The Chicago Bulls have been on a bit of a tear lately. In spite of trading veteran workhorse and locker-room favorite Luol Deng, tonight’s win over eternal basement-dwellers the Charlotte Bobcats pushed the recent win streak to five games. The Bulls have gone undefeated in the first weeks of 2014 and fan expectations are beginning to rise.
The road ahead will provide even more opportunity for chest-beating and claims that this team has “more than enough to win”, as coach Tom Thibodeau is so fond of saying. In their next five games, the Bulls will square off against the Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, and Los Angeles Lakers. The Wizards (16-19) will be the toughest test of this stretch, depending on which version of John Wall shows up, and the Bulls face them twice in a home-and-home. Beyond that, they face a 76ers squad in full-on tank mode, a group in Orlando who are just hoping Victor Oladipo isn’t so scarred forever by this season, and a Lakers team whose biggest ray of sunshine in recent weeks has been the surprisingly good play of Kendall Marshall, who was riding the waiver wire before his rebirth under Mike D’Antoni.
These aren’t the Indiana Pacers, OKC Thunder, or Miami Heat we’re talking about here. Heck, they’re not even the New York Knicks, who can explode on any given night as long as JR Smith doesn’t decide he’d rather spend the evening untying opposing players’ shoelaces. There is every reason to believe that the Bulls can win each and every one of these games, which would put them four games over .500 in a very weak Eastern Conference. As it stands after tonight’s win, they are sitting at fifth despite being 17-18.
According to ESPN’s Nick Friedell, Mr. “Heart, hustle, and muscle” himself, Center Joakim Noah was quoted after the game:
Noah on goals for team: “Just go into the playoffs with a high seed. I think these are all things that are realistic goals for us.”
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 12, 2014
Noah’s statement perfectly encapsulates reality for the Bulls. With former MVP Derrick Rose still sidelined, likely for the remainder of the season, there is little hope that this Bulls roster is poised for more than an early playoff exit. This is a grinding team that will almost certainly give teams all the fight they could ask for and more, but the lack of an explosive scorer to provide offense when the game slows down will severely limit the overall ceiling of this team. There is no reason to think that Bulls can’t accomplish this goal, but should they?
With one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory set to hit the board this summer, most of the lower-echelon teams in the NBA have begun positioning themselves to have the best pick possible. Boston still hasn’t said whether they will play Rajon Rondo at all this season, the aforementioned 76ers have all but admitted that they’re sucking on purpose this year, and many think that the Bulls should be doing the same.
This is a team that simply doesn’t know how not fight as hard as they can. It seems that, no matter what the front office does to strip the roster of its heart and firepower, they still come out every night with an indomitable will to win.
— The Bulls Show (@TheBullsShow) January 12, 2014
The picture is funny, sure, but don’t be surprised if Bulls management has more trades in store before the deadline. There is already a good deal of buzz around sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy, a key component in the the Bulls recent success, and the amnesty-laden contract of Carlos Boozer could make a tempting trade asset for another team with their eyes on the draft.
Don’t get me wrong: the Bulls streak has made for great basketball. They give absolutely everything they have every time they hit the floor. They don’t know how to quit. They don’t accept that they’re supposed to lose, despite watching some of their best players go down or get traded. They are the epitome of what a gritty basketball team should be. They’re just not built to be champions this season. If the Chicago front office wants to bring a title back to the Windy City any time soon, the odds are that they’re going to do everything they can to load up in the coming draft and clear cap space to pursue the so-called “second star” to pair with Derrick Rose. No one wants to see the team give up, but if there is any chance at knocking off the Heat or Pacers in 2015 and beyond, Bulls fans need to accept that comes with a price, and that price may be losing now to win later.