First half summary: If the NBA season ended today, the Bulls would be in the playoffs (thanks, play-in mechanism!). Their 16-18 record is a considerable improvement — the past three seasons, Chicago was an average of 21 games under .500 at the All-Star break. With a 2-14 mark against teams with winning records when they played, the Bulls have been beating foes they’re supposed to — and the first-half schedule has had plenty of them.
But don’t overlook some real strides forward by a young core stuck in idle for a while. Zach LaVine reached his goal of All-Star status, carrying the Bulls’ offense at 28.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg and 5.1 apg, while knocking on the door of the 50/40/90 percent club of elite shooters. Their bench, laden with veterans such as Thaddeus Young and Garrett Temple, has been their best unit many nights. And newcomers Arturas Karnisovas and Billy Donovan, the VP of basketball operations and the head coach, interact already as if they’ve been working together for years rather than months. Donovan’s patience and leadership have drawn praise from players who are growing up by the day.
Biggest questions going into the second half: First, is Coby White the answer at point guard? What can the Bulls do to keep Lauri Markkanen — and to a lesser extent, Wendell Carter Jr. — healthy? And will Chicago be a buyer or a seller at the March 25 trade deadline?
White has established himself as a starter, and even if he isn’t a classic playmaker (5.0 apg), his scoring and foul shooting in the clutch put pressure on defenses. Markkanen and Carter have had more fluke injuries than career-jeopardizing setbacks, but Markkanen’s 19.1 ppg in just 14 games looks more like a luxury than an essential piece, if only because Chicago has had to forge on without him so often.
As for the trade deadline, the Bulls are likely to sit it out. Their most coveted player, Young, still has great value on this team on the verge of shedding its training wheels.
Playoffs or lottery?: Playoffs. The Bulls’ schedule in the second half, both in quantity (38 games) and quality of opponents, looks too rigorous for them to climb beyond a play-in spot. But this team needs that whiff of the postseason as a developmental step. They could scare somebody in the first round, with LaVine or White getting hot and a nothing-to-lose approach. “We always have fight,” LaVine said.
Donovan’s patience has been rewarded so far, and he reasonably can expect to see improvements by the end of the regular season, not unlike those he and fans have seen over their first 34 games. The Bulls have been one of the NBA’s happiest surprises so far in 2020-21.
— Steve Aschburner