The Bulls Face NBA Title-Sized Challenge in Coming Weeks

By all accounts, the Chicago Bulls should come away from NBA All-Star Weekend feeling rejuvenated. After knee soreness kept him out just before the break, Zach LaVine looked healthy during the All-Star Game and now rejoins a DeMar DeRozan coming off a scorching scoring streak. Additionally, the Bulls recently signed veteran big man Tristan Thompson, filling a glaring need for size in the process.

These are all positive developments, made better by Chicago’s place in a tie atop the Eastern Conference. But the Bulls remain slightly banged up, and they now face a brutal closing schedule.

For months, pundits and analysts have debated the validity of Chicago’s contender status. It’s been hard to quantify, considering how little they have been able to trout out full-strength lineups.

However, in this final stretch, the Bulls must push through injuries and remedy defensive issues against some of the best teams in the NBA. The final month-plus should inform whether the franchise is indeed an established championship contender.

The Bulls remain defensively challenged without Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso

Early in the 2021-22 season, the Bulls’ backcourt of Ball and Caruso anchored the team’s defense. Without them in the rotation, the climb has looked all the more uphill.

The Bulls are a respectable 11-8 since Ball (meniscus) left the lineup on Jan. 15. However, according to NBA.com, Chicago ranked just 25th in defensive rating during that date range. That mark might have looked even worse were it not for Caruso (wrist) suiting up twice in said stretch.

Indeed, Chicago executes better with both men on the floor. The Bulls concede six additional points per 100 possessions when Ball sits. They give up 11.1 more points per 100 possessions without Caruso on the court. The numbers are extremely telling.

Ball excels at playing the passing lanes and getting deflections. Caruso is a brilliant communicator and on-ball defender who can legitimately hold his own 1-through-5 against just about any team.

It’s hard to make improvements when a club’s two best individual and team defenders face prolonged absences. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu’s efforts have been vital and add to his reputation as the steal of the 2021 NBA Draft. Still, as a collective unit, the Bulls struggle to defend pick-and-rolls at the point of attack and cut off baseline drives, which then screws up their rotations. They look somewhat lost without Ball and Caruso flying around and creating turnovers.

Chicago has to keep trudging forward without its defensive aces, at least in the interim. Neither Ball nor Caruso has an exact timetable for their respective returns.

This could prove difficult for the Bulls up against a demanding schedule.

Chicago has the second-hardest schedule in the NBA coming out of the break

The Bulls won five straight games entering All-Star weekend. Having regained a share of the No. 1 seed in the East, they’ll surely hope to sustain that momentum. Doing so will be anything but easy.

According to Tankathon (h/t Cody Westerlund of 670 The Score), the Bulls have the second-hardest strength of schedule coming out of the break. Eight of their final 23 games come against teams with a .600 winning percentage. Chicago has three more games against the Milwaukee Bucks, two more against the Heat, and one apiece against the Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, and Philadelphia 76ers.

What is the Bulls’ cumulative record against those teams, one might ask? Well, they are winless. That’s right, Chicago is a combined 0-8 against the Bucks, Heat, Suns, Grizzlies, and 76ers.

The schedule also becomes especially grueling for the Bulls in the home stretch. On April 2, they have their final matchup against the Heat. Chicago then hosts the Bucks and the resurgent Boston Celtics for a back-to-back before closing the regular season at home against the Charlotte Hornets and on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s entirely possible that the final five games could lead to a drastic swing in the Bulls’ playoff seeding, given the suffocating tightness in the East standings.

Can Chicago weather the storm?

Testing the championship mettle

Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan waits to check into an NBA game against the San Antonio Spurs in February 2022
DeMar DeRozan sits on the scorer’s table during a game against the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 14, 2022 | Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bulls have the pieces to make a deep playoff run.

Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are arguably the best one-two scoring punch in the NBA. Tristan Thompson bolsters Chicago’s need for rebounding and athleticism in the frontcourt. Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White make the second unit that much deeper once Ball and Caruso return.

But the defensive struggles and challenges posed by the remaining schedule could cause a swing from which the Bulls might never recover.

Only 5.0 games separate the Bulls from the No. 7-seeded Toronto Raptors. Things are even tighter at the top, as the Bucks find themselves 2.5 games behind Chicago and Miami.

Given the strength of their opponents and struggles against clubs over .500 this season, the Bulls could experience some slippage. There simply isn’t much margin for error.

If the Bulls can negotiate the final 23 games, get healthy, and maintain home-court advantage through at least the first round, then the sky’s the limit. But a daunting stretch awaits them.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

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