Given the last six years, the Chicago Bulls have very little to complain about.
Thanks to MVP-caliber efforts from DeMar DeRozan, another All-Star season from Zach LaVine, and a solid core of starting and rotational pieces, the 39-25 Bulls will be playing postseason basketball again in the coming weeks. That hasn’t happened since 2017 after a 41-41 Bulls club made the tournament and suffered a quiet first-round exit.
Though somewhere along the line, the expectations changed. Rather than being content with simply making the playoffs, Chicago wants to make a strong push toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Unfortunately for the Windy City faithful, it looks increasingly likely that the Bulls’ long-awaited return to the playoffs will be brief.
The Bulls are fading at the wrong time
A 6-1 start to the year was enough to convince basketball fans the Bulls were back. Then, as the season went on and injuries mounted, Chicago still found a way to compete and win. And by the All-Star break, the club sat at an Eastern Conference-best 38-21.
However, the wheels are starting to fall off.
Following a home victory over the Atlanta Hawks to open up the post-All-Star schedule, Chicago has dropped each of its last four games. The first was last Saturday when Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies came away with the 116-110 victory at the United Center. Two nights later, the Bulls fell to the first-place Miami Heat 112-99 in South Beach.
After its blowout loss to the Heat, Chicago then dropped back-to-back games against the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. Trae Young led Atlanta’s convincing 130-124 effort on Thursday, while Giannis Antetokounmpo buried the Bulls in Milwaukee’s 118-112 victory on Friday.
In a five-game stretch after the All-Star break, the Bulls have gone from first to third in the East, trailing Miami by three games. They’re now in a tie with the Bucks for the three-seed and are just a game-and-a-half up on the Boston Celtics to ensure home-court advantage in the opening round.
Healthy or not, the Bulls have been miserable against the NBA’s top contenders
No one is out here saying the Bulls aren’t a good team. Given their record in spite of the game-changing injuries they’ve endured, they’re more than deserving of a high seed in the East.
But the mark of a great team is an ability to beat other contenders, no matter where or when. That’s where the 2021-22 Chicago Bulls fall short.
Chicago’s four-game skid has come against the likes of the Grizzlies, Heat, and Bucks, three teams within the top three of their respective conferences. Its only other four-game slide came earlier this year in a stretch against the Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Celtics, and Grizzlies. Considering the Nets were 26-14 at the time, all of those losses also came to some of the league’s top teams.
On a larger scale, here is how Chicago has fared against the NBA’s top four teams from each conference (current seed in parentheses):
- Miami Heat (1): 0-3
- Philadelphia 76ers (2): 0-3
- Milwaukee Bucks (3): 0-2
- Boston Celtics (5): 1-1
- Phoenix Suns (1): 0-1
- Golden State Warriors (2): 0-2
- Memphis Grizzlies (3): 0-2
- Utah Jazz (4): 1-0
In 16 combined games, the Bulls have gone 2-14. While this means they’re a dominant 37-11 against the other 21 clubs, it also shows how far away they are from being a true title contender.
Chicago will have a puncher’s chance once its roster gets to full strength
If there’s one major on-court weakness that’s hurting the Bulls against elite teams, it’s defense. Entering the weekend, Chicago is neutralizing its fourth-ranked offense with a 21st-ranked defensive rating.
Improving on the defensive end will of course require the commitment of DeRozan, LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic, the team’s top three players. But the overall unit will receive a major boost once injured guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso return to action.
Ball underwent knee surgery days after suffering his injury on Jan. 14. The second-overall pick from 2017 was given a six-to-eight-week timeline. Meanwhile, Caruso fractured his wrist thanks to a cheap shot by Bucks guard Grayson Allen on Jan. 21, an injury that also carried a six-to-eight-week estimate. His injury came just days after returning from an unrelated 13-game absence.
Assuming there are no setbacks, both Ball and Caruso could be back sometime in mid-to-late March. That would provide Chicago with some much-needed defensive reinforcements before heading into the postseason.
However, even when the two guards were healthy and the defense was respectable, the Bulls failed to close out elite teams around the league. If they can’t learn how to win those playoff-like games now, things won’t get any better when the real fun begins next month.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.