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The Bulls’ ship be sinking

the play-in is very much a reality

Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks

The Bulls’ big victory over the Raptors earlier this week gave them some breathing room in the standings, and I was feeling pretty good about them securing a spot in the top six after that one. Two games later and those good feelings are shot.

The Bulls got busted by the Bucks and punked by the Pelicans to start a five-game road trip, and they’re trending hard toward a spot in the play-in tournament and an absolute ass-whooping at the hands of the Nets at the United Center. There would be another home game after that in this scenario, and I’d feel okay about beating the Hornets or Hawks at home to get the eighth seed, but it’s a depressing scenario to think about after the joy of the first half of this season. Even if they did win that second play-in game, there’s little reason to think a first-round series would be anything more than a gentleman’s sweep, though that still might be the case if they somehow pulled out the No. 5 seed.

Unfortunately, it’s the harsh reality of this Bulls team, especially with Lonzo Ball’s return nowhere in sight. This team just kind of sucks right now and has been mediocre for a while. I bought into them, foolishly, as a potential contender when they were playing great two-way basketball and blowing away initial expectations, but those expectations must now be recalibrated again based on what we’ve seen for several months now as the roster flaws (lack of two-way talent, shooting, size) are exposed.

Obviously the injuries have played a major role in things going south, but there’s no excuse for just how bad the Bulls are consistently looking these days. The 0-16 record against the top three in each conference is simply appalling. Even bad teams usually get lucky and can pull out the occasional win against a top team. The Bulls haven’t done it yet, though they’ll get one on their ledger if the Celtics keep wrecking everybody and move into the top three like it looks like they’re going to do. Of course, that win was a totally different Celtics team and feels like a totally different season.

Then there’s the road performance. The Bulls have been one of the worst teams in the NBA since the All-Star break thanks to their pathetic performance on the road, going 1-8 and getting smoked in almost every loss away from the UC. The one win was one in which they played like crap against the Pistons but pulled it out thanks to a late run. Six of those eight losses are double-digit defeats, and another one (Kings) was embarrassing in its own way and was a nine-point loss. The Bulls’ defensive rating is 122.8 in those nine games and the net rating is minus-14.6. I mean, what?

Thursday’s latest embarrassment against the Pelicans perfectly epitomized this whole shitshow. With no DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine came out and played one of his best games in a long time as he battles through his knee problem, even making a number of big defensive plays and turning them into offense. I’ll look past him getting destroyed on the boards for second chance points on multiple occasions because he played well overall and was one of the Bulls’ few sources of offense with 39.

But despite LaVine and Coby White going off in the first half, the Bulls were still down one because they couldn’t buy a stop. And then once the going got tough in the fourth quarter, they totally melted down, with Jose Alvarado stunting on them and letting them know about it after every big play. It felt a lot like the Bulls of the past four seasons, with LaVine trying to do everything while the team fell part once adversity hit. At least we saw Tristan Thompson pull more late-game goofiness by getting ejected.

The Bulls now have three more road games to finish this trip. They go to Cleveland on Saturday after the Cavs got owned by the Raptors on Thursday, which puts both of those teams just a game back of Chicago. While the Cavs haven’t been great lately either, there’s little reason to think the Bulls win that game on the road, especially if DeRozan is still hurting.

After that comes a back-to-back against the Knicks and Wizards. Both these teams are essentially finished, so if the Bulls can’t win both of those games, they deserve the play-in tournament. There is a string of five straight home games after that before finishing the season in Minnesota, but all five of those games are against teams set to make the postseason. Three of them are against East contenders (Heat, Bucks, Celtics).

Hey, maybe the Bulls are able to right this sinking ship and still get in the top six (that Raptors tiebreaker could come in handy). Maybe Patrick Williams gets put in the starting lineup (the broadcast was calling for this and I agree at this point) and makes an impact. Maybe Lonzo actually does come back instead of being out for the season. Maybe Alex Caruso gets back to wreaking havoc on a nightly basis. Maybe Ayo Dosunmu breaks through the rookie wall he’s ramming into over and over. Maybe the stars find the magic together again. Maybe the Bulls catch some breaks and play a competitive first-round series, or even pull an upset.

But that’s a lot of maybes. The Bulls are down really bad right now and look like a team ready to sink to the play-in tournament and go out sad, either in the play-in or the first round. Let’s hope this isn’t the case, because it would be a massive bummer after how much fun we were all having earlier this season.