CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls broke into the new year in the midst of an identity crisis.
After starting the season 3-20, the young group strung together an unexpected 10 wins in 12 games behind Nikola Mirotic's return to the lineup and the improved play of Kris Dunn. But after dropping a 124-120 overtime thriller to the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, the Bulls MIGHT have finally set their course for the foreseeable future.
For the second game in a row, the Bulls lost late in a game that they had in their grasp. They had a late lead and couldn't protect it. It was the type of game they had pulled off several times in their recent hot stretch.
"It's tough. It hurts," Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg said. "That's the thing about it, when you do have some success in closing out close games, the last two nights we haven't done [that]. We have not gotten the job done. It does, it hurts, it stings, especially after having seven [wins] in a row where we did close out a lot of those close games."
What made this loss sting even more is the fact that Hoiberg did not use Mirotic down the stretch. The young coach pulled his team's best player at the 7:34 mark in regulation and did not put him back in the rest of the game. Hoiberg explained after it was over that he decided to stick with veteran Robin Lopez because he felt that was a better matchup against Portland big man Jusuf Nurkic. Hoiberg also stuck with rookie Lauri Markkanen late in the game, extolling how much the late-game minutes would help the 20-year-old shooter in his development.
Hoiberg revealed that Mirotic was dealing with a rib muscle injury during the game, but Mirotic said he felt like he could still play and had no issues with Hoiberg's rotations. The issue for the faction of Bulls fans who have enjoyed the team's recent streak is that Mirotic had 18 points in 19 minutes on Monday and has repeatedly hit big shots late in games this season.
The reality is that there is another faction of the fan base that loved seeing the Bulls revert to their tanking ways the past two days. Compete hard in games, develop young players, find a way to lose down the stretch instead of finding ways to win, and watch the ping pong balls pile up in advance of May's Draft Lottery.
The Bulls have battled themselves the first three months of the season. Are they the team that dropped 20 of its first 23, or are they the team that has won 10 of its past 14? The truth is the Bulls are probably somewhere between those options.
As currently constructed, the Bulls could probably finish the season around 30 or more wins if Bulls executives John Paxson and Gar Forman decide not to break up the roster, especially with athletic wing Zach LaVine expected to make his return at some point in the next few weeks. But the goal for Paxson and Forman this season was to find a way toward the top of that lottery, in hopes of landing a franchise-changing talent. As happy as they are about the recent progress, the Bulls' front office hasn't lost sight of the long-term goal.
The odds remain high that Mirotic and/or Robin Lopez will be dealt before next month's trade deadline, assuming the Bulls can get a suitable future asset in return. The strength of the Bulls' schedule might also knock them back down to earth over the next two weeks, as seven of the next eight opponents have .500 records or better. Dallas, the other team the Bulls play in this stretch, is in the middle of a four-game win streak and showing signs of life.
Aside from the decisions on Mirotic and Lopez, the deeper question for this rebuilding squad is: Just how much better will the Bulls be whenever LaVine returns?
The 23-year-old is one of the most athletic players in the league when he's healthy, but it's unlikely he'll be able to make a huge difference right away as he comes back from ACL surgery. As good as the Bulls have been recently, they won't be able to maintain the same level of success without Mirotic and Lopez for the second half of the season. The two veterans have provided the stability this group needs.
That's why Monday offered a perfect example of the kind of game the Bulls should hope for if the front office is serious about tanking the rest of the season in hopes of landing the pick: Be just good enough not to win.