Two weeks and six consecutive wins.
That’s all it took for the Bulls to leap from dead last in the standings to the fifth worst record in the league. It may sound trivial, but given the objectives of this season, it’s a significant rise.
A sudden and inexplicable winning streak has changed the momentum of a rebuilding season. The tank may be in jeopardy.
That may seem dramatic given the team isn’t far removed from holding a league-worst 3-20 record.
That was then, though. Team dynamics have since changed. This isn’t the same roster that was routinely crunched in second quarters. It no longer is forced into gifting minutes to players with fringe NBA talent.
The return of Nikola Mirotic and David Nwaba to the bench has forced out Cristiano Felicio and Quincy Pondexter. In several weeks, Zach LaVine will make his season debut. His minutes will come at the expense of Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser.
As head coach Fred Hoiberg’s rotation is bolstered with more productive players replacing less capable options, the Bulls will undoubtedly be an improved team. They may not continue with this winning streak for much longer, but it is clear the team will be more competitive. And that may be an issue in a rebuilding season.
Assuming this iteration of the Bulls is the new normal and they continue playing a spirited brand of basketball, they may be too good to challenge the Atlanta Hawks for the worst record in the league. It’s possible, too, they miss out on a top-5 pick.
Of course, Bulls management do have the ability to intervene. A series of trades could quickly restore the ledger in favour of the tank. However, if no moves are made, the importance of player development for those already on the roster dramatically increases.
Irrespective of what pick the Bulls hold next June, player development was always a priority this season. But its importance has now heightened. All this winning has seen to that.
Should the Bulls miss out on owning the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and, for example, receive the No. 8 pick instead, it’s imperative that Hoiberg and his staff do all they can to maximise the individual ceiling of each prospect.
Fortunately, the third-year coach has largely done a good job developing the younger talent, most notably Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen.
Dunn has turned a corner. After producing one of the worst rookie seasons in recent memory, the sophomore is showing flashes of being the Bulls’ long-term solution at point guard. Markkanen, too, has impressed in his rookie campaign, looking every bit a potential future All-Star. If LaVine can regain his previous self, he too can prove to be a vital cog in the rebuild.
The result of Jimmy Butler trade is trending upwards. This encouraging, but it may not be enough. The roster still needs more talent. Nikola Mirotic’s redemption leading to random wins in December doesn’t change that.
Rebuilding and landing a top pick in the upcoming draft was the easiest way to supplement a young core with more talent. It’s why tanking made sense in the first place. But should the Bulls miss out on drafting Luka Doncic or DeAndre Ayton, one (or more) of Dunn, Markkanen or LaVine will need to exceed already lofty expectations.
If the Bulls fail to land one of the top prospects in the upcoming draft, it may not be enough for Markkanen to develop into a two-way big man capable of averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds. He will need to be more. All-NBA more. If he can’t do it, one of Dunn or LaVine must.
One of these players may make the necessary leap to stardom. It may be possible, but how likely is it?
It’s also unfair to ramp up expectations to supplant any opportunity cost in the loss of a top draft pick. That’s a heavy burden for any young player to carry.
Of course, the Bulls still could walk away from the draft with another quality player — potentially even a franchise cornerstone — if luck proves to be on their side.
Many current stars in the league today were taken with picks outside of the top-5. Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has been a revelation in his rookie season. Selected with pick No. 13, he’s proof that teams can still find impact players later in the draft.
Though this is true, there is no denying that the talent pool diminishes as the draft wears on. The lower the pick a team owns, the less likely it is they find a franchise-level talent. Those players are typically reserved for those the top of the draft, where the Bulls hoped to be.
Chicago needs to play the odds.
What is more probable: One or more of the current group of players becomes a legitimate All-Star, or Luka Doncic?
What is more beneficial: Winning 30 games this season and collecting the No. 8 pick in the draft or engineering a 24-win season and securing a top-5 pick?
These questions that need to be answered and reaffirmed on a daily basis.
Now may not be appropriate to completely panic about the viability of a tanking effort. There is still enough time to restore the tank, but there should be some cause for concern.
The unexpected wins may just be a random act of variance. The schedule has been favourable. Key opposition players have missed games with injury. Inconsistent Bulls are playing career-best basketball. If the tide turns, the Bulls may stumble into a five-game losing streak as quickly as they found this string of surprising wins.
The winning has been fun and the improvement of players is noticeable, but long-term goals far outweigh any short-term benefits. If these win come at the cost of a quality draft pick, more harm than good is being done.
Should a scenario arise where the Bulls end up with a middling lottery pick, drafting a good but limited prospect, there will be even more pressure on incumbent players to outperform expectations.
It’s possible that occurs. If it doesn’t, though, a random six-game winning streak could prove to be self-defeating.