One week ago, the Bulls were 3-20, on a 10-game losing streak and looking like one of the worst teams of all time. Now, Nikola Mirotic is back and the Bulls have won four games in a row. They don’t have the worst record in the league anymore (that belongs to the Hawks) and are close with a handful of Western Conference teams.
Proponents of tanking (I’m more pro-tanking than not simply due to the guys available at the top of this draft) don’t like all these wins and are worried about this team making a push up the standings to ruin their lottery position.
But while the Bulls are winning games right now and still have Zach LaVine coming back soon, there’s plenty of reason to believe this team is still a bad one that’s taking advantage of their schedule and getting a lot to go their way, even with the back injury to Lauri Markkanen.
Let’s dive into some key factors of the Bulls’ four-game streak.
The Bulls have taken advantage of a favorable portion of their schedule. They beat a completely blah Hornets team (again). They beat terrible road teams in the Knicks (1-8 on the road) and Jazz (2-10 on the road). They beat a Kyrie Irving-less Celtics team playing on a road SEGABABA that clearly didn’t have it. The Bulls deserve credit for actually taking advantage of this unlike earlier in the season, but they’ve definitely been helped by this.
The return of Niko was always going to give the Bulls some kind of push. While he’s infuriating and many hate him, he has proven to be a competent player when given the opportunity. Plus, Niko’s return meant the banishment of Cristiano Felicio, who sadly has been a train wreck this season. Throw in the return of David Nwaba and better performances from other reserves, and the Bulls’ bench has been KILLING folks lately.
Mirotic hasn’t just been competent, though; he has been shooting flames. After a sluggish return game against the Hornets, he averaged 24 points on 61.9 percent shooting overall and 55 percent shooting from 3 in the last three games. Even including his poor shooting night, he has an effective field goal percentage of 69.4 and a true shooting percentage over 70.
Here’s his shot chart:
Niko is shooting 19-of-34 outside the paint and 7-of-11 from mid-range. He single-handedly turned the tide of the win over the Jazz with a bevy of difficult shots in the second half. He has effectively been the difference in at least two of these four straight wins.
While I have been Team Mirotic, there’s just no way he keeps up this kind of shooting. It’s good to see him playing with this confidence, though, and at worst hopefully he keeps playing well in order to extract an asset by the trade deadline if the Bulls go that route.
Before the streak, the Bulls were 28th in defensive rating and giving up 109.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. During the streak, they’re second in the league and allowing 95.5 points per 100 possessions.
Some of this is genuinely improved defense bolstered by better effort. Kris Dunn has been making life difficult for opposing point guards. Nwaba is a pest on the perimeter. Robin Lopez is a credible rim protector. Niko isn’t bad! Watching the game last night, and the Bulls looked much quicker to loose balls than a team that was well-rested. These are all good signs.
But there’s also a bit of variance/luck here. This is particularly true when it comes to opponent 3-point shooting. The Bulls were allowing 38.2 percent shooting on 30 3-point attempts per game during their 3-20 start. They’re allowing 29.3 percent 3-point shooting on 30.8 attempts per game during their winning streak. Break it down even further, and opponents shot under 29 percent on “open” or “wide-open” triples over the last four games, per NBA.com’s tracking data.
Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum (though he has been really struggling) combined to go 4-of-14 from 3. Kristaps Porzingis and Courtney Lee combined to go 2-of-11. Jayson Tatum and Al Horford went 0-of-8 (to be fair, Marcus Smart went 3-of-6). All the Jazz shooters besides Rodney Hood shot below their season numbers from 3.
This is the kind of variance that can happen over the course of a season.
We’ve seen the Bulls have some epic fourth-quarter collapses this season thanks to dreadful offense down the stretch. It almost happened again in the win over the Knicks, but they were bailed out by a late foul call and Porzingis missing a wide-open 3.
But before that late collapse, the Bulls were getting buckets at will. And that has been a rather shocking theme lately: the Bulls have the league’s best fourth-quarter offense over the last four games.
The Bulls shot 61.3 percent overall and 61.1 percent from 3 over their last four fourth quarters. That’s good for a 69.3 true shooting percentage and 125.8 offensive rating. The Bulls were 28th in fourth-quarter offense before this.
A look at their basic shot chart shows how incredibly they’ve been shooting from outside during the winning streak in the fourth quarter:
That’s 22-of-35 (nearly 63 percent) outside the paint when legs should be getting tired. We saw Dunn hit two difficult mid-range shots last night to help seal the win after barely making anything prior.
The Bulls’ clutch offensive numbers still haven’t been any good (the defense has been great) and some of this hot fourth-quarter shooting came in the Celtics blowout, but in all three of the close wins the offense put up big numbers in the final frame.
It’s certainly pleasant to see the Bulls execute and hit shots down the stretch rather than vomiting up possession after possession, but these are wildly unsustainable shooting numbers late in games.
Even with all this going their way, the Bulls still barely eked out three of these wins. And, really, they were due for a few of these close wins after being on the wrong end of some of these other close games that they could’ve easily won.
I pegged the Bulls for the mid-20s in wins before the season, and now they’re starting to get on that track after such an ugly start. The return of LaVine should help a bit more, but he’s still coming off an ACL tear and there could be other injuries/trades that weaken the team in the future.
All in all, this is still a bad team that’s going through a hot stretch. There will be plenty more games where the offense tanks and/or the other team catches fire. What should happen less is embarrassing blowout losses, and if the Bulls can remain competitive while losing more often than not, that’s the best-case scenario and they should still wind up with a very high pick.
P.S. Get well, Lauri.