The Chicago Bulls still control their own destiny…sort of

The Chicago Bulls have now won three games in a row, their fourth such streak this season, following their 108-96 handling of the Detroit Pistons. And while they still need at least one team (looking at you, Pacers) to falter to get into the play-in tournament, they do still control their own destiny…sort of.

You might be wondering just how is it a team that needs help reaching the play-in tournament can be in control of anything. Well, Garrett Temple just gave you the answer. But to put it another way: when it’s playing the long game, just as the Bulls have indicated they are.

Coming into the Bulls season, the thought was that the Bulls might challenge for a playoff spot thanks to the East being a lesser-than conference. But they were otherwise thought to be a couple of years out from seriously competing. A 15-17 start was more encouraging for this group than the record would indicate.

But something was missing.

The Bulls were top-10 in offense through the end of February as Zach LaVine’s All-Star campaign got going early. They ranked 24th in opponent points per game, and most nights were still a struggle, as evidenced by their winning just four games in all of March.

Then the trade came and suddenly, the Bulls catapulted themselves into the playoff conversations. National media praised their deadline acquisitions of Nikola Vucevic, Daniel Theis, and (what we thought were) spare parts. Local media began talking of the new regime’s clear-cut dominance over the previous regime in earnest.

Again, however, it was a struggle and the Bulls stumbled into, through, and out of the trade deadline with a six-game skid.

Change for the Chicago Bulls since April

April saw them go 7-10; again more encouraging than the record would indicate. They started the month 3-5 and then lost LaVine for 11 games. His return, two games into May, came amidst questions of his ability to re-integrate himself into an offense that had found out how to play without relying on him, something they struggled with even when he was on the floor.

That he’s come back and they’ve won three straight games, while keeping up the offensive flow and defensive effort, is exactly the type of thing Temple was talking about when he said he thought the Bulls would be a free-agent destination sooner rather than later.

And, if we’re being honest, that was always the goal of this season. It’s what the goal should have always been. An organization with the history of the Bulls shouldn’t be cellar-dwelling. It shouldn’t be banking on lottery picks. Instead, retool when there are cracks in the facade. It’s what large-market teams generally do, though that hasn’t been the Bulls MO in quite some time, if ever.

The AKME regime seems to want to change that.

We can argue how much can be done to improve their standing in that regard; you can’t take away Chicago winters. But for a veteran as respected as Temple to speak on the changing image of the Bulls around the league shouldn’t go unnoticed.

But he’s on the team and, as he said, wants to return next season. What else is he supposed to say?

Nothing. He didn’t have to say anything. And that is why what he said was significant. That he thinks free agents would like to sign here and that he himself wants to see the process through might be the most lowkey ringing endorsement a team can get in the midst of another losing season.

LaVine had 30 points and six assists on 62.5 percent shooting and canned his triples at a 60 percent clip too. But the Bulls continued to play through Vucevic (who had 29 points and 16 boards against Detroit) and held their third straight opponent to fewer than 100 points. Coby White has stepped his game up too.

Now, it has to be mentioned that each of the last three wins has come against wounded opponents, as many of their wins this season have.

Boston was without Jaylen Brown, Charlotte sans Miles Bridges, and Jerami Grant was M.I.A. for Detroit on Sunday. That’s a lot of firepower. But we know the Bulls didn’t get any excuses for losing winnable games when LaVine was out. Nor was there much sympathy for the fact they shook up their underachieving roster as they struggled to jell.

Remember the Chandler Hutchison hot takes?

So there is something to be said for them “turning the corner” and beating the teams they should. That’s something you can sell to prospective free agents.

The chance to be the missing piece plays right into the ego of the superstar athlete and the Bulls are putting it on tape that they can build a competent group. It remains to be seen if it all works out in their favor.

No, they don’t control whether or not they can make the playoffs. And the strong likelihood they lose their first-round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft doesn’t make the benefits of this year clear.

But they will be in a far better position this offseason if they continue this way.