Let’s be blunt: The Chicago Bulls looked like the worst basketball team in the NBA *over their first two games.*
In the first matchup against the Atlanta Hawks, they faced a 40-point deficit and went on to lose 124-104. They followed that performance up by facing a 30-point deficit to the Indiana Pacers and losing by an eerily similar 125-106. Sure, both those teams have looked solid to start their respective seasons, but there is no excuse for looking as uncompetitive as the Bulls did over those first two contests.
Fortunately, something changed.
After a last-second 129-128 loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Bulls won four of their next five games. They beat the Washington Wizards twice, lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, and then picked up back-to-back wins again against the Mavericks and Trail Blazers. Even more promising, the team looked increasingly more impressive in each performance, and that continued into their next three games even despite ending with an 0-3 record. The truth is the Bulls gave the Kings, Lakers, and Clippers hell. They played some of their most encouraging basketball in years over that stretch, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, where they are now ranked 14th in the NBA.
What is shocking is that all this progress came in the midst of a considerable roster turmoil. Tomas Satoransky and Chandler Hutchison have been on the injury report due to positive COVID-19 since the Bulls fourth game of the season. Lauri Markkanen and Ryan Arcidiacono were forced to follow suit due to having “close contact” with both players. Hutchison, Markkanen, and Satoransky are expected to be staples in the Bulls rotation this season, with Markkanen and Satoransky specifically holding a rather large workload. Arcidiacono may not be apart of the night-to-night gameplan, but he is still an important depth piece at the point guard position.
While there has been no updated timeline on when Satoransky or Hutchison might return, the Bulls did have Markkanen and Arcidiacono practice fully with the team over the last couple of days. Getting the roster back to full strength is undoubtedly a good sign, but I can not help but wonder whether or not this will come with its own weird adjustment period.
Like I said, the Bulls have held a top-15 offense in the NBA so far this season, and that is thanks – in large part – to the success they mustered in the absence of these players. More specifically, since all four were sidelined, the Bulls have held the 7th-best offense in the NBA. Limit it to just this most recent four-game road trip, and their offensive rating went as high as No. 3. The team has been on a true roll without arguably their most naturally gifted ball distributor (Tomas Satoransky) and their top offensive frontcourt piece (Lauri Markkanen). Are those two things at all connected? Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it is probably a question worth asking, and it is probably a question that will take some time to answer.
New head coach Billy Donovan has yet to have his complete roster available for a single game, and that includes the preseason. What this tells us is that the Bulls still do not have a set rotation. Donovan has not been able to experiment freely with lineups in a way he may want, and he now has to try to do this without breaking apart the recent offensive synergy. We saw how painfully disorganized this team could be to start the season. I highly doubt things will turn that sour again, but I do truly worry about a disruption in the on-court chemistry, especially for such a young team that struggled to grasp this new system in the first place.
If anything, this will be yet another important test of Donovan’s coaching prowess. How well can he ease these players back into things? Can he make sure Wendell Carter Jr.’s aggressiveness is not diminished by Markkanen’s presence? Will Coby White keep up his assist numbers once Satoransky returns? Will Zach LaVine be able to defer some of his scoring load once again?
In recent season, the Bulls have simply not been good at (1) staying healthy and (2) staying on the right path when healthy. This will be another good opportunity for the organization to show they can change that trend, and I’m eager to see them do so.