The Bulls we once knew were 3–20, a team that just two weeks ago slept alone in the NBA’s basement, hurtling toward favorable lottery odds and just maybe, a sunnier future. Depending on whose opinion you asked, it may not have been an awful thing. Chicago opened the season marked as fodder for stronger teams, characterized by mounting external frustration with the team’s direction (and the fact one player had punched another in the face) more so than the on-court trajectory of anyone in the locker room. This was all before the Bulls inexplicably ripped off their longest winning streak in nearly two years.
And so, to ask if this particularly not-so-good iteration of a proud franchise should be winning games has evolved into a two–fold question over the course of two weeks. The easy answer this season is that the Bulls should not be incentivized to earn too many victories. Ping pong balls and dreams of Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton are tempting. But now that the hapless Bulls are the NBA’s hottest team at the moment…maybe they should, on paper, be winning some games.
So they have. The Hornets, the Knicks, the Celtics sans Kyrie, the Jazz, the Bucks, and the Joel Embiid-less 76ers have gone down in order. The Bulls made it six on Monday, staging a nine-point comeback in the final five minutes and stopping Ben Simmons at the rim as time expired to protect a two-point win. Much-maligned coach Fred Hoiberg paired red-hot Nikola Mirotic with stretchy rookie Lauri Markkanen in the fourth, maxing out his team’s spacing to complement the ample pace at which they’ve functioned so highly of late. “These guys have made leaps and bounds as far as making plays down the stretch and playing with confidence,” Hoiberg said after the game.
“When you’re winning, everything gets easier,” explained Mirotic, who hasn't lost a game since returning. He scored 29 points, added 13 rebounds and continued to co-exist surprisingly effectively with teammate Bobby Portis, who, of-course fractured his face during a pre-season practice scuffle (though apparently, they’re still not talking off the floor). Both players are coming off the bench. Portis, while visibly a loose cannon at times, has strung together consecutive double-doubles. The Bulls have shared the ball, hoisted threes and kept things loose. “The crowd acts differently, everybody was cheering for us and they give us energy,” said Mirotic. “They just need to have more patience for us, and we’ll do our job every night trying to win as many games as we can.”
It’s fitting that all the feels from an emotional one-possession win over the in-process Sixers highlights the entire conundrum. The players, of course, aren’t trying to tank. But a true blue-chip addition to Chicago’s core isn’t coming by any means other than the draft. As the win streak uncovers demonstrable promise in young players like Portis and second-year point guard Kris Dunn, one might reason that hard-fought, teachable victories start to mean more. The give-and-take optics of rebuilding illustrate why bottoming out isn’t always as easy as armchair GMs might suppose.
Hoiberg had previously devalued wins and losses in conversations with the press, and when asked about that stance he hedged toward a middle ground. It’s the right spin for a team enjoying diminished expectations. “I still think it’s all about playing the right way,” the second-year coach said. To his credit, the Bulls have flashed the sort of uptempo offense he prefers, scoring 100-plus points in all six wins after doing that just eight times in their first 23 contests. “That’s growth for our team…It’s still about taking positive steps,” Hoiberg said.
It’s great news for Chicago fans that there may be some substance here. The new problem is that the Bulls might not be bad enough to get better. There are potential starting-caliber players on the roster, but the chance remains slim that a true franchise bell cow will blossom. Chicago has rarely fared well in luring star free agents over the years, and even with one in tow would be far from ready to compete. To reboot from this position, the team must bank on adding elite talent through the draft, where a handful of this year’s top prospects could significantly aid their long-term fortunes. The Bulls still own the league’s third-worst winning percentage, but are knocking on the door of a slew of mediocre teams, including the Magic, who visit Wednesday night. Each subsequent win is a step toward the lottery’s middle ground, but also a notch in the belt of a youthful, improving team that’s moving on from internal conflict. However, sustained improvement almost surely means another step away from a real star.
Six months ago, they still had one. By unceremoniously dealing Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves on draft night, the middling Bulls died and were born again. Then they were thrust back under the microscope, on their way to dumping Dwyane Wade and blowing it all up. The Butler deal was jarring in the moment, though hindsight suggests the haul may at least suffice. No matter where you see his upside, Markkanen’s size and impressive shooting translate at this level. Those traits made him a safe choice over a slew of talented guards at No. 7, and he may yet evolve into a quality scorer.
The Bulls instead addressed their backcourt with the additions of Dunn and Zach LaVine. Dunn struggled under Tom Thibodeau as many rookies have before, but appears to have regained his confidence through a fresh start. LaVine was damaged goods at the time of the trade, but is set for a January return after last season’s torn ACL and looks set to re-sign in the summer. Some skepticism is still warranted, but at least these are rotation-caliber pieces under team control. The Bulls thrifted waivers for the high-energy David Nwaba and have seen results from Portis, but there’s still no telling what all this amounts to long term.
The next few months will tell us where the buck stops, and when the prospect of long-term success starts to outweigh the value of winning now. Chicago’s front office braintrust will have decisions to make and veterans to consider offloading. Starting center Robin Lopez is an obvious trade candidate, but has two years left on his deal at cost. Mirotic has emerged as an emotional leader and may yet rehab his market value as he turns 27. He has no-trade rights due to Chicago’s team option for next season. Both could bolster playoff teams, but neither is simple to deal. Settling for long-term addition by win subtraction could still be prudent.
In the meantime, the optimism and the on-court product isn’t all that bad. The Bulls are having fun together. “It’s all about ‘keep winning,’” Mirotic says. “We don’t have to stop right now.” No, the Bulls don’t. But in the greater scheme of things, at some point, it probably wouldn't hurt.