Future looks bright for struggling Bulls

Courtesy of NBA.com

Courtesy of NBA.com

Matthew Conway, Sports Contributor

After making the playoffs five years in a row under head coach Tom Thibodeau, the Chicago Bulls missed the playoffs in their first season under new coach Fred Hoiberg in 2015-16. This led to a complete teardown of the team and a total rebuilding effort, culminating in the departure of star Jimmy Butler this past summer. The rebuilding process this season has made the offseason and the beginning of this season all the more excruciating for Bulls fans, who have historically had high expectations for their team. The defense has been a particularly sore spot, after the Bulls were consistently among the elite defensive squads in the league under Thibodeau. They won 62 games (out of 82) in 2010-11, but have already matched their 20-loss total from that season just 25 games into the 2017-18 season. The Bulls’ bench, primarily point guard Jerian Grant, forward/guard Denzel Valentine, and power forward Bobby Portis, have been unable to give Chicago much of a lift against superior second units.

After suffering a ten-game losing streak, the Bulls broke out of their slump by winning back-to-back games over the Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks on December 8 and 10. Their primary concern is still defense, as they have given up 100 points or more in all their games this year but five.

Fourth-year forward Nikola Mirotic returned to practice on Monday, November 27, for the first time this season. Mirotic was involved in an altercation with fellow forward Bobby Portis on October 17, where he suffered a concussion and a fractured jaw. Portis was suspended for eight games as punishment for the incident. Both Mirotic and Portis, two key contributors for this young Bulls team, missed time at the beginning of the season. Coupled with the absences of point guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the lost time put the Bulls in a big hole at the beginning of the season. Led by Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they still fought valiantly against the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, and earned their first win of the season on October 26 over the Atlanta Hawks.

The principal thing missing from this Bulls team is talent, which has always been there in years past. The best player on this year’s team is either Justin Holiday or Robin Lopez. The longest-tenured Bull as of now is Mirotic, and he isn’t even playing. Plus, he has just three years of NBA experience under his belt. While the Bulls’ tanking experiment may be smart for their long term outlook, it will, nonetheless, be a very long season for fans of the team.

One thing to watch for over the rest of the season is how youngsters like guards Antonio Blakeney and Ryan Arcidiacono, who have both spent time in the G-League this season, perform. Blakeney tore up the G League in four games started for the Windy City Bulls, averaging 39 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and 4.5 assists per game. In addition, recent draft picks Valentine, Portis, and Markkanen will grow more comfortable over time under the tutelage of Hoiberg.

My prediction for the rest of the season is that the Bulls will continue to search for a primary offensive threat, besides Markkanen and LaVine, without success. I think that they’ll finish around 25-57, putting them in the running for the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. The Bulls could grab a transcendent talent like Marvin Bagley III or DeAndre Ayton, which could help turn the team around completely. This year’s draft is very top-heavy, meaning the Bulls should be set no matter where they land, as long as it is in the top five. While the Bulls’ season thus far has been painful to watch, and only 25 games out of 82 have been played, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s fairly obvious right now that the Bulls are a bad team. They have a bright future thanks to the young talent already on the roster and hopefully upcoming in the draft. This season would be considered a success if the Bulls’ young squad noticeably improves by playing tough defense on a consistent basis. The only thing left for Bulls fans to do now is pray.