So, as expected, Nikola Mirotic returns from a broken face at the hands of his teammate, Bobby Portis, and the Bulls are back in the playoff hunt winning seven straight games, the most under head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Oh wait…this was completely unexpected. The Bulls have been clear about their intentions to begin rebuilding and essentially tank for a top pick. A quick disclaimer: The Bulls are still 10-20 and hold the fourth worst record in the league, but they’re gradually moving up the standings and also, they’re playing better. The Bulls offensive rating during this streak is 108.4 (+9.4 from the season avg) and their defensive rating is 98.5 (-8 from the season avg). They’re averaging 111.1 points per game (+11.8), shooting 48.3% from the field (+5.2%), shooting 37.2% from three (+2.4%), and they’re only allowing 102.3 points per game (-3.5), 44.1% shooting (-2.1%), and 29.6% from three (-6.5%). The Bulls have looked like a completely different team.
Has Mirotic been the driving force? It’s hard to argue with that. He’s averaged 19.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 52.2% from the field, and 48.8% from three. Mirotic post-broken face is the player Bulls fans have wanted him to be. His production isn’t completely unexpected. I predicted 17/7 with 45% shooting and 40% from three, which he may regress to. What is unexpected is the impact Mirotic has had on the entire team. His return and his cohesion with Bobby Portis after their incident has had an effect on the team. Everyone is settling into their roles and they’re buying into Hoiberg’s vision.
The Bulls are also closing games out. Per NBA.com/stats “clutch stats” (last five minutes of the game/games of five points or less), Kris Dunn is 12th in scoring over the past seven games. For what it’s worth, Lauri Markkanen is 14th, and Nikola Mirotic is 27th (oh, Jimmy Butler is sixth on this list in case you were curious). The Bulls have guys that are able to get buckets to finish games and as a result, they’re winning.
Speaking of Kris Dunn, he’s been fantastic over the past seven games: 16.6 points, 7.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds, shooting 46.2% from the field, and only 2.1 turnovers in over 30 minutes per game. His midrange jumper looks like it’s becoming automatic and he just takes over games on both ends of the court. There was a sequence against Phoenix earlier this season where he just dominated both ends of the court at the beginning of the fourth quarter and led the Bulls to victory. You can see why the Bulls were crazy about him during the draft last year and why they were excited for him to be included in the Jimmy Butler trade. The Bulls have something with this young core of Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, and hopefully Zach LaVine.
The Bulls are clearly not a Finals team, but they’re looking like a real team. They’re only six games out of the eighth seed in the East. With Zach LaVine projected to return in January, could the Bulls realistically make a playoff push? Should they make a playoff push or should they continue tanking? If the Bulls have legitimately turned a corner and this isn’t a fluke and this is who they really are when healthy, I’m not sure they can tank. Maybe this team is closer to respectability than we thought. KC Johnson keeps using the term “cornerstone” when describing Zach LaVine. Maybe he was the piece the Bulls wanted to build around and maybe that’s not insane. NBA teams don’t rip off seven straight wins on accident. This is something to pay attention to. The Bulls have the Cavaliers tonight in Cleveland, Boston on Saturday (with Kyrie this time), and an angry Giannis Antetokounmpo on Tuesday. We’re going to see what this team is really made of over the next week. Are they for real? We’ll see.
Brandon Pence is the author and founder of “The Bulls Outsider” and co-founder of “B2 Hoops.” Follow “The Bulls Outsider” on Twitter and Facebook.