How the Bulls became the NBA's new kings in the clutch

Cleveland Cavaliers v Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers v Chicago Bulls / Michael Reaves/GettyImages

With how many injuries and setbacks they've suffered this season, the Chicago Bulls have had to fight hard to overcome these losses and remain firmly in the playoff race. This team has dug deep to climb all the way back to 34-35, with a chance to return to a .500 winning percentage on Thursday against the Rockets.

This comeback has been a testament to this team's willpower. I doubt many expected much from this team after the way they crumbled down the stretch during the last two seasons, but we're witnessing real growth, both in their performance on the court and their maturity off of it.

The Bulls have posted a 29-21 record since Zach LaVine originally went down with a knee injury, a 47.5-win pace that would have landed this team in the playoffs if extrapolated over an entire season. Not only that, it would also be Chicago's best since 2015.

Still, this team is simply missing too many pieces to blow the doors off other teams, even when they're playing their best. As a result, Chicago has consistently been forced to fight down to the final minute against contenders and bottom-of-the-barrel teams alike.

We saw this happen in recent close wins against strong teams like Kings, Warriors, and Pacers, while the Bulls also struggled to escape with a victory against the Trail Blazers and injury-depleted Jazz.

The good news here is that the Bulls are surprisingly competent in these clutch situations. Chicago has played 39 "clutch" games so far this year, which ranks 3rd in the league and just one behind the Warriors and Hawks. The Bulls are 24-15 in these games, a surprisingly impressive record that has them leading the league in clutch wins. Only three teams in the entire league have won more than 20 clutch games.

Against all odds, this battered and bruised Chicago Bulls squad is now the most clutch team in the NBA.

Billy Donovan has caught a lot of flak for how these past three seasons have panned out for the Bulls. Some of it is admittedly deserved. But at the same time, Billy deserves credit where it's due for how this team has performed in the face of adversity. The Bulls have over $70 million in dead cap stuck glued to the bench thanks to injuries — that's over half of the team's allotted cap space.

“The hard part for us is, at times, having guys in and out and not being whole,” Donovan explained to reporters about this team's difficulties establishing a rhythm, “It’s kind of like next man up. I don’t know if it’s frustrating or disappointing. The consistency, can we get the consistency to a higher level? And that requires everybody raising it, too."

As good as Billy has been, it's the players who are stepping up to keep Chicago relevant in playoff discussions. Coby White has been a shock, stepping up in the absence of Zach LaVine to not only be a replacement, but arguably an improvement. Averaging 19.5 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 38.8% from beyond the arc, White has firmly entrenched himself in the Most Improved Player award race.

DeMar DeRozan has been the real star of the show, however, putting together yet another extremely impressive campaign. Although he didn't receive his third All-Star appearance, DeMar has consistently put teams away in close games. As a result, DeRozan is now the odds-on favorite to win the NBA's Clutch Player of the Year award.

Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, and Andre Drummond all deserve plenty of credit for stepping up off the bench to deliver big moments this season. Their contributions have helped alleviate the loss of three starting-caliber players, while the trio of DeRozan, White, and Nikola Vucevic continue carrying the bulk of the burden. In fact, these very same three players lead the NBA in total clutch plus/minus, a testament to how much heavy lifting they've had to do at the end of games.

That being said, it does feel like this high workload is bound to catch up to the Bulls' stars sooner rather than later. DeRozan and Vucevic aren't exactly spry rookies anymore; this shallow rotation may make it more difficult for Chicago to get across the finish line without any more significant injuries.

If they can manage to stay healthy, however, this Bulls team has proven it can hang with any team in the league in a single elimination setting. For all their flaws, nobody's going to want to duel Chicago in the play-in tournament.

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