At this odd point of the strange 21-22 NBA season, which has happened in an increasingly goofy world, fans and analysts have their pick of bizarre talking points and related weird data sets to choose from. When everything is turned upside down and then submerged in funny juice, anyone can say almost anything, about anything, with a certain level of authority. That’s what a twin sensation has wrought upon the sport: half of it is the really high contagion rate of the Omnicron variant of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to rampant unpredictability in player availability, and a corresponding influx of G-League level talent; the other half is the health hangover resulting from two previous seasons played with an upsettingly compressed action rate. Contenders everywhere are missing veteran stars whose bodies have been challenged in unprecedented ways.

What the hell, many have wondered, are we even watching? And why, given the sheer randomness of it all, is the sport being discussed with its same annual terms? All things previously Mario are now intensely Wario, and appraisal and appreciation of the league is a progressively minefield-like endeavor. Few, if any, have taken the care to navigate the complex analytical context of the season, instead pretending with maximum effort that there has been enough normalcy to treat this year as one would any other.

This has been a winding prelude of context and exception, of course set up to remind everyone about the Chicago Bulls, who are back. Despite losing five of their last six, and despite a basically brand new roster and culture in one of the craziest seasons in the history of the sport, the Bulls remain the top team in the Eastern Conference standings. Take a look at all the major factors, and it’s easy to see that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the best team in the East. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have had shoddy health, and typically questionable title-defense motivation levels through their dog days. The Brooklyn Nets are one of the messiest juggernauts ever, thanks to Kyrie Irving’s thoughts about medicine, and now they’ll be without Kevin Durant for several weeks. The Miami Heat have been missing Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo for much of the season. The Philadelphia 76ers are dealing with one of the kookiest impasses ever in the form of whatever it is we now call the thing with Ben Simmons.

And yet, the Bulls have had their own substantial collection of woes. They lost a starter for much—if not all—of the season in their fifth game, and they were the first team to get so infected with the Omnicron variant that they had to cancel games. When they got back to playing them, they didn’t exactly have their top ballast on hand; Alex Caruso hasn’t played since before Christmas, and Javonte Green (an exciting small ball power forward who has admirably replaced the lost Patrick Williams) hasn’t seen the floor in 2022. 30 seconds into a recent bad loss to the Nets, Derrick Jones Jr. left the game with a knee injury. Two days later, Zach LaVine made it not five minutes into an equally embarrassing bleed-out against the Golden State Warriors, before departing with his own knee troubles.

LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have, in many ways deserved, gotten the attention for the team’s return to relevance, but close followers of Chicago’s season understand the team as a true ensemble, and without their wild hustle freak components—Green and Caruso, especially, acting as such kinds of generative mud boys—the Bulls’ symbiosis has been lacking. At times, this imbalance has been masked by success: in the nine-game winning streak that preceded their current slide, the Bulls’ defensive effort was pitiful. It didn’t matter, because DeRozan’s shot-making saved more than one day, LaVine was steadily excellent, and Coby White turned a corner and became his best self. 

The ongoing, at times gross, reinvention of Nikola Vucevic was helpful during the streak as well. The biggest x-factor on the team, Vucevic is no longer the top scoring option he spent his last several years with the Orlando Magic being. The Bulls rely on the veteran All-Star center for his ability to punish defenses as a gravitational playmaker from the high and low post, and as a short roll defense collapser near the free throw line. They have needed the low-turnover passing from these actions, along with his screening, rebounding, and hulkish irritation on defense more than they’ve needed his shooting productivity. When he provides these things and hits shots from all over the floor—in the way he historically has—the Bulls look like a legitimate title contender. But more often than not, Vucevic looks like someone who is at most two thirds of the way to comfort within his new role.

Without the elite point-of-attack defense that Caruso provides and the muck that Green and Jones make for offenses with their athleticism, Vucevic looks every bit like the bad defender that people who haven’t really watched him say he is. The Bulls’ scheme is not built in the fashion implied to be best by many analysts who seem to have learned of the sport yesterday, over-emphasizing the importance of a full-time workhorse janitor on the back line (they call this a “rim protector”) and downplaying the significance of everything that happens prior to that point. The Bulls are more shrewdly focused on stopping anyone from getting near the basket with leggy steam, with Vucevic often lowering his knees nearer the arc, using his size as a big temporary moat-style extension to a perimeter defender eschewing a switch.

Vucevic happens to be having the best defensive season of his career, on a team with an excellent defense when it’s healthy, but he is not scheme glue in the way elite defensive centers can be, with the Bulls instead relying on Caruso and Lonzo Ball’s ability to perturb ball handlers as the core of their stopping powers, and on Green and Jones' long arms and huge jumps as S.O.S. disruptors when the primary firewalls fail. With three quarters of that gone (four fifths, when you consider Williams’ absence) everything is fragile, to put it mildly. The Warriors exposed this in their 42-point rout, luring Vucevic into space and generally getting everything they wanted, capitalizing on the destabilization caused by LaVine’s early exit.

To some extent, coach Billy Donovan has made hay from the opportunities created by absences to essential players. White has found his groove with extra time, and rookie Ayo Dosunmu has been something of a two-way revelation as well. Recent Two-Way signee Malcolm Hill looks like he might become something, too. The Bulls were relying on players who don’t belong in the league as recently as last year, though, and don’t have the depth or cultural framework to plug-and-play for much longer. They aren’t the Heat, Bucks, or Warriors. 

But, exactly halfway through this remarkably tempestuous season, the Bulls have shown resourcefulness, resolve, and evolution ample enough to suggest that they could rise to that level with time. They have problem-solved their way to the top of their conference, and if they have their full armada together for the home stretch of the season, you’ll have enough stuff to point at as you say whatever inflated thing you want to about their chances in the playoffs. Haters may take the past week and point at that, and sure, why not? There are countless rhetorical NBA pathways available right now, and that’s an easy one to the tenuous comfort of denial, sought by many who still can’t fathom, or even emotionally fear, another post-Jordan form of relevance for the Bulls. And maybe Chicago hasn’t established that; maybe they only were back, are not right now back, and will soon return to full-time indignity, or mediocrity at best. Reasonable people with their eyes on the situation don’t see it that way, though, noting rather that a mere patchy beginning of a work in progress has already been good enough to take the team from 11th to 1st, and that the real new story of the Bulls, rich as the prelude has been, is certainly still ahead.