In the fifth game of the Chicago Bulls’ season, they ran into a problem that has yet to be solved. They only narrowly lost the game—104-103, to the New York Knicks—and were still 4-1 on the season afterwards. Because they then went on a tear that lasted for months, people forgot about the issue easily, but those prone to concern remembered what it looked like when Patrick Williams left the game with an injury that has kept him off the floor until now, and Lonzo Ball had to guard Julius Randle.
Ball was at a disadvantage of a few inches, but dozens of pounds. The Bulls were outrebounded 49-37 in the contest, and are the second worst team in rebounds per game over the course of the season. Without Williams, Bulls lineups have primarily been made up of one center (Nikola Vucevic), and four players who have spent most of their careers labeled as guards. Not so surprisingly, they have also been one of the most injury-riddled teams of the year; Williams was just the beginning, with Ball, Alex Caruso, Derrick Jones Jr, and Javonte Green also missing significant time. Zach LaVine has missed some as well, but more importantly he has a compromised knee and does not look like his typically explosive self out on the floor.
Undersized, battered, and visibly very tired, the team has now hit a wall of elite teams and lost eight of their last ten games, with just three victories to their name since the All-Star break. It’s a tough time to be a Bulls fan, especially given the great ecstasies of December and February. March is, of course, a dubious dog-days portion of the NBA calendar, made up of an odd mix of tune-ups, load management, tanking, and malaise; aside from a few cornerstone, definitive MVP race performances, what happens during this month usually stays here, with the real memories coming in April and May.
That’s where the more optimistic take on the state of the Bulls begins. It is, technically speaking, possible for them to get healthy and right over the next few weeks, return to their beautiful uptempo ensemble ways of earlier in the season, and master the only occasionally witnessed perfect scoring balance between LaVine, Vucevic, and DeMar DeRozan. It’s DeRozan, above all, who has papered over the Bulls’ otherwise glaring roster flaws for much of the year, having the best stretch of his career before the All-Star break with 34.2 points per game in February, on 55.3 percent shooting. These numbers may seem absurd, but they are even more so when you observe how they were collected; over and over, DeRozan ratcheted his scoring up as the game wore on, knocking out opponents with unguardable mid-range touch in the clutch.
We saw something similar from Damian Lillard last year: his Portland Trail Blazers, like DeRozan’s Bulls for much of this year, outran their average offensive and defensive performance in the standings because of how often his hot hand in the game’s waning moments got them a slim victory. Like last year’s Blazers, the Bulls are now discovering how unsustainable a winning strategy this is—rarely has their diet included the meat-and-potatoes of any elite team, which is blow-out victories. As teams aggressively trap the silver bullet that is DeRozan more and more, they aren’t even eating wins.
And because the Bulls are so small, they inevitably lose almost every micro-battle in the post and on the wing, and are simply bleeding out by way of attrition. It may have been better with a healthy Williams, who has seductive potential as a big wing power forward, but sturdy 82-game roster design does not rely so much on a single 20-year-old. That Chicago has recently signed and immediately integrated the clearly declined Tristan Thompson into their rotation so prominently is a testament to how ill-prepared the team was for the big boy beef war that any season more and more becomes as it persists. After spending most of the season near the top of the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are now being boxed out of a higher seed.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. The team’s improvement from last season has been gargantuan, and aside from Vucevic and DeRozan, they remain a young core with massive potential for improvement. That is true of the next several weeks, but even more so for the next several years. Pessimists may contend that there is no replacing Vucevic and DeRozan as they age, and that the Bulls’ barely open window for a deep playoff run has already closed with their missed chance at making everything work this season. But Chicago’s new front office regime has already surprised its fanbase a lot with its resourcefulness, and now they have more of a base to cook with than they did before.
However much longer the ride of this year lasts, it’s clear that the organization is capable of constructing another, probably better one in the near future. The Bulls season has been a success because it has proved that, and revitalized the city’s attachment to its team. There is little doubt that they will be seeking the bigger bodies who can keep the team vital into Spring in the coming offseason, and if they can balance that pursuit with the dynamic guard-driven frenzy that has carried the franchise back to relevance, then they will have a more playoff-ready stew on their hands. And perhaps this beleaguered version of the team is a mirage, soon corrected by what happens next. But for now, it appears that while the Bulls are still back, it’s to somewhere noticeably short of the glory that their logo portends.