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This version of the Chicago Bulls just isn’t very good

harsh reality in another loss against an East contender

NBA: MAR 04 Bucks at Bulls Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bulls lost to yet another contender on national TV Friday night, dropping an exciting 118-112 affair to the defending champion Bucks at the United Center. It’s a fourth straight loss for Chicago, which now has them at 39-25 on the season and down to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls’ struggles against the NBA’s elite are well-documented:

The loss to the Bucks was somewhat similar to the loss to the Hawks on Thursday. The Bulls seemed to grab control in the second half with a big third quarter (Milwaukee is a notoriously bad third-quarter team), only to get wrecked again in the fourth quarter. After giving up 40 points to Atlanta in the fourth, Chicago gave up 37 points in Friday’s fourth quarter and got outscored by 13 after taking a seven-point lead into the final frame.

It was just yet another example of this current version of the Bulls not being all that good. I hate making the injury excuse, and Billy Donovan does as well, but it’s a simple fact that Chicago’s injuries have totally changed this team.

With Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams out, Billy Donovan is now finding himself turning to newcomer Tristan Thompson in double-big lineups with Nikola Vucevic. It didn’t work out against the Hawks, and it was especially awful against the Bucks as Thompson had no chance against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Donovan started both bigs, resulting in an early hole, and then he went back to it in crunch time, which didn’t work either. Thompson had four points, three rebounds (all offensive) and five fouls in 20 minutes, in which the Bulls got outscored by a whopping 25 points. The Bulls got smoked on the glass (50-40) and gave up multiple offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter despite the big lineup. Vooch and Thompson are a -16 in 21 minutes together so far.

This is obviously a small sample size, but it’s not all that surprising that the pairing has struggled. While Thompson has already shown his worth in a few games as a backup 5, relying on him playing big minutes and also playing next to Vooch is a recipe for disaster.

But that’s the position the Bulls currently find themselves in. They don’t have a reliable power forward on the roster (bless Javonte Green’s heart, but he’s obviously limited) and don’t have the lineup versatility they possess with Ball, Caruso and to a lesser extent Williams, who’s theoretically an ideal 4 for this team but whose impact is still mostly theoretical. Toss in Zach LaVine not being 100% (he was pretty damn good against the Bucks), and you get a mediocre product.

Obviously all teams have to deal with injuries, but this Bulls team is so uniquely reliant on Ball and Caruso because of the flaws of their three best players. The major questions surrounding the Bulls coming into the season revolved around their defense and if they’d be able to stop anybody with LaVine, Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan as the three best players. Ball and Caruso helped cover up those flaws better than anybody could have imagined, making Chicago a legitimate two-way team at the start of the season.

But the defense has totally fallen off a cliff over the past couple of months. The offense has remained elite, led by DeRozan’s historic scoring surge, but the terrible defense has resulted in a team that’s just flat-out mediocre. Since the Bulls beat the Pistons by 46 points on Jan. 11 to move to 27-11, which was right before the Nets and Warriors national TV disasters, they’re 12-14 with an elite 114.3 offensive rating and a truly horrendous 117.6 defensive rating, per Chicago is now fourth in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating on the season.

The Bulls did just win six games in a row before this four-game losing streak, but that was on the back of DeRozan’s ridiculousness during a soft portion of the schedule with a bunch of home games. DeRozan’s magic has worn off a bit (11-of-30 against the Bucks, 2-of-9 in the fourth quarter), and Chicago can’t rely on the defense to get stops if the offense isn’t humming. The Bulls naturally had no answers for Giannis on Friday, but they also got wrecked by Jrue Holiday, who scored 16 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter the night after Trae Young had 16 of his 39 points in the fourth on Thursday. Ayo Dosunmu has been a revelation as a rookie, but too much is being asked of him and cracks are showing in his defense. Holiday had his way with the youngster, who simply can’t make up for the Ball/Caruso absences by himself.

It’s still not clear when all the injured guys will be back, and I’m not going to sit here and say the Bulls will definitely become a legit contender again when they do come back. While Caruso should be fine, I’m concerned about working Ball back from knee surgery into a high-intensity playoff push. I’m not expecting much from Williams because he’s a 20-year-old who has barely played this season and who just isn’t that good yet.

However, if all these guys do come back and are playing at a high level, the Bulls will be a totally different team (they have a 102.0 defensive rating in Caruso’s 775 minutes) and a pain in the ass to beat, even in a much-improved East that has a number of really tough matchups. LaVine’s nagging knee issue throws a wrench into this, but just having those other guys back in the lineup will take some pressure off him, especially defensively.

For now, Chicago just needs to stay in the top six and avoid that play-in tournament. It feels inevitable that the red-hot Celtics (39-27) will pass the Bulls up soon, but the good news is the Cavaliers have slumped a bit too (37-27) and the Raptors just lost to the Pistons, Magic and Cavs to fall to 34-30. Even with Kevin Durant back, the 32-33 Nets are too far back to catch Chicago, with the Hornets and Hawks now catching them in the standings.

The vibes aren’t good for the Bulls right now, and the schedule isn’t going to get any easier the rest of the season. But it is what it is ... this version of the team just isn’t good and they need their injured guys back to be good:

This basically says it all.