The Chicago Bulls entered the NBA All-Star Break on a high note. They knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies 122-110 on Wednesday, Feb. 13. It was their first home win of the year 2019, breaking an 11-game United Center losing streak.
However, unlike that 2001 season under Tim Floyd, this year’s set of 58 games are culmination of several different phases. The Bulls are in the midst of an eight-day break, so now is a good time to reflect on what has been a fragmented 2018-19 campaign.
PART I: THE LAST OF HOI-BALL
The 2018-19 season shaped up to be a natural progression from 2017-18, the first season without Jimmy Butler and post-“Three Alphas”. Head coach Fred Hoiberg would finally have a chance to develop a young core that fit the pace-and-space principles he coached at Iowa State.
Unfortunately, the injury bug bit the Bulls hard as the season began. Lauri Markkanen was already slated to start the season late as he recovered from an elbow ailment. However, injuries also befell Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis, and Denzel Valentine.
Hoiberg attempted to make due with what he had, but went 5-19 through the first 24 games of the season. Their 101.0 offensive rating was second-worst in the NBA over that span. Their 110.6 defensive rating ranked 22nd.
Unhappy with these developments, the Bulls fired Hoiberg on Dec. 3. They elevated assistant coach Jim Boylen to the head role. He entered the position without the interim tag, as the front office had confidence his hard-charging personality would galvanize the team to improve. For the first 13 games, it looked like they were right.
PART II: THE BULLS GET DEFENSIVE
Despite some personality clashes in the beginning, the Bulls closed out the year 2018 by playing competitive, albeit anachronistic, basketball. The team had the eighth-best defense in the league through Boylen’s first 13 games as coach, which includes their 56-point loss to the Boston Celtics.
However, Chicago’s staunch defense came at the expense of their offense. Boylen’s gameplan on that end of the floor was uninventive. It ultimately left the players to create for themselves off of isolation, pick-and-rolls, and post-ups as opposed to utilizing actions and ball movement. As a result, the team also had the worst offensive rating in the NBA over this span.
Still, the Bulls went 5-8 during this time. They notched major wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. The Bulls also took the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors to the brink before losing. Heading into 2019, it looked like this brash brand of basketball could actually work.
PART III: NEW YEAR, WORSE TEAM
However, the shine eventually wore off, and Boylen’s Bulls stumbled through the beginning of 2019. They went 2-15 over the first 17 games of the new year.
Chicago lost their first nine games of the year before finally getting a win on Jan. 21 over the Cleveland Cavaliers. This winless stretch included a five-game Western Conference road trip against playoff-caliber teams
The Bulls also lost both of their rookies to injuries in the process. Wendell Carter Jr. has been out since mid-January due to a thumb injury, and could miss the rest of the year. Meanwhile, Chandler Hutchison’s toe injury has kept him out since the end of January. He is expected to return this year, but the team is taking its time with his recovery.
On the floor, the Bulls found themselves exactly where they started the season. Chicago’s 107.0 offensive rating over this span was 23rd-best in the league. Their 117.0 defensive rating was second-worst in the NBA.
PART IV: OTTO’s WORLD
With the trade deadline approaching and the Bulls treading water, the antsy front office made a major move. On Feb. 6, Chicago dealt Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker, and a 2023 second round pick to the Washington Wizards for Otto Porter.
In the long run, the 25 year-old Porter slots in perfectly with the Bulls’ core of Zach LaVine, Markkanen, Dunn, and Carter. However, Otto has also paid dividends immediately upon his arrival.
Porter has shined so far in his new, increased role in Chicago. He is averaging 22.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 0.8 steals in 34.8 minutes per game in his first four games with Chicago. That is a massive jump from 12.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.6 steals in 29.0 minutes per game in his 41 appearances with Washington this season.
As a result, the Bulls have gone 2-2 since the trade deadline. The team’s offense and defense has improved over that span, too. Their 114.3 offensive rating is 12th-best in the league and their 111.6 defensive rating is 16th-best.
AFTER THE BREAK
The Bulls will dive into their final 24 games of the season on Feb. 22 with a Friday-Saturday back-to-back at the Orlando Magic and hosting the Celtics. The Bulls have been a competitive team since Otto’s arrival, so there is hope for a more entertaining stretch to end the season.
One weakness in the team’s current setup is their lack of depth at the center position. With Carter’s injury and Portis being dealt, Robin Lopez and Cristiano Felicio have taken up most of the minutes at the 5.
However, Markkanen has also spent some time at center, allowing the Bulls to stretch the floor in certain lineups. This is something they should continue to explore down the final stretch.
Chances are, the Chicago Bulls will endure plenty of frustrating losses as the season draws to a close. After a roller-coaster of a pre-All-Star Break, hopefully the team can find some consistency and begin their development back into a playoff-caliber franchise.