Just before opening night I said, out loud, to no one in particular, “I’m not even going to watch a single Bulls game this year.”
They were going to be so bad, and all I’d read and heard was that the haul they got for Jimmy Butler was so inadequate that Gar Forman had bungled another one. The point guard he got in the deal, Kris Dunn, had taken up permanent residence in the basement of Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse. The best player the Bulls acquired in the deal, Zach Lavine wasn’t going to play for half a season because he’d had ACL surgery, and his game was built completely on his superior athleticism, which seemed problematic. And, the Bulls had passed over a great shooter in the draft in Malik Monk of Kentucky. If they were going to keep Fred Hoiberg around they needed to give him some shooters so he could finally run the offense he wanted to. Instead, the Bulls drafted a soft as Charmin 7’0 Euro.
Oh, and then Bobby Portis broke Nikola Mirotic’s face (literally) during training camp. Why bother to watch any of this shit?
And, after 23 games it didn’t look like we were missing anything. The Bulls were 3-20 and couldn’t shoot, couldn’t defend, and couldn’t hold a lead when they actually had one.
But, it turns out all of those assumptions about the Bulls return in the Butler trade were wrong.
The Bulls changed Dunn’s shot, and got him to stop leaning back on every jumper. He suddenly could make mid-range shots, and given his size and speed and overall athleticism, he suddenly looked like the fifth pick in the draft. Lavine is still on a minutes restriction, but has already shown that his burst and leaping didn’t fall victim to his surgery.
But the guy people were the most wrong about was Markkanen. Instead of drafting a 6’3 guard who weighs 150 pounds like Monk (and honestly, he’s lucky if he’s 6’2) to get a shooter, the Bulls picked a seven footer who is the best pure shooter in the draft. He was the fastest player ever to 100 made threes, and he’s not just some hang-out-by-the-three-point-line Euro-pansy. Lauri Legend isn’t afraid to mix it up. His shooting percentage continues to improve and a big part of that is that lately he’s decided to try to dunk on everybody. If you held the 2017 draft right now (which would be strange and really confusing), Markkanen, who went seventh, either goes first or second (behind maybe Utah’s Donovan Mitchell who was picked 13th). Jayson Tatum of the Celtics would get consideration for the top spot, too, but that’s about it. Worst-case scenario is that the Bulls drafted a guy who is the third best rookie in his class, and honestly he looks like he’s going to be the best.
Since that horrendous 3-20 start, the Bulls are 15-9 and honestly, they’re really fun to watch. Hoiberg’s offense is free flowing, and the Bulls finally have some guys who can space the floor and shoot it. This isn’t last year when the ball went to Jimmy or Dwayne Wade and you watched one of them dribble it for 18 seconds then either jack one up or drive. Also, unlike last year when everybody on the team hated everybody else, these Bulls all get along.
Well, not all, I suppose Portis and Niko aren’t exactly chummy.
All of this puts us, as fans, in a weird situation. It’s fun to watch Dunn and Lavine and Markkanen develop, and learn to win. And it’s great to see David Nwaba come in the game and lock down whoever he’s guarding and then try to dunk everything on the other end. But you’re conflicted, because the idea was to lose a shitload of games and get as many lottery balls as possible. The 2018 draft is loaded, and if the Bulls can get a top three pick they’re guaranteed to get a stud, and honestly, if it’s top five they’re in great shape.
But every win is counterproductive. And lately, there have been lots of them. And this is the time of the year when mediocre teams have a chance to pile up wins. Good teams aren’t really engaged right now as they slog their way towards the playoffs, but haven’t started their finishing kick. Bad teams are just tired of it all and are hardly putting up a fight. So a young, hungry team can do some damage in January and February. That’s precisely what the Bulls are doing.
So stop it! Right?
Ehhh. Yes, getting a high pick means a better shot at an impact draft pick. That should be the ultimate goal. But it’s the way the Bulls are winning that makes it hard to dismiss. They are winning because guys they are going to need when they get good again, are playing well. They are winning games because of Dunn and Markkanen and Nwaba, and now Lavine. Sure, they’re also winning because Niko has been balls out since his return. But Niko wants to be traded, and the Bulls really need to.
Sure it’s hard to believe you NEED to trade a guy who is scoring 17 points in barely 24 minutes a game, and who is shooting 48% from the field, 44% from three and over 80% from the line. That’s a valuable player.
But the Bulls need to trade him because:
a) Niko wants out and expects to be traded. He got punched repeatedly in the face by a teammate during a practice and not only didn’t his other teammates jump to his defense, they didn’t seem to really give a shit that he was laying a pool of his own…face. They probably ran over to make sure Bobby didn’t break his hand.
b) If you don’t trade him before the February 8 deadline, he’s going to sulk his way to about eight points a game on 38% shooting the rest of the way. You want to see a guy play like he doesn’t give a shit? Don’t trade Niko and you’ll see it.
c) He picked the right time to look like he’s put it all together. Nobody’s ever doubted his pure ability, but in the past he could only play like this for about three weeks and then he’d go right back into the tank. He’s going on three months now, and he shows no signs of slowing down. The Bulls will hold out for a late first round pick and they might just get it. Utah is insterested, so is Portland and so is Detroit just to name three. The problem with the Pistons is that they don’t have a 2019 first round pick, which means they aren’t allowed to trade their 2018 first rounder. Thanks to former Clippers owner Ted Stepien, teams cannot trade consecutive first rounders. Old Ted traded his every year, and the NBA had to inact a rule to protect teams from themselves.
If I were Gar Forman 1I’d be interested in taking Stanley Johnson off Detroit’s hands. Instead of getting a late first and hoping to find a guy, why not look for a lottery talent who hasn’t put it together yet? That would be Johnson, who was the eighth pick in the 2015 draft, can play either forward position, can already play NBA caliber defense, but who hasn’t proven he can shoot consistently. It’s easy to drive Stan Van Gundy nuts, and Stanley is doing it. Plus, the Pistons are in the ninth spot in the East right now. Trading them Niko would improve them and help shore up the firewall to keep the Bulls from inexplicably making the playoffs. Win. Win. Oh, and Van Gundy and Niko will drive each other crazy, which will be fun to watch.
So when you watch the Bulls, it’s OK to let yourself root for them. The lessons that the young players are learning are valuable.
These aren’t just meaningless wins made possible because a bunch of stiffs are playing over their heads. So don’t feel guilty about it.
Unless the Bulls make the playoffs. If that happens, we’re all screwed.