Sports fans, much like politicians, like to put things into binary terms. We don’t often work across the aisle; a coach is either a genius or has a seat hotter than a skillet. Your favorite player is a stone-cold killer or Mongolian league-bound bench rider. A fanbase’s team is tough as nails or, as Patrick Beverley might agree, Charmin soft. In much the same way, seasons are often sorted into failures or successes, regardless of context. The Chicago Bulls face the reality that – barring a ’99 Knicks-esque run – this season will be considered a disappointment.
After a 46-36 record that largely didn’t feature key free agent addition Lonzo Ball or 2020 top pick Patrick Williams, the arrow should have been pointed firmly upwards.
Instead, much like your least favorite tech bro’s favorite bank, their stock cratered. Ball has gone from a franchise point guard to one of the league’s sadder stories. Despite a full season of Williams, who has continued to earn more run from head coach Billy Donovan, the Bulls’ growth has been stunted. Sitting at 36-39, they are guaranteed a worse record than last year, and stand to lose their first-round pick to the Orlando Magic if it lands outside the top four.
It’s also possible that this season is unfolding in the worst timeline. A team with the Bulls’ +1.3 efficiency differential would be expected to win about 44 games, per Cleaning the Glass. This season, Chicago has underperformed their expected win total more than any team in the league, just a year after overperforming more than any team but one (the anemic 27-55 Blazers).
In more abstract terms, this season is karmically balancing last year’s achievements. More realistically, data normalizes over a larger sample size. Average out the last two years and you find a .500 team with good individual pieces, but no one mega-star to raise all tides.
Compounding issues, after a trade deadline of sleeping at the phones, the franchise’s direction seems aimless. Nikola Vučević may be out the door as a free agent. Zach LaVine remains a defensive question mark with a concerning injury history. DeMar DeRozan remains an All-Star but turns 34 this year.
Despite disappointing results this season, that doesn’t mean the Chicago Bulls can’t take away a few positives to build upon moving forward.
However, it’s better not to think in binaries; there’s no such thing as abject failure or a hopeless future. Sitting at the 10th seed in the East with multiple games up on the Pacers, the Chicago Bulls are most likely looking at a play-in tournament matchup with the Hawks or Raptors, the two teams ahead of them. Since Beverley joined the team, the Bulls have been rolling at 10-6.
Young Bulls have been given the chance to shine down the stretch, too. Coby White has performed well with more playing time recently, and at 23 he could be a part of the next good Bulls team. Similarly, Williams has shown promise and could show even more in an expanded role.
Despite all this, barring a miracle of religious proportions, the Bulls face a rebuild/retool soon – but it may feature members of the current roster. White and Williams is an outstanding name for a law practice and future 10-year vets. Ayo Dosunmu is a rotation player on any team. Focusing on the youth gives hope for the future, even when abandoning the present. You can even keep Beverley on to be Mr. Miyagi to Dalen Terry (Grayson Allen is Johnny Lawrence).
In between the excellence of teams like the Bucks or Nuggets and the little league discombobulation of the Rockets or Hornets are many teams like the Bulls; stuck in a purgatory of their own making. There is no fault in trying to put a good product on the floor. Despite seeming to have a second-round ceiling on this roster, general manager Artūras Karnišovas built a team capable of making the playoffs. Unfortunately, in a league dominated by superstars, no one on the roster shines bright enough.
Even the rustiest lemon of the car can be sold for parts. It feels demoralizing to start the fourth or fifth rebuilding period in the last 25 years, but the next great Chicago Bulls team is not this one. What remains to be seen is if the player to lead that team is here, or if the best is yet to come.