The pre-All-Star-break Chicago Bulls wrapped us up in an enormous, furry bear hug. Years of playing losing basketball? Over. Lack of star talent? Not anymore. Zero national recognition? A thing of the past. The big bad wolf who almost caused a player mutiny? Gone (thank god). The Bulls told us – for the first time in quite a while – everything was going to be all right. And we could believe them.
Then, when the team returned from All-Star festivities, they cartoonishly stepped on a banana peel, tumbled on top of us, and smushed us into a bunch of Flat Stanleys.
The Bulls have won only seven of their 20 games since February 24th. They hold the NBA’s 5th-worst Net Rating since the All-Star break and have now been swept by the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Miami Heat in the regular season. Even the organization’s once unbreakable offense has turned into one of the coldest shooting teams in the league. To say it’s been a harsh fall back to reality might be an understatement.
Actually, let’s linger on that word for a moment: “Reality.” In the thick of an emotionally taxing season, I’ve found myself losing touch of exactly that. A first-place standing midway through the season had me jumping on my high horse and prematurely riding into the sunset. Not only were the Bulls back to being a competitive basketball team, but they were back to being one of the NBA’s best! How the heck did that happen!? That never happens! Exactly.
As I wrote when the Bulls started their post-All-Star-break freefall, expectations can be a lot like getting drunk. Doing it is easy. In fact, I’d consider it pretty darn fun. But sobering up can be a brutal experience, and Bulls fans have had to do their fair share of chugging water and chomping down on saltine crackers over the past month. Myself included.
Although, in hindsight, we probably should have seen this one coming, right? The fact of the matter is the Bulls’ “reality” has practically always been what we’re experiencing right now. While some were too down on this team during the offseason, many saw this as a group with a ceiling of competing for a top-6 seed. Not a top seed or a top-3 seed, but a top-6 seed. No one ranked them ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks or the Philadelphia 76ers or even the Miami Heat. Picking the Celtics to finish ahead of them also wasn’t all that controversial considering that unit’s collective experience. The Bulls were a freshly brewed roster with three All-Stars that never played together and an unestablished identity. Was the talent there? Sure, but there were still so many question marks.
Teams rarely go from 31 wins to the top of their respective conference, especially teams as reincarnated as the Chicago Bulls. Not only is the time needed to grow together, but time is needed to figure out what works and what doesn’t. While the Bulls’ front office built a roster talented enough to compete this season, I find it very hard to believe they expected this roster to plow their way to the NBA Finals. They know these things take time, and it’s why head coach Billy Donovan said what he said when asked about the team clinching their first playoff berth since the 2016-17 season.
“It’s been a really good group considering this is the first time they’ve all really played with each other,” Donovan told reporters Tuesday night. “I’m just happy for them that will get a chance to experience that [the playoffs] … I think we’re trying to build, and that’s the biggest thing. How do you keep building from last year to this and continually try to get better?”
The end of this regular season has been frustrating, and there is no question about that. However, I think it all boils down to this: Would we rather have the Bulls locked into a first-round playoff series or completely out of the postseason for the fifth year in a row? I’m taking the former 10 times out of 10, especially knowing there is real room to grow.
As Donovan said, the franchise is trying to build. In other words, this isn’t even close to a championship or bust situation. The organization is trying to establish a new culture and new format for sustained success. Claiming the first winning record in five seasons and cracking the playoff field for the first time since the Three Alphas roamed the land is the next step in that process.
“You see what the organization is building from the get-go by the players and the culture they are trying to build,” DeRozan said after the Bulls loss to the Bucks. “So it was already understood from my standpoint, even wanting me to come here, they understood it was about winning. And I wanted to be a part of that.
For us to be going to the playoffs, speaks volumes about what they were trying to accomplish.”
DeRozan is right. Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley’s ability to turn this team around at the rate which they did speaks volumes about the organization’s priorities. Chicago’s goal is to construct a competitive foundation, and this goal stretches beyond this season. I expect them to take a hard look at what happened this regular season and adjust accordingly. And I’ll expect that until they prove me otherwise.
Also, as a brief aside, let’s remember that earning a playoff appearance this season will likely prove pivotal in the team’s efforts to re-sign Zach LaVine. One of the best three-level scorers in the game just entering his prime, this is a significant perk to finally playing competitive basketball.
I get it. The end of this season has left a pretty gnarly taste in our mouths. Like, a Boston cream pie donut stuffed with blue cheese kind of gnarly. But if we consider our expectations heading into the season, and the process it takes to build a winning team, it’s hard not to look at clinching a first-round playoff series as a success.