No Alibi Necessary

The Bulls have been playing ugly basketball. They have just lost to the Los Angeles Clippers 113-103, and have extended their current losing streak to 6 in a row. Ugly.

Ugly, but not unforgivable. With the trade deadline looming, rumors swirling, and the injury to Kris Dunn, it is natural to see a young team struggle. No Dunn, no Nikola Mirotic, and no Lauri Markkanen is a recipe for failure. Markkanen has been out the last few games due to the birth of his first child (Congratulations! It’s a boy!), but he should return to the team within the next few games. Dunn has reportedly turned the corner on his concussion and will be back running the Bulls offense sooner rather than later.

With Niko off to New Orleans, and the possibility of other veterans (i.e. Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday) being traded too, Paul Zipser and Cristiano Felicio have found themselves with more playing time. Zipser has even started the last couple of games, filling in for the missing Markkanen. He played fairly well against the Clippers, scoring 16 points in 26 minutes, shooting 60% from the field, and he went 4-6 from beyond the 3 point arc. Zipser looked more like the player Bulls fans have loved for the past couple seasons, playing with effort and confidence. If he can continue to play like that, there might still be a role for him on a rebuilt Bulls team.

Paul Zipser stands tall. Photo from chicagobulls.com

This 6 game stretch of ugly basketball is reminiscent of the beginning of the season. It’s almost as if the team is learning how to play with each other all over again. That isn’t too far from the truth. The return of Zach LaVine has shuffled the Bulls line up. As LaVine struggles to regain his NBA form, the team has struggled with the new rotation. These issues will most likely be solved by the return of a healthy Kris Dunn, but until then, the Bulls are in full tank mode.

Rebuild Wasteland

Losing is not fun. It’s a bleak, emotional wasteland. The Bulls have to find a way to lose without losing too much. Losing is like a shadow that can attach itself to a player or franchise and follow them where ever they go, forever.

This is what a true tanking effort looks like, these last 6 games. It is a bleak, emotional wasteland, with only the occasional bright performance to keep the fire of hope alive. From December through January we were spared the wasteland, but with our two brightest fires of hope sidelined the last few games, the Bulls have been tough to watch.

The trade of Niko Mirotic signals the beginning of the next phase in the Bulls rebuild. It is now time for the young core (Dunn, Markkanen, and LaVine) to step out of the shadow on their own. They cannot rely on the veterans to bail them out, they need to learn how to create success for the team themselves. This is also a time for players to prove they belong on this team moving forward.

Everyone will need to step up. Bobby Portis needs to prove his consistency. David Nwaba has to work on his jumper. Denzel Valentine must continue to create for his teammates and lead the bench. Zipser and Felicio have to seize, and make the most of, the opportunities they get the rest of the season. This is an audition, an interview, for the next contending Bulls team. These players need to play like they deserve to be on that team.

This next phase is not an easy one for fans to endure. It might take a while for the core to learn how to win together. It could take several seasons before the Bulls are consistently winning games. And it might even prove to be an impossible task for this particular group of players.

Now, there should be even more pressure on Coach Hoiberg, and the rest of his staff, to turn this young core into solid NBA veterans. They must continue to evaluate and challenge the team, pushing them to compete in every possession of every game. Either Lauri Markkanen or Kris Dunn needs to become an NBA All Star, preferably both, and they can only get to that level by the coaching staff challenging and supporting them.

The pressure is also on the front office to find an elite NBA superstar. It is up to Gar Forman and John Paxson to find that player. They should always be looking for that player. The biggest failure of the GarPax regime was not continuing to look for a transcendent player after they drafted Derrick Rose. They felt like one superstar was enough. All they had to do was get the right group of guys around Derrick and the winning would take care of itself. They rested on their laurels and failed.

GarPax have a chance at redemption. The Jimmy Butler trade was a good start. The Niko trade is an important sign that they have learned the lesson; They must never stop looking for elite talent. If superstardom proves to be beyond the grasp of Dunn, Markkanen, and LaVine, at least GarPax have given themselves more, and better, chances to find a player that can ascend to that level. The Bulls are in the wasteland. It’s time to find a Moses, an Aaron, a Joshua or maybe even an Ayton to lead them out.

The Worst Records in the NBA:

1. Atlanta Hawks 15-37 .288

2. Orlando Magic 15-36 .294

3. Sacramento Kings 16-36 .308

4. Dallas Mavericks 17-36 .321

5. Phoenix Suns 18-35 .340

6. Chicago Bulls 18-34 .346