It’s tempting, certainly.
With every Lauri Markkanen glimpse of stardom and every Nikola Mirotic eye-popping triple, it’s temping to picture the possibilities.
The possibilities of bucking the odds and turning your own narrative upside down, from choosing a path on draft night that promised to be ugly to a road where “Parts Unknown” seems optimistic instead of ominous.
But the Bulls need to stay the course they selected five months ago and ignore the desire to see this version of their vision through.
Whatever it requires, however ugly it is, the Bulls must do what needs to be done with this rebuild. If it means sending Mirotic to a good team that needs shooting for a low first-round pick on Jan. 15, so be it.
There’s no prize in constructing a better roster than you planned, one that wins a few more games just to prove to the public that things weren’t as bad as projected.
Because seemingly, it only elevates you to purgatory and not the penthouse.
The Bulls thumped the Indiana Pacers 119-107 at the United Center to register their 10th win in 12 games and seven straight wins at home for the first time since the end of the 2012-13 season and start of the next campaign.
The Pacers were without All-Star candidate Victor Oladipo, but it’s highly unlikely he, at 6-foot-4, would’ve bothered Mirotic’s rocket launches from the perimeter or Markkanen’s smooth release.
The duo combined for 60 points and 13 of the Bulls’ team-record tying 18 triples as Fred Hoiberg keeps throwing out different lineups and they keep working.
Ever since trading Jimmy Butler on draft night and getting Markkanen, Hoiberg had been salivating over using the two big men together—stretching the floor, stressing defenses and scoring at a pace the United Center scoreboard hasn’t been used to considering the previous era of ground-and-pound ball.
“We’ve been trying to play those lineups with those two guys out there at the same time and I thought they were pretty good out there,” Hoiberg said.
Markkanen had a career night with 32 points after there was a school of thought he was headed for an extensive slump no less than four days ago. Like a toddler learning how to walk, defenses can’t keep their eyes off Mirotic for one second or else he’s launching from wherever he catches—or spinning off a defender in the post—or firing a pass to an open shooter in the corner.
“Lauri had an amazing game too. I’m very happy for him,” Mirotic said. “The team is growing, we’re all excited and having fun. Each game we’re understanding more how to play. When he’s rolling and popping, I’m trying to find him in the low post the same way he’s trying to find me.”
And considering the revelation Kris Dunn has become, the point guard many around the league thought was broken after his rookie year and was an afterthought in the Butler deal, one could be seduced into thinking the Bulls are a lot closer to being a playoff team than before.
Even with Dunn being a late scratch, revealing with eight minutes before tipoff his knee tendinitis was too bothersome to play, backup Jerian Grant stepped forward with a career-high 12 assists to go with 11 points and seven rebunds.
Add in the headliner of the Butler deal, Zach LaVine, readying himself for a debut that will drop in athleticism and shot creation to the Hoiberg system, could John Paxson and Gar Forman be talked into taking a shortcut and pulling the plug on securing the (Marvin) Bagley or whatever twitter hashtag will be applied for Luca Doncic and DeAndre Ayton?
Perhaps they could be persuaded, but they shouldn’t be.
They did beat Philadelphia without Joel Embiid and Boston without Kyrie Irving along with the Pacers missing Oladipo, so there could be a little grain of salt in this sweet streak.
“I think if you put the small goals out there, the bigger goals take care of themselves,” Hoiberg said. “If you go out there and play hard and play with great effort have attention to the game plan and the small details, then generally you’re gonna be in it at the end of the game.”
And likely, at the end of the regular season, too.
They’re a different team than the outfit that left Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Dec. 6, losers of 10 straight games and chugging along to the ocean of the Eastern Conference.
“(Since) we had that devastating loss, our guys have really kind of found themselves, found each other and we’ve really made good, unselfish plays,” Hoiberg said.
The Bulls had another 30-plus assist evening, with 31 helpers on Friday and averaged 25.8 assists in the 11 games since the heartbreaker to the Pacers. They’ve averaged 108 points and shot 47 percent in that period, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Eastern Conference Coach of the Month who also presided over the top three pick in the next season’s draft—yes, Hoiberg will likely come away with the coaching hardware for December, as he should.
He’s found a way to integrate Mirotic into the rotation, pairing him with Bobby Portis and magically, it’s worked. His positive, encouraging style has helped rebuild Dunn into a player who doesn’t look over his shoulder, into a player who plays empowered.
Hoiberg’s competence and effectiveness as a coach has been just as much a discovery to the general public as Dunn has been. The most recent vision of Hoiberg was the coach standing on the sidelines, helpless as the Boston Celtics embarrassed the Bulls in Game 6 of their first-round series last April.
The chants of “Fire Hoiberg!” were so audible, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was seen muttering “shut up” under his breath as an act of mercy to his comrade in the profession.
Now, for the first time in his three years as Bulls coach, Hoiberg’s job performance isn’t being questioned as the team heads into January. For the first time, it’s being lauded—and deservedly so.
But a long rebuild shouldn’t hinge on a streak that looks good and feels good in the moment. Hoiberg and Dunn being evaluated this positively is almost gravy for the franchise but they shouldn’t push their luck.
Do what you set out to do.