Tanking? Chicago Bulls bristle at the notion

Even if it might hurt their Draft position, the Bulls' modest three-game winning streak shows they aren't ready to roll over

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Break up the Bulls?

A three-game winning streak doesn’t seem like much by the Celtics’ or Cavaliers’ standards – or for that matter, by the standards of most of the 29 other teams around the NBA.

But these are the Chicago Bulls, a team whose avowed mission is to land the highest possible Draft pick in June by cramming the lottery hopper full of chances in May. That means losing, and lots of it. Big or little, early or late, just as long as it’s often.

This season began as intended, with just three victories in 23 games across 50 days, a solid start for what was supposed to be a basketball Bataan death march. But now? All of a sudden it’s three victories in four nights. Stuffing the wrong side of the W-L ledger by winning at Charlotte in overtime Friday, heading home to beat the Knicks Saturday and then thumping the Celtics Monday night at United Center.

For two consecutive home games, the big building on Madison had a buzz to it, and noise, and smiles at the end over Big Macs and baby steps.

Afterward, you half-expected management to call an impromptu press conference and announce a contract extension for coach Fred Hoiberg.

Of course, you also half-expected the Bulls’ visionaries to stage that news conference to explain that Hoiberg had been fired for straying from the bleak blueprint. The macro of a season down the sink is at odds right now with the micro of 82 games, some of them – like it or not – quite winnable.

The Bulls, after all, aren’t the only lottery-minded team. There’s a crowd of them, still in single digits as far as victories, still more committed to college freshmen than to current players or ticket buyers on any given night.

So how has Hoiberg and his staff built and maintained a firewall between the team’s nightly ambitions and the front office’s diametrically opposed overarching goal?

“We’ve tried to shut everything out about that,” the Bulls coach said. “We come in every day and talk about win or lose, taking steps in the right direction. After some early games where we played well, we had a couple setbacks, we had a couple low-effort games that can’t happen. Whether we win or lose, you go in after the game and say ‘We were the harder playing team.’ And we’ve done that for the majority, really, of the last 10, 12 games. We played with great passion, with great energy.

“We’re not thinking that way. I can promise you that.”

With a handful of inexperienced but willing perimeter shooters on a roster long on question marks and role players, Hoiberg at least has been able to coach more as he intended when hired in 2014. Through Chicago’s first 25 games, it had made 261 3-point shots – 65 more than any previous Bulls team at the same point. They hit 12 of 29 against the Celtics, including 7-of-8 by backups in a dominating 65-30 bench performance.

But “Hoiball” isn’t fully out of its cocoon, simply because the rebuild still is so raw. Running before flying? Walking before running? Nah, this still is in the crawling stage. Which means keeping the players focused on the imperative of today while the bosses bask in the low-pressure zone of next spring.

So far, it seems to be working.

“I don’t know what tanking is,” said forward Bobby Portis, who scored 23 points in 23 minutes in reserve. “We want to win. We don’t want to be looked at as if, ‘Aw, they’re just going out there, tanking,’ whatever. We want to be guys who go out there and compete and earn our keep too.”

Portis did more than earn his keep Monday. He was part of several subplots to Chicago’s plucky little winning steak.

Subplot No. 1: In the giddiness over the Bulls’ victory, some forgot that they beat only the semi-Celtics. No Kyrie Irving (left quad bruise), no Marcus Morris (left knee maintenance), Al Horford at less than 100 percent (right knee bruise) and of course no Gordon Hayward. Moving Marcus Smart into Irving’s spot obviously thinned Boston’s bench.

But Irving isn’t known for his individual defense, and Chicago managed to drop 108 points on the NBA’s No. 1 defense (99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions coming in).

Boston coach Brad Stevens gave credit where it was due. “They played harder than we did,” Stevens said. “They played with more presence than we did. They played more competitive than we did. They played with more authority than we did. … We were playing a team that feels really good. And they stayed the course.”

All of which was true. But odds are good this game will be Exhibit A in arguging for Irving as an MVP candidate. Lost to Chicago by 23 in a game he missed? Man, that’s valuable.

Subplot No. 2: Chicago’s best two players were Portis and Nikola Mirotic, the battling Bulls of opening week notoriety. Portis, agitated by Mirotic in one of the final practices before their Oct. 19 opener, punched his fellow power forward, fracturing a couple of bones in Mirotic’s face and sidelining him until Friday’s game in Charlotte.

But the Bulls are 3-0 since Mirotic’s return and the two still-wary teammates directed all their aggression at the visitors. Mirotic started in place of rookie Lauri Markkanen (back spasms), what he considered his rightful place before the punch, and scored 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting with eight rebounds.

They didn’t lavish each other with praise, but they kept it professional and got impressive results. It’s a far cry from the him-or-me ultimatum that leaked out of Mirotic’s “camp” during his recovery and during Portis’ eight-game team suspension.

“Those guys are playing off each other,” Hoiberg said. “When we got switches, they were hitting each other in the high-low. Finding each other. I just love the chemistry that those two guys are playing with right now.”

Subplot No. 3: A season committed to – spent on, might be more accurate – winning by losing now might be at risk of losing by winning. That’s the fear of some Bulls fans, that they’ll settle for small satisfaction and lose sight of the big picture.

So let’s offer some perspective: Of the teams that finished with the NBA’s worst overall record in each of the past 10 seasons, four got there in spite of one (and precisely one) winning streak of three games or more. The 82-game schedule provides plenty of opportunities to outweigh one hot week. Then again, of those 10 bottom-feeding teams, only two wound up selecting No. 1 overall in the Draft.

Having the worst record doesn’t assure a team of the top pick as much as it assures its fans of a long, laborious season. The Bulls have just shortened theirs up a bit the past few nights.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.