Winning games in a rebuild has its benefits

This was meant to be rebuilding year. In many ways, it still is. Typically, though, overhauling a roster and filling it with inexperienced and limited players doesn’t result in nine wins in 11 games.

Rebuilding is usually accompanied by pounding defeats with the occasional surprising victory. For the first 23 games of the season, that’s exactly what was happening. Pro-tankers (like myself) were comfortable with a 3-20 record and its potential upside of a top-3 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Things have changed. The Bulls are now winning games. Not just the occasional win against another cellar dweller, but against competitive teams vying for the playoffs. The Bulls are reborn and the tank may be dead.

The sudden turnaround has seen the Bulls climb from the bottom of the standings. They were the worst team in basketball three weeks ago and owners of the highest odds to land the coveted No. 1 pick. The recent winning streak has dramatically changed those odds. If the draft were tomorrow and teams received picks based solely on their record, the Bulls would own the No. 9 pick and only a 2.9 percent chance at claiming the top pick.

Tanking for the top pick was the logical decision. It’s certainly not a fool-proof plan and comes with zero guarantees. But the odds are higher that a top pick evolves into a star than someone selected ninth overall.

If the Bulls keep winning and miss out on a top-5 pick, it might be time to shelf any premature dream of Luka Doncic donning a Bulls jersey.

As crushing as that seems, is it all bad? Surely there are some positives that can come with a young team unexpectedly winning games? The answer is yes. And though I still remain firmly in the tank camp, even I can recognise (or can talk myself into) the positives that come with inexplicable winning streaks.

Unexpected growth of players

Much has been made of the return of Nikola Mirotic and his impact on the team’s identity shift. It’s a simple parallel: the team was 3-20 without him and 9-2 since his return. As easy as it would be to proclaim Mirotic as the sole catalyst for the Bulls’ winning ways, it’s neither fair or completely true.

Mirotic has been fantastic since making his season debut on Dec. 8, but improved point guard play has been equally important. Since becoming the starting point guard, sophomore Kris Dunn has exceeded all expectations. He’s completely left behind the inferior player from his rookie season and has developed into a credible starter. The rapid rate in which he’s turned around his career is also encouraging for future growth.

Lauri Markkanen has also shown more than expected. Very few thought the No.7 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft would be this sound defensively in his rookie season. His ability to create offense off the bounce has squashed preconceived notions of being some tall stiff who only shoots jumpers. Seemingly with each passing game, Markkanen emerges with a new skill added to his toolbox.

The Bulls are also extracting career-best form from Mirotic, Bobby Portis and David Nwaba. It’s unclear if these three bench pieces will be part of the next great Bulls team, but at a minimum, they have increased their trade value.

Unanticipated progression from Markkanen, Dunn, and the reserves isn’t ideal for draft odds and lottery positioning. The trade-off, however, is an expedited development curve for those already on the roster. Increased draft odds may be important and could carry greater long-term significance, but player development may be as crucial and shouldn’t be ignored.

Developing talent in crucial moments

Improved bench play, relying less on inferior players in the rotation, and morphing into a defensive juggernaut has helped the Bulls stay in games longer. By keeping games close, it’s allowed for Chicago’s youth to experience in-game moments that otherwise aren’t possible in constant blowouts.

Dunn is learning to lead a team in winning scenarios. As a developing point guard, managing possessions in clutch moments and dictating outcomes is a more advanced challenge when compared to running simple pick-and-roll sets down 20 points in a pending loss.

The last two victories have highlighted this benefit. Dunn closed out the win against the Milwaukee Bucks with a clutch basket over Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was also on the floor in the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks as the Bulls rallied from a deficit to win late. In two successive games – both victories – Dunn continued to experience being used as the go-to on-ball option in closely contested game.

These teaching moments are invaluable for Dunn. The same is true for Markkanen.

Had things gone to plan and no preseason fists were thrown, Markkanen wouldn’t be the team’s starting power forward. Who knows how many minutes he would’ve actually played if Mirotic and Portis never came to blows. It did happen, though, and it’s forced head coach Fred Hoiberg to keep playing through Markkanen. To his credit, Hoiberg has continually used Markkanen deep in games, even utilising his skills as on offense in pivotal moments.

We shouldn’t understate the value of Markkanen learning how to be a go-to scorer in crunch moments, against defenses designed to shut him down. It may be difficult and awkward, but cracking the code this early has long-term benefits.

The Jimmy Butler trade is proving favorable

When the Bulls moved star forward Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the trade was almost universally graded a fail.

Zach LaVine was the only proven commodity Chicago received at the time of the trade. And he was out for a year with a knee injury. Dunn was fresh off a terrible rookie season and no longer had the shine of being a recent top-5 pick. Though they did manage to acquire a top-10 pick, sending back pick No. 16 was bittersweet.

As bad as the return for an All-Star caliber player appeared to be, time has funny way of shifting narratives.

Dunn is looking more like the player he was projected to be. No longer is he considered a potential bust candidate. With improved scoring efficiency, he may end up being one of the best two-way point guards in the league. Markkanen is proving to be one of the best players to emerge from a strong draft class. The Finnish forward already looks every bit a 10-year franchise cornerstone. And though Zach LaVine hasn’t played a minute for the Bulls, his athleticism and speed appears to be intact. If he can return to his previous form, the optics of the Butler deal continue to improve.

Time and good fortune has allowed the Bulls to balance the ledger in the Butler trade. Both franchises are now reaping the benefits. The Timberwolves are 22-14 and have the fourth-best record in a tough Western Conference. They’re on track for the postseason for the first time in 14 years. The Bulls won’t be headed back to the playoffs, but they’ve finally chosen a lane. They may also escape from a franchise-altering trade with three credible options in the starting unit for years to come.

As good as it would be to add a top-3 pick to a core of Dunn, Markkanen and LaVine, there are still benefits if the Bulls continue to win. And who knows, maybe the lottery balls defy odds and bounce favourably for Chicago, just as they did in 2008.

It worked for John Paxson and Gar Forman then, maybe it does again.

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