The Chicago Bulls Are Back (?)

Heading into the 2020-21 season, the Chicago Bulls hadn’t graced the NBA hardwood in nine months. The elongated offseason brought forth much needed change to the front office, as Chicago villains Gar Forman and John Paxson were exchanged for former Denver Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, former senior vice president of player personnel for the Philadelphia 76ers. After parting ways with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Billy Donovan was named head coach to replace drill sergeant Jim Boylen. The trio’s addition delivered a newfound sense of hope not felt in the organization since Derrick Rose’s tenure. The new front office regime elected to run back largely the same roster, adding forward Patrick Williams with the fourth pick in the draft and veteran guard Garrett Temple via free agency. Despite a current record of 4-7, the Bulls have a restored energy that has made them one of the most exciting young teams in the Association.

While the roster is essentially the same, Chicago feels like a completely different team from the sad excuse they were only one year ago. It’s clear that the team respects Donovan and wants to learn from him; there’s less head-hanging and more effort when a deficit is encountered. On January 5, the Bulls became the first team to come back from a 20-point deficit this season in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers. When Zach LaVine was asked if Chicago would’ve won the game last season, he simply replied, “No.” The first two games of the season—losses to the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers—saw the Bulls go down by as much as 40 points and did nothing to instill confidence in fans. Since then, Chicago has brought intensity and confidence on both ends of the floor, providing them the unfamiliar satisfaction of never feeling completely out of the game. The team is hungry for an Eastern Conference playoff spot and it shows. For the first time in years, the Bulls are watchable. They're my most-watched team for the first time since the Three Alphas.

A major factor in the Bulls resurgence is the continued improvement of Zach LaVine, who has established himself as one of the league’s premiere bucket-getters. This season, LaVine is averaging 27.7 points (49.1/37.1/88.7), 5.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, which are all career-highs. In four of his last five outings, he’s scored at least 30 points, pouring in 38 against the Lakers and 45 against the Clippers. It’s no secret that LaVine can score (he averaged 25.5 per game last season), but he’s doing so at the most efficient rate of his seven-year career. He has the ability to completely take over games through his asinine scoring outbursts. LaVine’s confidence is visibly off the charts right now as he’s actively seeking big-time, clutch shots. This has been the most dialed-in LaVine has ever looked, and as he seeks a max contract extension, there’s no reason to believe the scoring outburst will cease anytime soon. I think he's proving that he can be "the guy." With all the FO changes and cap space next offseason, there's reason to believe Chicago can attract another big name to help compete.

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LaVine’s backcourt partner, Coby White, has impressed in the early stages of his sophomore season. After coming off the bench as a shooting guard last season, White has emerged as Chicago’s starting point guard and taken on the bulk of playmaking responsibilities. It was sure to be an adjustment as White was primarily used as a score-first, catch-and-shoot guard, but through eleven games, he leads the team in assists (6.2 per game). In Chicago’s most recent outing—a loss against the Clippers—White dished out a career-high 13 dimes. White is currently averaging 17.3 points per game, and while his scoring output has been a tad inconsistent, he flashed his potential as a high-volume scorer with 36 points on 65% shooting against the Sacramento Kings. White is only 20 years old and still adapting to one of the most challenging tasks in the NBA: leading an offense. As he continues to piece together scoring and playmaking under a head coach that knows how to develop young talent, White will prove to be a formidable companion in a backcourt that has the potential to (one day) string together nearly 50 points per game.

Since the Jimmy Butler trade, Chicago has been focused on building and developing a young core through the draft (with the exception of LaVine). Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, and Patrick Williams have all been acquired through the draft and marked as the “future,” a vision that has yet to be fully realized. Part of it has to do with front office and coaching incompetence, as each player showed potential but were never fully utilized to their strengths. A massive factor is injuries, with the entire core never getting the chance to play an entire season together. This season hasn’t been any different; Markkanen has only appeared in four games. In limited time, Markkanen has played well, averaging 17.3 points and 6.8 rebounds. What’s stood out most is his shooting efficiency, as he’s hitting 47.8% of his 5.8 three-point attempts. Wet like I’m Book! (Shoot me). He’s made a full return to practice and will be a welcomed reentry into the starting lineup alongside Wendell Carter Jr. Another Bull that has dealt with injuries, Carter Jr. has played in every game so far, putting up 12.8 points and 7.8 boards. His rebounding efficiency has varied and he isn’t blocking shots at his career rate, but he’s shown that he can be a consistent offensive presence. Carter Jr. played great against the Lakers, dropping 23 points and grabbing seven boards. If he can get a bit more tenacious on the glass, Wendell is going to be a walking double-double.

Aside from LaVine and White, the brightest standout so far has been the rookie, Patrick Williams. Starting all 11 games, Williams has averaged 10.3 points (47.2/45.8/85.7), 3.5 rebounds, and one steal. He’s taken on the league’s best on defense, picking up Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard. After facing him, LeBron said that Williams is going to be “an exceptional talent” and commented on his “Kawhi-like hands.” That’s high praise from the GOAT; I’m so in on Pat. Williams has shown that he belongs in the starting lineup. He never lacks confidence and clearly doesn’t hesitate to take on defensive challenges. It’s a small sample size, but it truly seems as if Williams is going to play a large role in Chicago’s future.

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Chicago’s young core has seen support from the team’s veterans, as Otto Porter Jr., Thaddeus Young, Garrett Temple, and Tomas Satoransky have provided solid support. 2019 second-round pick Daniel Gafford is deserving of a larger role, as the center is providing a defensive spark every time he steps on the floor. Per 36, Gafford is averaging 13.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks. He deserved more minutes last season; it appears Donovan is willing to give him the opportunity he deserves. This one's for you, Custer. The reserves bring experience to one of the youngest starting lineups in the league and can hopefully turn that into more wins as the full roster continues to return from COVID protocol.

Their record may not reflect it, but the Bulls have become a genuinely fun team to watch. Their defense may have trouble containing the league’s more dominant players, yet their vastly improved offense has the ability to keep them in games. With Markkanen returning, it feels like the pieces are about to click. Chicago held their own during a tough West Coast road trip, and they aren’t showing any signs of backing down. It’s such a breath of fresh air to see the Bulls actually compete. If you’re a Bulls fan hesitant to dip your toes back into the seemingly endless pit of disappointment, now is the time to buy in. It feels so damn good to watch this team and actually feel confident about their ability to win. It's about time.