Nothing you are about to read should be construed as any sort of signal that the Bulls are now good. They are not. They’re bad. They’re so bad, in fact, that this run of good play, now, in December, might actually be a bad thing for them. Tanking incentives are about to change, and the Bulls, desperately talent-poor, are positioned for a final glorious push for lottery gold. Possibly they should consider kneecapping these dang frisky players, or trading them to the Yukon. Maybe it would be a good thing for Chicago’s rebuilding plans if Bobby Portis hauled off and socked Nikola Mirotic a second time.
But, hey, lookit, the Bulls are having a nice moment of being, you know, actually good, by the traditional definition of the word:
Before you go ahead and assume the Bulls did this by beating the Hawks five times in a row, you should know that the five wins have come against four-and-a-half legitimate NBA teams: the Hornets, the Knicks, the Celtics, the Jazz, and the Bucks. Three of those teams are above .500 on the year, and the Jazz are a perfectly respectable NBA outfit. This is a credible win streak!
So how’ve they done it? The Bulls, even after the win streak, have the very worst offensive rating in basketball, and the 22nd ranked defensive rating, and if you were pegging one of those two categories to improve upon the return of Nikola Mirotic, you probably would’ve picked the offense. There you would’ve been incorrect—over their last five games, the Bulls have the best defensive rating in the NBA, a delicious 98.5 points per 100 possessions, and against a reasonably tough bunch of offenses: all of the Knicks, Celtics, Jazz, and Bucks are ranked in the top half of the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Chicago still has the very saddest collection of guards anywhere in the NBA—they’re starting Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine, for crying out loud—but their relative glut of interior players has become a source of competence, if not strength, now that Mirotic is back in the fold. He, Bobby Portis, Lauri Markannen, and Robin Lopez have spent the past five games taking turns looking like Chicago’s best player. No single one of those players is quite special, but they’re all reasonably useful on offense, and if they Bulls can play tough defense over an extended period with any two of them on the floor, first of all that would qualify as a minor miracle. More to the point, that at least gives them the opportunity to form an offensive identity around the deployment of reasonably versatile, reasonably stretchy bigs to force opposing defenses into some uncomfortable contortions.
Last night, against the Bucks, the main man was Portis, recovering teammate-puncher and erratic basketball man. He was great! Portis got himself going with a couple threes to help close down an early Bucks lead, and stayed hot the whole way, setting a new career high with 27 points in the victory:
Portis has this kind of frenetic energy that, in his usual haze of defensive confusion and misplaced offensive aggression, makes you want to put your arm around his shoulders and lead him to a soothing place where he can, I don’t know, take some deep breaths and chill. Most nights he looks like the game is moving too quickly for him to process, and he’s compensating by burning all his energy stores on flailing limbs and moving screens. But on those occasions where he finds himself in the right spots and against the right matchups, that same energy morphs into a bullying, relentless style that can give him a real edge.
A smart thing Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg did was move Portis to the bench and make Mirotic the starter. Portis doesn’t much like to pass, but there aren’t actually five Bulls players who should ever touch the ball in an NBA game, and Portis is less likely to share the floor with any of them if he mostly plays with the reserves. Mirotic has rewarded this move, too, by giving the Bulls 20 points a game on 67 percent True Shooting since his return, and even better numbers in the games he’s started. Since this is almost certainly the last time we’ll celebrate the Bulls before the draft lottery, let’s go ahead and enjoy Mirotic’s big night against the Jazz:
There aren’t many guys Mirotic’s size who can rip off a pass, steam up the floor in transition, and dribble into a pull-up three-pointer. But what Mirotic, Markkanen, and Portis all have in common is the ability to spread the floor and make plays out on the perimeter at one end, while having the size to at least pretend to defend around the rim at the other. The Bulls are defending, and while they’re defending, they’re scratching enough offense out of these lumbering heroes to string together some wins. It’s a formula for competence, and over an 82-game season, a team that can maintain competence is going to run into some wins. That the Bulls might wind up being one of those teams is as big a surprise as this NBA season is likely to serve up.
In all likelihood, you have now heard the Bulls discussed in a positive light for the last time before, like, June. The remainder of their December schedule is really tough, and you can only go so long giving rotation minutes to Jerian Grant before the rest of the league remembers how easy it is to dunk your whole basketball operation into the toilet. But good basketball is good basketball, and the Bulls are on a fun little run. For now, they have ceded the pole position in the race to the bottom to the Atlanta Hawks.