Break up the damn Bulls! Three NBA teams have won eight of their last 10 games, and two of those teams are the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, a couple of superstar-laden superteams. The Bulls are the third team, and the Bulls are led in total minutes by Justin friggin’ Holiday. This run of success is, umm, unexpected! They’ve won 10 of their last 12 games, with their only two losses coming on the road against the Cavs and the Celtics. They’re balling!
And I am here to tell you this run is full of good wins: of the eight teams they’ve beaten over their last 12 games, only the Hornets and Magic are all the way out of the playoff picture. They’ve beaten the Bucks twice, the Knicks twice, the Celtics, the Sixers, the Jazz, and now the Pacers. Listen, dammit: the Bulls are balling. It started with the return of Nikola Mirotic, and it is starting to look like it might be a real thing. Since Mirotic’s return on December 8, the Bulls have produced a respectable 106.9 offensive rating, good for 14th in the NBA over that span; their defensive rating has rocketed all the way up to third in the league. Their plus-5.8 net rating over that span would put them fourth in the NBA over the course of the season so far.
Many individual Bulls players are kicking butt right now, but it would be hard to overstate the value the Bulls reap from having a wealth of genuinely useful big men, three of whom—Mirotic, Bobby Portis, and rookie Lauri Markkanen—can credibly play both interior positions and pull defenders out to the arc. Mirotic has averaged 18 points a night on absurd shooting since his return; Portis is putting up damn near 50/40/90 shooting splits on 26 percent usage during his 19 minutes of burn per game; Markkanen has had a couple slip-ups—he finished a game-worst minus-31 in Chicago’s lopsided loss to the Celtics—but his highs are damn near revelatory. Last night, against the Pacers, he showed off the total package:
I mean, who even needs guards when you have seven-footers who can grab and go, and scamper around a screen and knock down a quick pull-up jumper, and pick-and-pop for above-the-break threes, and soar in for emphatic put-back dunks? Big man versatility is supposed to be a main strength of the Pacers; Friday night Chicago’s trio of Mirotic, Portis, and Markkanen ran them in circles, to the tune of 72 combined points on 25-of-46 shooting, including 13-of-26 shooting from beyond the arc. That’s insane! And that’s a reservoir of firepower that is not likely to run dry, barring injury.
Here, for another glimpse at the hell these bigs present for opposing defenses, is Mirotic mercilessly bombing away over the Pacers:
I am getting carried away a little, I think. Even after this impressive run, the Bulls still have the worst point differential in the Eastern Conference, and the third-worst in the NBA. Their net rating on the season, at minus-6.4, is ahead of only Sacramento’s dismal minus-9.9. But the Bulls are up to 11th in the East, just 2.5 games back of the 76ers, the unofficial cut-off line of teams that had any realistic preseason expectations of vying for a playoff spot. With Chicago’s young roster, there’s plenty of room for improvement, to say nothing of the eventual return of Zach LaVine, their only real bonafide rotation-grade wing option entering the season. Markkanen will only get better. I fully expect the Bulls to hang 140 on the Wizards Sunday afternoon.
The Bulls are as hot as any team in the NBA, and they’re doing it with a roster that was designed to lose, and a head coach who very much appeared to be on the chopping block at the start of the season. They’re supposed to stink! And they’re not stinking!