The Chicago Bulls, who sit 7-10 through 17 games, may not match last season’s 46-win total in 2022-23.
They may not reach the top six in a jam-packed Eastern Conference either.
But following Monday’s 121-107 victory over the league-best Boston Celtics, the belief that this Bulls group can emerge from its early-season struggles a more complete team than the one that was routed out of the first round of the 2022 playoffs was palpable.
“I’d rather be going through our struggles now, because games like this, we realize we can compete with anybody,” DeMar DeRozan said. “I really believe once we catch that rhythm, that confidence of playing at a high level, it's going to be consistent.”
Placing their 2-1 record against the reigning Eastern Conference champions aside, the Bulls have not yet caught that rhythm. Monday’s win snapped a four-game skid that featured non-competitive losses to the Nuggets and Pelicans, plus a back-breaker to the lowly Orlando Magic.
But an optimist would point to the fact that the Bulls already have three times as many wins over last season’s top four teams in the East — Boston (twice) and the Miami Heat in the season opener — than they did in all of 2021-22, when they lost 13 of 14 games against that elite group.
“One of the things we talked about before the season started was, against those top four teams in the East and the West, we didn't play particularly well (last season),” Donovan said.
“I know our record is what it is at this point in time. But I think outside of maybe the Cleveland game (a 32-point loss in the Bulls’ home opener), some of these teams like Boston, we've been very, very competitive with them. Same thing with Toronto (Raptors). Miami, the first game of the year. I think we've been way more competitive in those games than we were a year ago.”
You could take that as counting moral victories. Or you could take it as a sign of the group’s potential — provided they can iron out the inconsistencies that ail them on both sides of the ball and get healthy.
“We’re a really good team, but we go through lapses where we play bad,” said Zach LaVine. “We don’t want to dig ourselves into too deep of a hole where you’re just hoping and praying. We’re a good enough team to make it up with the players and talent we have.”
Donovan's action-based emphasis on accountability up and down the roster and the Bulls' fresh offensive principles centered on ball and player movement certainly have the potential to produce higher-level basketball than the stretch run of last season if the team coalesces in proper fashion. Lonzo Ball eventually returning would help too.
But ultimately, time will reveal the Bulls’ true nature. In fact, the next week should speak volumes. Wednesday’s game at the Milwaukee Bucks tips off a six-game road trip that features stops at Utah, Phoenix, Golden State and Sacramento.
“You gotta play well against top teams,” DeRozan said. “Top teams should bring the best out of you.”
DeRozan also pointed to the Bulls’ dynamic last season, when a hot start thrust them to the top of the Eastern Conference before a catastrophic post-All-Star break swoon dropped them to the bottom of the playoff picture.
This season, they are shaping up to be the hunter, not the hunted. But even three games under .500, the Bulls are only one game back of a play-in spot and three from the top six in a clustered conference.
“Nobody's pulled away from nowhere. We still got the opportunity to pull together a great run,” DeRozan said. “There's still time. It's not even December yet. There's a lot more basketball to play and a lot more things to figure out. And I got the utmost confidence in this group of guys.”
They’ll need that confidence for the road ahead.