Two and a half weeks ago, the Bulls were a miserable 3-20, tanking their absolute hardest en route to a No. 1 pick.
Now, things have changed all of a sudden. With Nikola Mirotic back into the lineup, they’re 8-2, and that includes two wins over the Bucks in 11 days. They might not be as bad as we had anticipated!
Chicago’s front office was one of, if not the, most criticized in the league after dealing its biggest star since Derrick Rose in Jimmy Butler for pennies on the dollar. Kris Dunn had been less than good in his rookie season, Zach LaVine still hasn’t returned from an ACL injury, and Lauri Markannen wasn’t enough to convince Bulls fans that this deal would be worth losing their two-way star.
So Chicago braced for a season of lifeless losing with eyes on Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley, or any of the other prospective top picks in the 2018 NBA Draft.
But now the franchise is in flux, because this team of misfits is actually winning.
Everything started with Mirotic’s return
Before their starting power forward returned from the fractured bone in his face a la a cheap shot punch from the backup power forward, the Bulls posted a 99.5 offensive rating, per Stat Muse. Had they carried that pace for the rest of the season, they’d be far and away the NBA’s worst. They were shooting 34 percent from three, and 41 percent from the field, both per Stat Muse. That’s a surefire way to see a top pick in June.
But since Mirotic’s return, a spark has been lit behind the flamethrower range of the 6’10 Montenegrin shooter, who has carried the offensive load for a team he had historically been a mere contributor for.
He’s averaging 18 points on 51 percent shooting (24-of-50 from deep) and eight rebounds. His previous career-best year saw Mirotic average just 12 points on nine shots. He’s really taken the leading scorer’s role in stride, and the Bulls’ offense as a whole has responded to it.
The Bulls are scoring 10 more points per 100 possessions, according to Stat Muse, since Mirotic’s debut, and the team is shooting three percent better from deep, and six percent overall.
Everyone else is improving around Mirotic
Three of the Bulls’ four best two-man lineups (excluding lineups which have played less than 50 minutes together) include Mirotic. Their best combo? Yep, Mirotic and the man who punched him, Bobby Portis. The other two include Jerian Grant and David Nwaba.
Portis is shooting six percent better from the field in the last 10 games, and the team is allowing nearly eight points per 100 possessions fewer when he’s on the floor as well, per Stat Muse. That’s a huge difference!
The two are even showing signs of a recovering friendship on the court.
Aside from Portis, one of Chicago’s pickups from the Butler trade, Kris Dunn, is coming along as well. In the first 23 games of the season, he averaged 12-5-5 on 43 percent shooting, per Stat Muse. Those numbers have jumped to 14-9-4 in this 8-2 Bulls stretch.
Are the Bulls for real?
It’s still way too soon to think about Chicago being in the playoff race, but these wins haven’t been flukes. Over this 10-game stretch they’re outscoring opponents by four points per 100 possessions, and their victims include the Bucks twice, the Sixers, the Celtics, and a mere three-point loss to the Cavs. That’s a big deal!
The Bulls will most likely hit rough patches again, though. Mirotic probably won’t continue to shoot nearly 50 percent from deep, and on nights he falters, Chicago has few backup options. But this team, for better or lottery worse, has more talent than we gave them credit for.
The Bulls don’t look destined for the No. 1 pick anymore.