over.”

Skiles’s understanding of what time it is, and also his ability to manipulate the Bulls’ chemistry, are team strengths. At the break the Bulls were ahead of the pace of last year’s team, whose dish-and-drive offense run by Hinrich, Gordon, Nocioni, Deng, and third guard Chris Duhon came together in the final weeks and made the Bulls fearsome playoff competitors. (They were eliminated by the eventual champions, the Miami Heat, but played them as tough as anyone.) The hope was that these players would do the same this year–but this time with Wallace, who’d perhaps be augmented by shot-blocking rookie forward Tyrus Thomas, holding down the center at the defensive end.

There were a couple of concerns. Wallace has always been a stiff offensive player; the Bulls hoped for improvement when they planted him in the middle of their perimeter offense, but it wouldn’t materialize. And for all his raw skills as a leaper Thomas was a rookie, and therefore prone to “rookie fouls” from referees honoring the NBA’s entrenched caste system in which younger players must prove themselves and stars get all the calls. So some analysts–notably the Tribune’s Sam Smith, who has never met a speculative trade he didn’t like–called for the Bulls to deal young talent in exchange for a power forward who could put points on the board and give the team a more balanced inside-outside attack. Paxson admitted that he was tempted, and that his job calls on him to be ruthless and objective. But he immediately added that he likes his young players as talents and as people and wants to see them develop.

I hope Paxson sticks with the kids, especially after what I saw last week. A clearly road-weary team returned from its seven-game west-coast swing to play the Toronto Raptors before heading to Charlotte to meet the Hornets the following night in the last game before the break. With the United Center barely half full thanks to blizzard conditions, the Bulls were impressive. Oh, they looked sick in the first half: “We were more than a step slow,” Skiles admitted. And he played every one of his 12 active players in an attempt to find someone with fresh legs. But Hinrich, Gordon, and Deng all played the entire second half, as Skiles shuttled in Duhon for P.J. Brown to go small and fast and Thomas for Wallace to add youth and spring toward the end. The Bulls almost pulled it off. Deng looked like a hybrid of Scottie Pippen and Bob Love–and considering that Pippen and Love have their numbers retired and hanging in the rafters, that’s quite a hybrid. In addition to deadeye outside shooting, Gordon displayed improved moves driving to the basket, and Hinrich, as ever, dictated the tempo of the offense and hit the open shots. Duhon came off the bench to add 16 points. Deng, Gordon, and Hinrich had 30, 26, and 18–Hinrich adding 13 assists–and Gordon’s three-point play with 12 seconds put the Bulls up 111-110. But Thomas was called for a rookie foul in the final seconds and the Raptors hit the free throws, and Gordon was fouled without a call as the buzzer went off. So the Bulls lost 112-111.

That loss only increased the calls for the Bulls to make a trade. I’d rather see what they can do with what they have, especially with Nocioni returning. Skiles said the players were approaching the trade rumors philosophically. “I think they’re handling it well. Guys are even joking about it with each other some. So I think they’re taking it in stride. Most guys know it’s part of the business.” Then, referring to the weather, Skiles cracked a joke. “On a day like today,” he said, “probably everybody would want to be somewhere else.”

Not me. I wanted to be right there to see Hinrich, Gordon, and Deng. They might not be Jordan, Pippen, and Horace Grant, but I’m eager to find out where they can take the Bulls in the next few years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images.