Could Bulls Strength in Depth Push them Into Playoff Race?

With the Bulls unique roster make up, they are in a position to thrive in these uncertain times
by Sam Smith
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Sam Smith argues that in this shortened season, with rosters in constant flux because of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulls unusual depth may be a major advantage.

Maybe we had it all wrong. Yes, me too. Maybe after these recent seasons of misplaced optimism following the signing of veteran free agents with the promise of multiple high lottery picks, we were too cautious regarding this season's record. That this was a Bulls team that maybe could make the play-in game? Maybe get fortunate and compete for the last playoff position. Big maybe.

Instead of being what they just might be, a serious contender in the Eastern Conference? These Bulls? This season?

OK, Sam what are you smoking? Though I believe it's now legal (I just read about that). And if I'm referring to myself in the third person and Bobby Portis isn't around, maybe there is something odd and unexpected going on.

"I think early in the year, certainly our first two games against Indiana and Atlanta, we were not competitive at all," Bulls coach Billy Donovan acknowledged Thursday before the team departed for Friday's game in Charlotte. "We've gotten a lot more competitive. We've had some games, certainly on that West Coast swing, we had our chances to win. You want to be able to capitalize on those opportunities. Generally the margins for the teams that haven't won, it's not big margins in terms of point differential. It's big margins on doing the little things as it relates to execution. But yeah, I think everybody's been in flux. It's not just us, it's been everybody. It's been a lot for these guys to handle. I think the teams that can create good chemistry, play well together, execute, keep themselves healthy; those teams are going to have a huge advantage."

Temple, Porter and Young on Defense

Like the Bulls?

The Bulls are 6-8 facing the 6-8 Hornets with both outside the Eastern Conference top eight. Statement game? The battle for the last play-in? But the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks are tied for sixth, a game ahead of the Bulls and Hornets.

But more significantly, this is not an overwhelmingly strong conference at a time when it's the Bulls perhaps more prepared and possibly with an advantage in this Covid-19 virus season when absences are going to be frequent. Friday's game for the Hornets will be their first this week, for instance.

With the game postponements and illnesses and contact tracing absences, depth may be just as important as talent. The Bulls not only have an unusually deep team, but they have an unusually deep team of veterans.

Former starters like Otto Porter Jr., Tomas Satoransky, Thad Young and Garrett Temple all come off the bench for the Bulls. Heck, Porter was part of a playoff Big Three not too long ago. And that's before a former lottery pick like Denzel Valentine. They not only provide comforting support, but in this season when so many games are going to be played without full complements of players, it may give the Bulls an unexpected competitive advantage.

Temple talking to coaching staff

The Bucks still look like the best team in the East, if somewhat shaky with Giannis Antetokounmpo's poor shooting. Actually really poor shooting. Their bench of Bobby Portis, D.J. Augustin, Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and one of the Antetokounmpos doesn't seem to match up with the Bulls. Heck, it would be difficult to even name who's on the bench for the Nets. The Celtics? Jevonte Green, Payton Pritchard, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye?

"I think our bench can be a real positive for us," Donovan agreed. "I think getting Sato back certainly helps our team. I think Thad and Otto and even Garrett, those three guys in the second unit can be really good. There's a lot more experience, calmness and understanding with our second unit than sometimes even with our first unit because our first unit in a lot of ways is young. Patrick (Williams) is 19, Coby (White) is in his second year, Wendell (Carter Jr) is young, Lauri (Markkanen) is young. Zach's (LaVine) obviously the oldest guy in that group. So I do think that our depth in that second unit, and then our whole team can be an advantage for us because we've been able to mix some of the starters with some of the second unit guys as well."

The young Bulls starters

It wouldn't just matter if it were the reserve veterans. But after that 0-2 start, the Bulls have played well enough to be a contender.

They lost on an unlikely last second mixup three pointer to the Golden State Warriors after controlling the game.

They beat Washington with Bradley Beal twice.

They beat Portland with Dame and C.J.

They beat Dallas twice, though only once with Luka.

They lost a 22-point lead and lost in overtime in Oklahoma City in a fifth consecutive road game among six straight.

Zach LaVine missed an 18 footer at the buzzer that would have beaten the Lakers, whom the Bulls see in the United Center Saturday.

They trailed the Clippers by a point with 18 seconds left after a LaVine three.

Rookie Tyrese Haliburton made an off balance three with 12 seconds left with the Kings leading by three in a Bulls loss.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Zach talking to Coby, Lauri and Wendell in training

And the Bulls did come back from 20 down against Portland and beat the Wizards by three. You lose some of those games, too, that you shouldn't have won.

It happens in the NBA; it all evens out, right? You are what you record is?

But this is a Bulls team with a new coach and new management and new system that, say, what if just Golden State with that crazy three, Oklahoma City with that shocking meltdown and one of those three California games lost by a combined total of nine points goes the other way it's a 9-5 or 8-6 Bulls team.

Garrett Temple, OPJ and Thad Young talk to Coach Donovan

Are they really then that far from third in the Eastern Conference?

Yes, because they are 6-8.

With the current roster makeup, the Bulls might not be a playoff team in any other season.

But this is not any season; it's actually like no other ever.

With a shorter 72-game season at a time when teams led by big time stars are more vulnerable because they have a bigger impact if missing and thus also have shorter benches because of the cost of those players, this could be the kind of season that produces both unexpected results and competitors.

Did Miami have the best talent in the East in the Orlando bubble/campus setup last summer and fall?

They did not. But the circumstances of no home court advantage with a team having so many young and inexperienced players that could get momentum going in a short stretch enabled the Heat to get to the Finals. Did anyone pick them to repeat? Not that such predictors know any more than anyone else. But Miami now is hanging around just out of the top eight.

Three games separate fourth place Indiana from 13th place Toronto. And with a 72-game season, most teams are 20 percent through. That's usually the first marker of the season.

None of this means the Bulls are here. Or there. Or that they have the roster to be a serious competitor in the Eastern Conference or that they don't need to consider significant changes and continue their development/analysis season.

Garrett Temple and Zach talking on sideline

It just means this season among all seasons could produce a most unexpected playoff contending team or two because of the vagaries of this virus that figure to extend the rest of this season. Why not the Bulls? They have looked pretty good.

In a short time, they are not at the bottom of most of the statistics lists anymore, though the defense and turnovers are not good. But they have one of the league's best offenses, fourth in scoring and top 10 in effective field goal and true shooting percentage, free throw percentage and getting to the free throw line, top 10 in rebounding, 12th in steals, middle of the league in assists. Right up there with all the big guys.

"I just look at it from a perspective are we getting better, are we improving?" said Donovan. "Are we growing as a team? As I've said and I think everybody around the league has talked about the times we are in right now, this is really unique for everybody. Everybody is not only battling what takes place between the lines, but they are also battling waking up every day and saying, ‘Ok, is everybody on our team going to be available to practice? Is everybody on our team available to play?' And then you couple that with injuries and getting guys back from Covid, trying to integrate them back, bringing guys back from injury and then losing guys. Everybody's roster is in flux non stop. So the thing to me is are we getting better to a standard we want to play to?"

Maybe they are.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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