The Bulls are two-and-a-half games out of last place, if we’re understanding it that way, and they have the seventh-worst record in the league with the Hornets, Nets, and Suns nipping at their toes. This was supposed to be a year submerged in the tank for Chicago and it still could be—Gar Forman and Jim Paxson, in a twist, did everything perversely right by assembling a roster of overmatched-to-promising young players and a few so-so vets—but what could credibly have been called the most moribund team in the league a few weeks ago has been doing a funny thing for the last little while: they’ve been winning. What looked at first like a surefire bottom-three squad now appears able to miss the postseason by a mile instead of several.
Is this a bad thing? The enlightened position of our day posits that it is. The Bulls are going nowhere special at the moment. They have very little in the chamber in terms of potential. Lauri Markkanen is having a nice rookie season, but he’s not Finnish Anthony Davis. Kris Dunn is trending toward good bench player/below average starter territory. Zach LaVine, who’s set to return from a knee injury in mid-to-late January, is an immensely gifted athlete who has yet to demonstrate that he’s a particularly useful basketball player. If the Bulls are going to build themselves into a circa 2022 powerhouse or even, say, whatever the Wizards are at the moment, they’re almost definitely going to need at least one or two high lottery selections going forward. Winning now—not even chasing a playoff spot, merely going on a mirage-y hot streak—messes with that.
And yet there is a slight comic and inspiring thrill, if you can embrace myopia and give yourself over to pure feeling, in watching a team that should hardly beat anybody string together some Ws. Especially considering the Bulls started the year not just poorly, but with clown-honking dysfunction, with Bobby Portis socking Nikola Mirotic in the face during a preseason practice, concussing Mirotic and fracturing his face. Portis was suspended for eight games and then somehow didn’t get cut or traded away, so he and Mirotic kept uneasily coexisting in the same locker room as the Bulls proceeded to lose 20 of their first 23 contests of the season.
Portis and Mirotic still evidently hate each other, but the team has been 10-and-4 since early December, recently dropping a couple close games against Washington and Portland. They’ve had one of the best defenses in the league over that span and while their offense—isn’t that supposed to be the thing Fred Hoiberg is good at? he’s never demonstrated much acumen in that department—is abysmal, they’ve been scoring enough to get by. Markkanen and Portis can both space the floor fine and Mirotic’s long-range shooting (46.6 percent) has hit Korverian heights. Robin Lopez is doing that Robin Lopez thing where he scores more than he has any right to, chipping in a tick under 13 points per game. In summary, what the Bulls are pulling off shouldn’t be possible—not like space flight, but in a hoo-boy-that’s-a-tight-parallel-parking-job sense. They aren’t any good, but they’ve been good for a while. That’s something to celebrate, if quietly in your living room, out of the earshot of anybody who can’t be bothered to care about Jerian Grant’s slim three-and-d prospects.
Back to the bigger picture: this purple patch the Bulls are enjoying isn’t indicative of much. It’s not the beginning of a great surge and a nine-game losing streak will likely soon find them, because you can’t play Denzel Valentine 28 minutes a night and get away with it completely. These wins are hurting their chances of ever becoming more than improbably competent. Finishing 17-18 with something like the eighth pick in the draft is just about the most disastrous outcome their season could produce.
Which lays bare the conundrum facing tanking franchises. Most modern fans understand that if their team is one of the six or seven worst in the NBA, they might as well be the absolute worst. That’s the most direct path toward title contention, or at least being worth a damn a few years down the line. This knowledge, while useful, also poisons their ability to enjoy their teams, since it essentially transforms the fans of bad-to-mediocre squads into standings-watchers rather than, y’know, people who watch twenty, thirty, sixty games per season hoping to be entertained by a win. It turns something straightforwardly fun—hey, would you look at that: the Bulls haven’t sucked in a month—into a source of worry and conflicted feelings. The team keeps winning, and you ask yourself should I be happy about this? And, really, you should and you shouldn’t. There’s no firm answer, only the edgy silence of wanting one.