We’re just about halfway through the NBA season and while some things are going as expected, like the Warriors continuing to shred the Western Conference, and Lebron James furthering a case for himself as the greatest of all time, there have been some anomalies. Among these oddities has been one very dear to me, that of course being the bizarre state of my favorite team, the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls’ strange season started with a massive trade on draft night; Chicago sent superstar shooting guard Jimmy Butler to Minnesota to reunite with former coach Tom Thibodeau, alongside the sixteenth pick in the draft, in exchange for point guard Kris Dunn, two-time Slam Dunk Contest winner Zach LaVine and the number seven pick, which materialized in the form of Lauri Markkanen. Initially, the move was panned across the board by fans and sports media alike, and the beginning of the season validated the criticism.
The Bulls lost Spanish sharpshooter Niko Mirotic for a month after a fistfight with teammate Bobby Portis just before the season started, and lacked the firepower to keep up with other teams in the league, going 3-17 through November. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves looked the best they have in a decade, firmly in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture behind Butler’s phenomenal play. But then, the stars seemed to align for Chicago, all at once.
On December 8th, Mirotic returned from injury, Markkanen and Dunn combined for 44 points, and the team snapped a ten-game losing streak, beating the Hornets 119-111. At the time, it was easy to dismiss it. It was just the Hornets, after all. The next day, the Bulls squeaked past the Knicks 104-102 at home – again, easy to dismiss. It was just a two point win, and Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis missed fifteen shots. Then came a 108-85 win over the Celtics – but Kyrie Irving didn’t play, so who could call it legitimate? Then another win, this time over the Jazz, without Markkanen in the lineup, and Dunn and Mirotic combining for 42, a little harder to dismiss. An eight point win over Giannis Antetokoumpo and the Bucks behind Niko and Kris’ combined 39 points, harder still to dismiss.
The Bulls would pick up victories over Philadelphia and Orlando to bring their streak to 7 wins, the longest the franchise had seen since 2014, before finally falling to King James and the Cavaliers, 112-115 in Cleveland. In a strange turn, this loss legitimizes the Bulls more than the seven preceding victories. The Cavs are the three-time, reigning, defending Eastern Conference Champions and a virtual lock to repeat again this season. For the Bulls to keep pace with them and to have come one missed three from Denzel Valentine away from sending the game to overtime is a testament to how far they’ve come even since their previous meeting with the Cavs, a 22-point loss on December 4th.
While it’s premature to say what this season will or won’t turn out to be for the Bulls, it’s worth mentioning how much their stock has risen. FiveThirtyEight’s NBA season projections currently have Chicago finishing the year at 30-52, with a 10% chance to make the playoffs. Comparatively, on October 22, the very same forecast had them finishing 24-58, and at the beginning of this month, they were projected to end the season at 19-63. There’s something special happening with this team, and it’s no small part due to the stellar play of Dunn, Markkanen and Mirotic.
Dunn, now in his second year in the NBA, is silencing any doubters that may have cropped up after his quiet rookie season. In 78 games with the Timberwolves, Dunn scored 293 total points, picked up 188 assists, 166 rebounds, 78 steals and 36 blocks. In just 30 games in Chicago, he’s almost eclipsed all of his rookie numbers, with 396 points, 176 assists, 138 rebounds, 60 steals and 11 blocks. Getting the opportunity to start, and playing for Fred Hoiberg, a coach who’s historically much easier for young players to grow under than Tom Thibodeau, has more than helped Dunn grow into his own, and molded him into the Bulls’ point guard of the future.
Markkanen has fully embraced the role of lead scorer, averaging 14.7 a night and shooting .338 from 3-point range. If he keeps at this pace, I might just have to change my pick for Rookie of the Year. Mirotic, both as a starter and coming off the bench, has proven to be one of the most important pieces for the Bulls, averaging a career-high 48% on three pointers, including the eight he hit in a win against the Pacers this past Friday.
Whatever it is that Hoiberg is doing with this team, it’s working, although it might cost them the draft picks that Gar Forman seemed to be seeking this season. Either way, it hasn’t been this interesting to be a Bulls fan in almost a decade and it only gets more interesting as we head in to the second half of the season.