I’m heading out of town for a few weeks on a trip I had booked and have been looking forward to since before CHGO came into existence. It’s a weird time to be taking off — the middle of the NBA season. Especially during this season-defining stretch the Bulls are about to face. And by the time I return, we will have learned who this team is and whether they have a future together.
The Bulls enter tonight’s game with the Dallas Mavericks sporting a 10-14 record. Their -1.4 net rating ranks 21st in the league. Their -1.1 point differential translates to roughly 34 wins over the course of an NBA season. They’re the 12th seed — outside the play in tournament picture.
Simply put, it’s not good enough for a team that gambled with multiple future first-round draft picks and lucrative contracts to bet on itself.
The Bulls are trying to move away from DeMar DeRozan-ball, their best source of offense. Zach LaVine is struggling to return to his All-Star self after an offseason knee procedure. After a noticeably better start to the season, Nikola Vucevic’s production has tapered off. The promising young players Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu haven’t developed — in fact, they’ve been demoted to bench roles. Ten-plus weeks after his second surgery, Lonzo Ball still isn’t running, cutting or jumping. Tension now exists on the record between secretly extended coach Billy Donovan and $215 million man Zach LaVine.
They’ve had moments, but at this point, the Bulls have exhausted the goodwill they built up with big early season wins against the Celtics and Bucks.
In both vibes and record, this team is not good. If something is going to change for the better, it needs to happen over these next 12 games to close out 2022.
The remaining December schedule is conducive to a turnaround. It’s the 15th easiest schedule according to PostiveResidual.com. With seven home games and three sets of back-to-backs, the Bulls have a chance to right the ship.
With the exception of the Mavs, Bucks and Cavs, none of these teams should scare the Bulls. The average net rating of these teams is -0.39. These are winnable games.
The path should get easier
The Bulls have had a tough go of it so far. They’ve played the third-hardest schedule to date and have fewer wins than their current point differential would predict. They had the third most “clutch” wins last year, but they’re only 3-9 in those situations this season.
Despite a relatively similar shot profile to last season, they’re playing the long game, changing the process of how they get those shots in an attempt to be a more complete team down the stretch.
But basketball is a zero sum game. You either win games or you lose them. And if the Bulls want to get in the play in tournament, they need to make up some ground.
In essence, they have these next 12 games to do so. It may seem prompt, but 36 games into the season is enough time to get a read on whether this thing is working. The Bulls have big roster decisions to make ahead of the 2023-24 season, so if it isn’t working now, the front office must be prepared to act.
What will that look like? It may be arbitrary, but I think the Bulls need to get to .500 (or a game under if I’m being generous) by the end of December. That means going 7-5 or 8-4. Play in teams will be roughly at that level by the start of 2023 and they can’t still be trying to make up ground in January.
But what will change?
The Bulls *just* picked a lane. Facing that kind of major life decision less than two seasons after the inception of this group would be a tough pill to swallow. But to steal a metaphor from Zach Lowe and Kirk Goldsberry, even if you pick a lane, you don’t keep driving with a flat tire.
At this point, something needs to change. I don’t feel great about investing further resources into a lottery team that’s already in the hole from an asset management standpoint. Being sub-mediocre is one thing, but lacking self-awareness is worse. At the same time, the Bulls can’t sell low on the players they overpaid for or tear it down for the sake of tearing it down.
Some way or another, they will need to put themselves in a better position for their future.
That’s why this stretch is so important. By the end of December, the Bulls need to know what they are. They have a relatively easy stretch to either rise to the occasion or collapse under pressure.
More Bulls reading: Will’s film review with Alex Caruso