It might be tough to remember now, as the Bulls sit a tick over .500 and as winners of 10 of their last 13 games, but there really was a time not very long ago when it appeared like Chicago had a chance at a high pick in the touted 2014 draft. They had the opportunity, it seemed, to be bad enough by both their own design and forlorn luck, to tank*.
(*Which isn't to say lose games on purpose, rather, be bad enough to be unable to win games while trying.)
This was in the immediate wake of Derrick Rose's season-ending knee, during an early December swoon that saw Chicago lose seven of nine, including games to bottom-feeders like the Bucks, Pistons, Cavs, Jazz and Knicks. Most of the roster was either out with injuries or playing hurt; the point guard tandem of Kirk Hinrich and Marquis Teague was maybe the worst in the league and even Tom Thibodeau had started to sound like a defeated man. And then the Bulls signed D.J. Augustin.
The Bulls lost four of their first five games after signing Augustin, but suddenly something clicked. The Bulls have been pretty damn good ever since, going 13-5 and tying Toronto for the fourth best record in the conference after their win Saturday in Charlotte. It was a game the Bulls won largely because of the contributions of Augustin, who dropped in six threes on his way to 28 points against the team that drafted him and deemed him a bust once his rookie contract expired. It was the third time in the last four games Augustin had scored 27 or more points.
The ascent of Augustin might be one of the stranger stories of the NBA season. He's gone for a player who fell behind Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone on the Raptors' depth chart earlier this year to being the functional engine the Bulls sorely needed. He's helped take this season from one where we might consider rooting for losses to one where that's no longer a question. He's helped make the focus on the games instead of on Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon and Dante Exum. He has, in no small terms, made Chicago Bulls basketball worth watching again.
It's a big claim, I know, and one not wholly truthful. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson were always the lifeblood of this team, and worth the price of admission, but the bumbling offensive incompetence of Hinrich and Teague left the Bulls with a clear, gaping hole at lead guard. It had the feel of a masterfully designed and decorated home with a tiny TV.
Augustin has changed that in a big way. His surface level numbers still might not be great, but they keep trending upward. In 23 games, Augustin is averaging 13.4 points and six assists. He's shooting 43.4 percent from the field (remember: D. Rose won MVP shooting 44.5 percent) and 42.7 from three on over five attempts per game. He's averaging three times as many assists as turnovers, posting a better assist/turnover ratio than Ty Lawson, Tony Parker, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard. He has an assist rate that matches Ricky Rubio and Jrue Holliday and is better than Kyle Lowry's.
D.J. Augustin has been really good, and you don't need the numbers to tell you that if you've been watching the games. Hinrich is such an immense liability on offense this season, threatening (with Ricky Rubio!) to become the first point guard of the modern era to shoot below 35 percent while playing more than 30 minutes per game. Marquis Teague was somehow worse, holding the honor of having the lowest PER (0.16) in the league. With Augustin, the Bulls didn't just find a replacement-level point guard, they found competence.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming, unlikely as it was. The Bulls have always had a knack for overachieving under Thibodeau and the coach's history with journeyman point guards speaks for itself. He turned John Lucas III into a one-time LeBron slayer, coaxed the best years of his career out of C.J. Watson and helped make Nate Robinson a folk hero.
It's not that Augustin never had any talent. He did. His success speaks to the simple formula of confidence x opportunity. That's what Augustin has found in Chicago, and it's led the Bulls to picking up someone playing like a legitimate starter. He's just a massive upgrade over the previous tire fire at point guard.
The Bobcats made Augustin the No. 9 pick in the 2008 after becoming an All-American at Texas as a sophomore. He was solid as a rookie but fell into an offensive slump his second season, one he never recovered from in Charlotte. He played in Indiana last year and was a punchline through the playoffs. The Pacers' weak bench was their biggest flaw, and much of it was because of Augustin. When Indiana signed Watson this offseason, he was thought to be a big-time upgrade.
And it's true, Augustin really was bad in Indiana last season. The Pacers' offense was more than six points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor offensively and three points worse on defense. Just look at how Augustin's numbers stack up from this season (with the Bulls) to last year:
The most noticeable thing there is the jump in minutes per game, which nearly doubled. At 26 years old, Augustin reached a breaking point in his career. It was now or never. He found an opportunity, one that led directly to confidence. At this point, no there's reason to assume he's going to fall off.
It's gotten to the point where the discussion around Augustin has shifted to the Bulls' ability to keep him on-board next season. Has he priced himself out of Chicago? Even Nate Robinson only got $4 million over two years after all of his heroics last season, so it seems too early to speculate on that.
What's important is that the Bulls have a point guard who can make things happen now. The offense is clearly just so much more potent with Augustin in the game, even if the on/off stats don't show it. If the Bulls were really going to have a shot at a high draft pick, it was because of their abhorrent point guard play. Now that Augustin is here, he won't let it happen.