But that’s how a bad team becomes an average team: consistently beating the bad teams.
While the Bulls 6-8 record won’t impress anyone, most fans would have been thrilled with 6-8 after seeing the opening schedule. It won’t count on the books, but the league’s last two minute report shows the Bulls were definitively robbed in two of those losses as well.
All the trends point towards this team taking a step away from their bottom feeder status towards a middle of the pack team.
The worst losses were early
The Bulls have been blown out three times this season. Two of those, against the Hawks and Pacers, were very disappointing in that those teams didn’t project as particularly tough opponents. A third blowout by the Bucks was less surprising or concerning.
All three occurred in the first six games. Since then, the Bulls played two tight games with chances to win against the Clippers and Lakers (albeit without Anthony Davis) showing they can compete with the top of the league without getting annihilated each night. They’ve beaten most of the teams that an average team should beat and lost in tight games otherwise.
Coaching is the difference
After suffering one of the worst collapses in memory against the Thunder, the Chicago Bulls could have folded. The Boylen led version of this team would have folded. Instead, the Bulls came back with back to back wins where they led nearly wire to wire and answered all charges by the opponent.
Even though I thought Boylen was awful, I thought coaching just doesn’t move the needle all that much and that bringing in a new one wouldn’t have that significant of an impact.
I was wrong. Billy Donovan moved the needle significantly. Look at the roles that everyone plays, and every player on this roster feels more comfortable about their role.
Zach LaVine’s improved playmaking is apparent. Zach had a stretch of around four to five possessions in a row where he drove and kicked to a wide open shooter that missed the shot. Early in both the Dallas and Houston games, he looked to set other guys up for shots first before getting his own offense going. Against Dallas, he never did, but still finished with 10 assists.
Against the Rockets, after a quiet first quarter, Zach finished with 33 points and seven assists. LaVine recognizes the improved offensive talent around him, and is looking to move the ball and eliminate those hero ball possessions. Watching the game, I repeatedly saw possessions where I said to myself “Zach’s putting a shot up here” only to have him make a better decision to pass off to an open player.
Zach’s growth and changing role this season has sparked renewed hope in the role he can play on a contending team. He’s both less selfish with the ball in his hands and playing off the ball more frequently, yet his output has improved in all areas. LaVine now looks like a player that would fit perfectly next to a ball dominant star if the Bulls could acquire one.
Wendell Carter Jr touches the ball more frequently as a decision maker. He’s doubled last years assist rate and taking shots from a much wider variety of places on the court. He doesn’t look like a future star but bounced back after regressing last season.
Lauri Markkanen no longer stands around in one spot just waiting for kick outs. He now moves off screens, attacks closeouts more, and goes into the posts against mismatches. Not only has Lauri bounced back from last seasons regression, but he’s put up his best season to date.
Thad Young was never a three point shooter. Now he’s now back to getting his offense close to the basket, attacking with his dribble and posting up mismatches with limited threes and only wide open ones. Thad looked washed up last year, now he looks like a valuable role player for a playoff push or someone a contender might trade for.
The story is similar up and down the roster in smaller ways too. Coby White has been challenged to build new skills: not benched for miscues but instead allowed to play through them. Otto Porter has provided steady play after finally getting back on the court. Garrett Temple is off to a fantastic season, Denzel Valentine looks like he may resurrect his career, Daniel Gafford looks good in spot minutes, and the few times we’ve seen Tomas Satoranksy this season, he’s looked completely revitalized.
The Bulls have real depth
Donovan has taken this roster and put everyone in a better position to succeed. He’s fundamentally improved the value of most of these players. I thought the Bulls sitting on their hands prior to the season tipping off was a mistake, but trade value looks improved for virtually the entire roster.
The roster now looks so deep to where regularly missing three players a game is almost a necessity to find minutes for all the others on the roster deserving them. A fully healthy Bulls team can field a lot of looks and is stacked with valuable wings.
This leads to an interesting question for Arturus Karnisovas at the trade deadline. Do you keep this depth which is invaluable in a COVID year, where contact tracing can render half your team gone at any moment, or do you look to trade it and focus on the players that have long term developmental potential?
Chicago will have to decide how much it values this depth and increased potential for a low playoff birth vs the ability to improve the asset base with additional picks, even though they’re likely to be late 1sts. Regardless of the outcome, the mere existence of this choice is a huge improvement over what was the offseason evaluation of this roster.
All trends are pointing in the right direction
This team isn’t building towards a future title contender, but is headed in the right direction one step at a time. What Karnisovas has done, which wasn’t much, looks to all be working. Temple looks like a great signing. Patrick Williams looks like a great pick. Donovan looks like a great hire. The decision to wait on trading assets looks likely to return more value.
It’s still early, and my faith in the competency of this team could still be shaken easily. But on the court the team is fun to watch, and off of it management decision-making looks. After the disastrous campaign last season, this is as much as I could hope for.