With the game against the Celtics postponed, the team has a chance to retool with the return of Ryan Archidiacono and Lauri Markkanen to the lineup.
Some NBA team, especially in this virus season, is going to recover more quickly and perhaps become more than expected. Can it be the Bulls?
The recent cascading of events in the NBA with a sudden postponement of games and enhanced regulations in an attempt to limit exposures could put the Bulls in position to recalibrate team goals and expectations for this season. Generally considered a season of examination and analysis with the hope of making the playoffs or at least the play-in series, the cataclysm upending the NBA schedule could produce an unusual and unexpected season for some teams.
Perhaps not unlike the previous most abnormal NBA season, 1998-99, the lockout season of 50 games. A barely over .500 New York Knicks team for two seasons even without its best player, Patrick Ewing, rode the unusual schedule and a season of players often out of condition or less engaged to an eighth place finish that ended in the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, misfortune in life often becomes the fortune for someone else.
It doesn't necessarily mean it will be the Bulls, who have been afflicted with multiple Covid-19 cases and several players following them into quarantine for close contacts.
Two of those players, Chandler Hutchison and Tomas Satoransky, tested positive for the virus and remain out. Ryan Arcidiacono and Lauri Markkanen were in contact late last month when the team was in Washington and went into quarantine. Both returned to Bulls practice Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 31.
"It was frustrating," acknowledged Markkanen, who was off to an excellent start, shooting 48 percent on threes in four games and averaging 17.3 points. "I try to keep a positive mindset that I can't control that kind of stuff. We've just got to get through this. We knew it's not gonna be perfect, Covid-wise, this season. Unfortunately, it happened so early and I was feeling good. But we can't change that. Just got to move on and come back and play well again. We knew it's not going to be perfect, so we were kind of expecting this kind of stuff and that's been our mindset, next man up. A lot of teams are going through it right now. I'm just happy to be playing basketball again; hopefully we can keep doing that."
Certainly no one wishes ill on opponents. And certainly in this manner with infection. But even with the added precautions the NBA is enforcing all the way to barring congratulatory greetings on free throws, some teams will be impacted more than others. Already, the Boston Celtics are being hit hardest with multiple postponements, including Tuesday's game with the Bulls.
The Bulls next are scheduled to play Friday in Oklahoma City.
And suddenly the most steady Eastern Conference teams appear to be capsizing in surprisingly rough seas. The NBA has designated a period in March for makeup games, leaving the Celtics potentially with an overwhelming schedule. Toronto is having its poorest start in years. The Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets are confronting internal issues which perhaps even are Covid-related as the virus is adding stress to all sectors of society. The 76ers have been missing multiple starters.
Though the Bulls are 4-7, they are coming off a Western Conference trip with chances in the last seconds to defeat both Los Angeles teams even with so many players out. Though not as highly regarded for their starters, who have played better than anticipated, the Bulls have a special strength in reserve with veterans who transcend the depth of many teams. It suggests the team could be in better position than many to withstand the vagaries of the virus and protocols.
Should the Bulls then look at this season as also an opportunity, both to remain safe and healthy, but to improve sooner than expected?
"I think it's very, very hard to make goals on results," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "To me, it's can our team improve and can they get better? Are we getting better? I feel like the group has gotten better. We need to be playing better winning basketball. I think the guys being young need to understand what goes into winning, and I do believe there's been quite a few games, especially on this West Coast swing, that we kind of have self-sabotaged, whether it be through fouling or turnovers or rebounding. So I don't know if the goal necessarily changes as much as can we get better.
"Listen," Donovan added, "we're going to go through a period of time of getting Lauri and Arch back into the mix or when Hutch and Sato come back. Any time you're integrating players or losing players, it's always an adjustment period. But I think my goal would be can the group continue to have just constant improvement? I've seen a lot of growth, I've seen a lot of improvement. We haven't gotten the end results we want, but I think we've made some strides in some areas as we've tried to focus on improvement."
Though the Bulls lost three of four, the question now has been how to work Markkanen back in because of the excellent play of rookie Patrick Williams. Otto Porter Jr. is out again with back problems, but Garett Temple filled in beautifully in a three-guard combination with high scoring Zach LaVine and Coby White, the latter with a career best in assists. Thad Young and Denzel Valentine have provided boosts off the bench.
It's not inconceivable amidst this league wide epidemic outbreak, expectations and certainties will need to be adjusted in many places.
For the Bulls players returning, it's just a relief.
"You want to be super cautious with it," Arcidiacono acknowledged. "I was fortunate to test negative and still continue to. I was just quarantined in my apartment, two-bedroom, two-bath, a living room and a kitchen. So I couldn't really do too much. I had a little yoga mat, kind of like prison workout stuff, foam roller here and there. Couldn't really get any cardio in, but I just tried to keep my mind as sharp as I could. Watched all the games. Group texting, Face Time with Hutch with Sato and Lauri, who were quarantining as well. Tried to stay in touch and keep that chemistry going.
"I think it's just wrong place, wrong time, unlucky," Arcidiacono said of his incidental exposure. "Hutch is one of my best friends on the team, so clearly at a dinner we were going to sit with each other. You just never know. It could have been anyone. Unfortunately, it was me. But you know what, just kind of take it on the chin and be able to move on. We drove back through New Year's, which was a lot of fun, celebrating our New Year's together."
Hutchison tested positive, so he had to remain in Washington, where the team was playing two games. The other three had tested negative and were driven back in a van with a shield separator for the driver to avoid exposure with the public.
"I was just waiting for the phone call after Sato tested positive," Markkanen said. "We were, I think, 13 hours in a car together. I was lucky enough not to get it, but we can't control that. So I'm not wasting my energy and time worrying about getting tested every single morning and what we have to go through. I just try to focus on the good stuff and play a game."
Markkanen and Arcidiacono are expected to play again Friday as the Bulls head back on the road for three of the next four before five of six at home concluding with a pair of games against the Knicks. The way the Bulls are playing amidst the uncertainty around the league, there are opportunities to surprise. Or of getting another Covid surprise. This roller coaster ride really is frightening. But there'll be some smiles at the end.
And now a week of practice and rest for this next stretch with a primarily healthy team.
"We were expecting to play a game today and it didn't happen," Donovan noted. "So the next plan is, 'OK, we've got a little bit of time before our next game and how do we best maximize the time that we have together coming out of that West Coast trip? I think the first nine games that we played we had three series of back-to-backs. So it's not necessarily that trip (but) what was before that trip. It is good from a coaching perspective when you can get a chance to have a couple of really, really good practice days. I think you just have to be flexible and you have to maximize the day. In being flexible, I think you need to take a pretty positive attitude that, 'Here's the scenario, here's the situation, we're going to make the best of it.'"
And perhaps better than expected as well. Or not. It's going to be that kind of season for everyone.