Not so great expectations: A guide for Bulls fans in the second half

Spirits were high back in October, remember? The Bulls brought back nearly the entire roster from a year ago, a group that came within a scrapped David Blatt play of being up three games to one against Cleveland. The flaws from a season ago had been remedied with a change on the bench. The stern, unimaginative Tom Thibodeau was out and offensive genius Fred Hoiberg was here to turn this talented team into the Midwest Warriors.

Things have not gone according to plan. With the All-Star break coming to a close, the Bulls are just 27-25, seventh in the East and just a game ahead of the ninth-place Pistons. They’ve gone from 21st in pace up to 11th, but their offensive efficiency ranks 26th this year compared to 10th a season ago.  Simply put, the Bulls are taking more shots, and fewer are going in.

The injury bug that has plagued this franchise since Derrick Rose‘s initial ACL tear is once again playing a prominent role this season. Joakim Noah is done for the season. Jimmy Butler will miss a month with a knee injury. Nikola Mirotic isn’t sure when he’ll return from appendectomy complications (WHAT!?!!?!), and Mike Dunleavy is working his way into rhythm after off-season back surgery.

The delusional front office believed they had championship talent last season and somehow convinced the fans they were right. Now we know: Thibs was not the only problem with the Bulls, and this roster isn’t good enough to win a championship.

The vibe among Bulls fans has been hopelessness and despair. It wasn’t too long ago the Bulls looked like a young, upstart core that would enjoy a decade-long window of contention. Today, we watch each frustrating game, endlessly waiting for a switch to flip. For many, watching Bulls games has become a joyless activity. But it doesn’t have to be.

The Bulls are not contenders. They never really were this season. Accept this into your heart.

Fanbases that enter a season with no expectations open themselves up to the possibility of pleasant surprise. I hear no complaints from Portland fans cheering on a team a game worse than the Bulls. Nuggets fans don’t seem to mind how the season is shaking out. These fans are enjoying their teams because they’re able to focus on small-scale victories without worrying about the ultimate prize this season. If Nikola Jokic has a double-double, the final score is irrelevant.

It’s time for Bulls fans to adopt a similar approach. With 30 games to go, the banged up Bulls are not going to right the ship. So instead of getting angry with every blown defensive assignment and bricked jump shot, we need to focus on the future and take joy in whatever potential this team has for the future.

Tyler Pleiss wrote a great review on what we’ve seen from rookie Bobby Portis so far. Portis plays with great energy and effort on both sides of the ball. He has a lot to learn about playing NBA defense, but almost all rookie big men do. His shot selection has been aggressive at times, but his jump shot looks encouraging while his pick and pop game could develop into a real weapon. My biggest hope for the second half is that Portis sees a sizable jump in playing time. While Portis’ presence has been a net negative for the team, the former Razorback is not going to learn to communicate on defense when he’s parked on the bench.

The other player who I hope sees a big minutes bump down the stretch is last year’s first round pick, Doug McDermott. Doug has proven to be a reliable three point shooter, making over 42% of his attempts this season. McDermott has been a disaster defensively both on and off the ball, and he lacks enough weapons on offense to make up for his defensive mistakes. But just like Portis, Doug isn’t going to figure out team defense from the sideline. Let the young guys make mistakes over this basically meaningless stretch run of the season.

Portis and McDermott have dispayed some nice chemistry on offense already. Portis has been a frequent off-ball screener for McDermott as he cuts around the perimeter hunting for threes. The Bulls have a  -16.4 net rating in the 344 minutes Doug and Bobby have played together, but who cares. Let them continue to develop together and build chemistry that will hopefully help the Bulls win games in years to come.

Other than the growth of the young players on the team, the biggest thing to monitor the rest of the season is the slow integration of HoiBall. With Noah out and Pau Gasol possibly on his way to another team, the Bulls will be able to use lineups that are more conducive to the fast, spread out system Hoiberg was brought here to install. Lineups with Portis and Mirotic as the big men will get killed on defense, but the beauty of five-out basketball makes the uncontested layups allowed worth it. Portis and Mirotic will hopefully grow into capable defenders, but for now it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Bulls get reps in playing the wide open system that they will become more committed to as time goes on.

Bulls fans, this can still be fun. Forget whatever championship aspirations you began the season with. Holding on to them will only continue to bum you out. Instead, embrace the growth margins. Monitor the youth and applaud any progress. This was never a contender, and it’s time to start acting like it.

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