Excitement in the Windy City

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The Chicago Bulls weren’t supposed to be winning like this. They’ve won nine of their last 11 games, including a seven-game win streak that lasted from Dec. 8 to Dec. 20. Interestingly enough, for a team that was projected to be one of the worst in the league, they’ve somehow managed to crawl back in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Yes, they’re 13-22, the same as the Charlotte Hornets and Brooklyn Nets, two teams that appear lottery bound. But neither of those teams are playing like the Bulls, who are showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

They recently lost, unsurprisingly, to the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. They played tough in both of those losses, however, and they followed it up with three straight wins.

All of this ultimately leads to the question, is this truly what is good for the Bulls as a franchise? The pros and cons of tanking in the NBA are well documented with multiple examples in the league today. The Sacramento Kings have been in the lottery for quite some time now, and really don’t have much to show for it. On the other hand, the Philadelphia 76ers have found a franchise duo in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid thanks to tanking.

This upcoming draft is supposed to be very top-heavy with a general consensus top 5-6 players in Marvin Bagley III, DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., and Mohammed Bamba. If they continue to win, the Bulls could miss out on a potential franchise building block.

But should the Bulls actually be criticized for their recent success? The answer to that is no, they should not. That’s probably not what Bulls fans want to hear, but it’s what’s best for the team. Sure they might not get that instant gratification of a possible star player, but in the long run, it will go a long way towards a healthy rebuild.

Constant losing can do some damage to a team’s psyche, especially a young team like the Bulls. From that standpoint alone, these guys being a part of winning basketball can only help with their development. And who’s to say they don’t already have a good, young core in place that, with time, might turn out to be something special.

If it weren’t for Simmons sitting out all of last season due to injury, Lauri Markkanen would be one of the favorites for Rookie of the Year. He’s top five among all rookies in scoring with 14.2 points per game. He’s second among rookies in rebounding with 7.4, and he’s in the top ten in free-throw attempts.

He’s also shown an ability to compete hard defensively. Although he was a lottery pick, most people probably didn’t see him being this good this early in his career.

The Bulls also have Kris Dunn, who is playing like the fifth overall pick he was in the 2016 draft. Dunn struggled throughout much of his rookie season in Minnesota to the point that some started to bring up that dreaded B-word (bust). NBA players take time to develop, however, and maybe Dunn just didn’t fit in Tom Thibodeau’s system.

He sure looks like a fit in Fred Hoiberg’s system. He’s averaging 13.2 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and a team-high 5.9 assists. He’s emerged into a true floor general and one of the Bulls’ go-to guys in the fourth quarter.

Then there’s the duo of Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Portis and Mirotic are 22 and 26 respectively, still young enough to be considered part of the main core. And what a strange story this pair has become.

The altercation they were involved in during a preseason practice that resulted in Portis breaking a few bones in Mirotic’s face and giving him a concussion is well documented. Mirotic didn’t make his season debut until Dec. 8, the game that began the Bulls win streak. Since then, he’s been the team’s leading scorer at 17.2 points per game and leading three-point shooter at 47.5 percent.

Portis is averaging 12.5 points per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from three-point range. After hashing out whatever differences they had, both have proven to be valuable members of the team.

The Bulls have a few other guys that look as if they’re key rotation pieces moving forward. Denzel Valentine, David Nwaba and Jerian Grant have all been solid contributors off the bench. Rookie Antonio Blakeney, who is on a two-way contract, has been tearing up the G-League. He’s leading the league in scoring with 35.6 points and has had a few 40-point outbursts.

But perhaps the biggest wild card is Zach LaVine. Prior to tearing his ACL last season, LaVine looked like he was on the verge of becoming something special. He was putting up 18.9 points per game and had worked extensively on his outside shooting. Back when he was drafted, there were whispers that he could potentially emerge as a legit star player.

In Minnesota, LaVine was sharing the spotlight with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. It’s safe to say he’ll have a much larger role offensively in Chicago. It’s always tough to come back from an ACL injury, but the Bulls are hoping LaVine can do it.

Perhaps the only major blunder the Bulls have done since embarking down the rebuilding path is trading away Jordan Bell for nothing on draft night. Just imagine how he would be fitting in with this group right now.

Now the Bulls could very well implode in the next couple of months and find themselves right back in the hunt for the top pick in the draft. An injury here or there would do it. Or maybe they just come crashing back down to Earth.

Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they continue to win and have a real shot at a playoff berth. They’re currently five games back of the eighth-place Miami Heat with a whole lot of basketball left to be played. In any case, what the Bulls are doing now is beneficial to their future. This was a team that should have been a contender for the worst record in the league. Instead, they’re bringing some excitement back to the Windy City.