The Bulls Monday against the Houston Rockets reach half way through the 2017-18 NBA season, one of the more unexpected and unpredictable Bulls seasons. Depending on your perspective, it's one of the more successful seasons that won't end in reaching the playoffs.
Some will say the success has been misplaced since the goal supposedly was to lose as many games as possible, which most everyone agreed before the season was likely, to gain the best odds for a top selection in June's draft lottery. Technically, that would be illegal, and hardly the province of any players or coaches. Instead, the Bulls appear to have accelerated their franchise recovery attempts with the expedited improvement of several young players.
It's come as a surprise in what almost has been two seasons in a half season.
The first was the 3-20 start that most had envisioned.
The Las Vegas preseason over/under for the Bulls was 21.5 wins.
Some considered that generous considering the events:
The top two power forwards, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis, engaging in a preseason fight that resulted in an eight-game suspension for Portis and 23 games missed with injury for Mirotic. So 20-year-old rookie Lauri Markkanen from Finland became the full-time starter.
Zach LaVine, the centerpiece of the trade of Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, was recovering from knee surgery and would be out until at least midseason. The Bulls with LaVine are expected Monday to discuss his return, which should be soon.
The third player from that major trade, Kris Dunn, was beaten out of the point guard position in training camp by Jerian Grant, whom the Bulls pretty much agreed was not a point guard. Then Dunn was injured and would miss the start of the season.
So the opening game starting lineup included only one player, Robin Lopez, who previously had been a regular NBA starter. Plus, the rotation included two players with two-way G-league contracts, a G-league castoff from Cleveland and a guy who hadn't played in the NBA for two years because of injuries.
Meet your Chicago Bulls.
Portis returned Nov. 7 with a pair of 20-point scoring games, though the losing continued. Then Mirotic returned Dec. 8 and miracles—well, surprises, at least—do happen. The Bulls won seven straight games and 10 of 12. But it was more than Mirotic, who averaged almost 20 points in that run.
Markkanen had quickly developed into a confident, mature player, widely revered for a bright future. Dunn replaced Grant as a starter and despite some inconsistencies and excess exuberance played like a high level NBA point guard. Suddenly, the offense was formidable with improved shooting, reliable depth and a consistent rotation.
At 14-26 before playing Houston, the Bulls are 25th among the 30 NBA teams and on pace for 28 or 30 wins. LaVine should return soon, and starting next Monday all players are available in trades. But matching salaries for trades could prove uncertain. Most of the roster likely will remain the same.
The Bulls promise before the season was to have a team that might not win a lot this season, but would compete seriously and be entertaining to watch. Coach Fred Hoiberg has helped inspire and produce that element with an appealing style of play combined with accountability and motivation. The majority of the roster is comprised of young players trying to prove themselves as NBA players. Commitment is not likely to be an issue.
Here's a midseason look at the Bulls players:
Kris Dunn : Point guard averaging 13.7 points, 6.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
The point guard has been the breakout player of the first half. He hasn't been the best, which probably has been Markkanen, overall, for consistency of play. Point guard is the most difficult and probably most important position in the NBA today given the high quality of dominating point guards. That Dunn is an excellent defender is a significant advantage given the quality of the opposition. Supposedly with a shot that was beyond repair, Dunn has demonstrated a reliable mid range jump game and adequate three-point shooting. He's shown similarities to Jason Kidd with triple double potential, though not the outright speed. He's still a bit loose with the ball, but probably in part because of his long arms which are such an advantage on defense. He tends to look more languid than hurried as a result. He'll overpass at times, getting deep into the lane and making a pass instead of finishing strong. Too often it ends in a turnover, especially low passes to big men rolling. He's been impressive coming off bad games, shown serious study habits and willingness to learn. With essentially a lost rookie season in Minnesota and only being a starter for about six weeks, he's been a pleasant surprise.
Justin Holiday: Shooting guard averaging 13.6 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Another of many Bulls players finally given a chance in their careers and having his most productive season. The slim frame at 6-6 and 185 hurts him defensively and he's been beaten at some crucial moments. But he also generally defends the opponent's best player. Dunn is the Bulls closest to a stopper, but not tall enough for some of the better wing players. Holiday is a streaky shooter, though overall better from three. He sometimes forces shots, though fewer lately with more players back from injury and suspension and with a tighter rotation. With LaVine's imminent return, he could be a sixth man or small forward for the rest of the season. He's an exceptionally thoughtful and articulate veteran spokesman for the team and positive influence.
Denzel Valentine: Small forward averaging 9.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
The more likely candidate to join the reserves with LaVine's return because he wasn't starting earlier in the season. But with more playmaking ability than Holiday. He's made strides becoming more involved in the offense than just a corner shooter. He's one of the best three-point shooters on the team, though probably should get more attempts. Too often he doesn't seem to get as involved in the game as he could be. He's been used as a backup point guard with Dunn often getting in foul trouble, Dunn's long arms frequently fooling officials with what would be viewed as a mere natural arm extension with other players. Valentine is without above average athletic ability, but has a sophisticated understanding of the game and has to play more team and position defense. Unfortunately, Bulls players agree they aren't a great team for communicating on defense. He still has too many games where he becomes too passive offensively, though he is more a team oriented player.
Lauri Markkanen: Power forward averaging 14.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists.
He's become a surprise contender for Rookie of the Year as an even more surprising starter with the most unusual circumstances. He isn't giving up that spot. He's been remarkably consistent for a rookie, especially a 20-year-old with one year in the U.S. He was supposed to be an 18-minute per game trainee who became a 35-minute go-to guy to start the season, and then hit game winning shots the few games the Bulls were actually winning for six weeks. He's scored in double figures all but four games with a high of 32. He's been aggressive, driving the ball with an ability to play in the post. Already at about 225 pounds, he has the body to fill out to become a modern day NBA center to pair with a shooting power forward and create a unique interior pair for the Bulls. He projects as one of the best ever Bulls draft picks not in the top five.
Robin Lopez: Center averaging 12.8 points, five rebounds and 2.2 assists.
Another Bulls player having a career season averaging even more points than his high scoring twin brother, Brook. A career defensive player who averaged in double figures in only four of his nine NBA seasons, he's been out of double figures just seven times all season. He hasn't missed a game as the only game he hasn't played for the Bulls was when he was suspended last year. It's been his best season ever scoring when rolling on pick and roll plays. His mid range jump shot hasn't been as reliable. It was more so last season when there was little chance he'd get the ball rolling to the basket. So it seems he's shot more this season when not set given more movement in the offense. His name comes up in trade speculation given the Bulls youth movement. But with another season on his contract, it's not automatic there could be a trade. He's really the only player on the roster with a physical defensive presence against bigger players. He doesn't rebound well since his movement is deliberate. But he's expanded his offensive movement with impressive drop step and spin moves and the Bulls often start games going inside to him.
Nikola Mirotic: Power forward averaging 17.4 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 assists.
His season borders on the surreal. After a contentious summer negotiation, he signed a two-year deal with a team option for a second season. The indications were that would best lead to a trade. He was prepared to be the starter when he suffered the injuries from Portis' punch and missed the first 23 games. When he was out, there were reports and rumors of a refusal to return to the team if Portis played, raising questions about Mirotic's NBA future. Then he returned in early December and transformed the Bulls to a highly competitive team, 11-6 in games he's played, all off the bench. He's leading the team in scoring and moved into the top five in the NBA in three-point shooting. He's been a marvel often teaming with Markkanen. He hasn't spoken to Portis off the court, but on the court they've related well and often pass up a shot to pass to the other. Often intimidated previously by veteran Bulls, Mirotic has emerged as the player the Bulls hoped to see three years ago. He isn't hesitant with his shot. He's mostly dropped the extraneous pump faking and has been a good team defender and contributor to every game even when he isn't shooting often. He becomes eligible to be traded in a week with the biggest curiosity surrounding the team—along with LaVine's return date—whether he will be traded, if so for what, and if he can be part of the team's future.
Jerian Grant: Point guard averaging 8.4 points, 4.8 assists and 2.4 rebounds.
He beat out Dunn in training camp for the starting job, but his flaws as a combo guard often have been too much to overcome. His assist-turnover ratio is better than Dunn's. But that's because Grant is a reluctant passer who doesn't take chances with passing. He tends to dribble too much, and has had an unusually poor shooting season. But he is an aggressive penetrator and scores well off the dribble and a durable player who fits better with reserve scoring ability.
Bobby Portis: Power forward averaging 12 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
His punch that injured Mirotic could have been a season killer, for the team and Portis. Credit coach Fred Hoiberg for his deft handling and media message. This is the first time Portis has a regular role, albeit off the bench. As a result, he's become less hesitant, especially shooting three pointers. He's become Hoiberg's energy response along with David Nwaba. The curiosity about him is a lack of explosive play around the basket. For a player his size at about 6-11 and with his aggression, he rarely dunks; he tends to try to lay the ball in often, resulting in blocks and close misses. But he's become a reliable reserve contributor.
David Nwaba: Guard averaging 7.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists.
No one really has any idea what position he plays. ESPN lists him as a point guard, Basketball Reference as a shooting guard and the Bulls often play him at small forward. He's been used to defend some of the best players in the NBA down the stretch because of his relentless aggressive play and non stop motor. He's been another major surprise coming as a waiver acquisition from the Lakers out of the G-league. After scoring well when he broke into the rotation in early December, teams have stayed off him and slowed his driving game. He tends to be in the corner on offense, but won't shoot threes and then tries to drive, often breaking down the offense. If he can learn to make the corner three, he could become a league Sixth Man candidate.
Paul Zipser: Small forward averaging 3.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.8 assists.
He's taken a step backward this season with his playing time being reduced. He hasn't shot the ball well and hasn't proven athletic or quick enough to play small forward. He played some power forward earlier in the season until Portis and Mirotic returned. His lack of speed has hurt him defensively as he's often beat off the dribble. He hasn't been able to compensate this season with offense. He's hung onto a last spot in the rotation, but hasn't scored in double figures in more than a month.
Cristiano Felicio: Center averaging 3.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.6 assists.
He's been probably the biggest disappointment after signing a four-year contract after last season. After being in the rotation until Thanksgiving, he's played more in the G-league for Windy City. His offense, which wasn't a specialty, disappeared while he seemed lost on defense. He's more mobile than Lopez, so the Bulls have used him to blitz the pick and roll. But this season he seemed always out of position, slower and late to recover. No one can recall him even attempting a jump shot as the Bulls try to help him regain his confidence in the G-league.
Quincy Pondexter: Small forward averaging 2.4 points, 1.3 rebounds and 0.4 assists.
He is the team's sentimental story with his NBA return after fighting back through injuries and health crises for two years. He's a locker room favorite and bright player. You wish he still had his athletic ability from his pre-injury days with his toughness and knowledge. He played some in the rotation early, but basically not since mid-November given his quickness limitations.
Antonio Blakeney: Shooting guard averaging 7.1 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.6 assists.
He's one of two players on the new two-way contracts that allow a limited number of games with the NBA team. He was with the Bulls through the end of November and had one brilliant scoring quarter against the Lakers. He was the star of training camp with his uncanny shooting and scoring. But in limited playing time once the season started, he seemed to press and force shots, almost aiming and trying too hard. Once he went to Windy City, he relaxed and has by far been the league's leading scorer at more than 35 per game. Though skinny, he's almost 6-5 with a pure shooting touch and still could be a secret weapon for the team.
Ryan Arcidiacono: Point guard who's been in the G-league.
He's a pure point guard and good passer, fifth in the G-league in assists. He's also on the two-way contract. He's averaging 13.2 points and shooting threes well. The question is whether he has the speed for the NBA game.
Zach LaVine: Shooting guard.
The two-time dunk champion from the Jimmy Butler trade hasn't played in continuing his recovery from February knee surgery. He is meeting with management and doctors Monday to determine a return date to play, which he says is imminent. He's come back faster than the team expected and has been active in practice for more than a month. He'll probably play limited minutes initially, but figures to start. He says he's been dunking and shows no ill-effects from his injury.
Cameron Payne: Point guard.
He hasn't played this season in recovering from a foot fracture. He had a similar one when he was with Oklahoma City. He came as part of the trade of Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson, who both have left the Thunder. He was well regarded in the 2015 draft, didn't play much behind Russell Westbrook, was injured and didn't play well after the trade to the Bulls and then was hurt again. He's an offense-first left handed point guard who figures to be behind Grant off the bench when he returns. He's started working out more, but might not play until after All-Star break.
Kay Felder: Point guard released last month after playing in 14 games and averaging 3.9 points.