Coming into Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night, the Chicago Bulls were the hottest team in the NBA.
Meeting the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third time this season, this team was a different one than in the previous encounters. There was a self-belief in this version.
The result remained the same and the seven-game winning streak came to a halt, but it’s clear that these Bulls are giving it their all.
With another hyped up rookie class for the 2018 NBA Draft on its way, many fans and pundits alike are scratching their heads because Chicago is “ruining the tank.” While winning now may not be the best thing for the organization long-term, it’s certainly given them a reason to believe in themselves right now.
“I can’t speak for myself because I don’t pay too much attention to that stuff, but we’re all super competitive in here,” Robin Lopez told Basketball Insiders. “We’re competitive with each other in practice and I think that shows on the court during games.”
Lopez has been the only player to start each and every game for the Bulls to this point and is having a career season. He’s been a part of the good, and he’s been a part of the bad. Because of it, we can’t really put a finger on what this team is. Should we believe they’re the 3-20 group that came before the streak, or should we put some stock into what they were doing as a healthy group during that great stretch?
Before giving an answer, it’s fair to look at the improved play of Kris Dunn, Chicago’s starting point guard who has shown flashes with his first real opportunity to put his talents on display. It’s one of those situations where a rookie gets judged too quickly and is deemed what he is at that moment, rather than thinking about the possibility of improvement with experience and different circumstances.
Lopez agrees with the notion that many guys are often not given enough time to prove themselves, and he’s glad to see Dunn doing well drawing back on his own past experiences.
“It’s great to see,” he told Basketball Insiders. “I’m sure there are so many players. You know, I didn’t have a great rookie season so I’m happy to see him succeeding. I know what that’s like. He’s playing with confidence. He’s playing with intelligence.”
Credit a lot of that to Fred Hoiberg. He’s been somebody who has been criticized but has stuck to his game plan since the season started. Now that he’s gotten players back, he’s been able to tinker around with different rotations.
For example, since Dunn’s return, Jerian Grant has played efficient basketball backing him up. In the past month, the third-year guard has a 60 percent true shooting percentage with a higher usage and is averaging nearly 17 points and eight assists per 36 minutes. He’s paired in the backcourt with David Nwaba, who’s an aggressive defender with athleticism and an ability to score when needed.
The two guys who were at each other’s throats to begin the season—Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis—have formed a duo that has given the competition fits. Together on the floor, they have the second-highest net rating on the team with a plus-14.7.
“They’ve been thriving,” Lopez said of the combination. “It’s a tough matchup for people and they’ve been exploiting that. They’re playing smart.
“I think we have a lot of talent in a lot of different positions,” Lopez continued. “We’re a pretty deep team right now. We’re winning games as a team, but our bench unit’s been putting in a lot of work for us.”
While the team’s had its ups and downs, Lopez has stayed consistent in his role throughout. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Bulls are 13 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. It’s a figure that puts him in the 91st percentile.
As mentioned earlier, the 29-year-old veteran center is having a solid season individually. He’s been more aggressive and is also passing the ball more frequently, boasting an 11.1 percent assist percentage.
These numbers will likely make Lopez an attractive trade target for any team in need of a dependable big man, especially with the youth movement Chicago is emphasizing.
But for now and until told otherwise, he’s a part of a group that’s growing together and continues to build off every night. As for how far they can go, your guess is as good as good as his.
“That’s a good question,” Lopez told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t really want to put any kind of limit on that. Right now, we’re playing very well. We’re playing hard. We’re playing together, so we’ll see where that takes us one game at a time.”
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