TELANDER: Bulls’ front office has major decision to make
This is kind of funny in an ironic sort of way.
The Bulls started the season 3-20, so bad that the possibility of a wreck-of-the-century was in sight. They were last in the league, on pace for something close to a 10-72 record, which would have been the reverse of the Michael Jordan-led 72-10 record the Bulls put up in 1995-96.
We were observers, monitoring Tanking 101, with the prize for dreadful losing being the most Ping-Pong balls in the 2018 draft lottery.
This was a hopeful way to rebuild a team in disarray after the Bulls traded star Jimmy Butler in June, not to mention Taj Gibson and other players in recent years.
Be terrible, get a young superstar, get better. That’s the way it works in the NBA.
Then, suddenly, the Bulls started winning. Niko Mirotic came back from having his face pounded by teammate Bobby Portis in a preseason fight, and the Bulls took flight like an albatross released from ship netting.
Since Mirotic’s return the Bulls are 14-7, a .667 winning percentage that would have them near the top of either conference. They would be contending, not pretending.
So what happened? And what do the Bulls do now that their tanking mission has been blown to smithereens? (Entering play Tuesday, they had a better record than eight teams.)
It’s hard to say exactly what, but it’s clear something occurred with Mirotic’s return. His new strength, shooting skill and fervor rubbed off on all of his teammates, and the Bulls routinely began to score more than 100 points and to close out close games.
Kris Dunn has become a hard-driving assist man, Robin Lopez is a pillar in the middle and players such as Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant and David Nwaba have filled in with zest and newfound confidence.
Then there is 7-foot rookie Lauri Markkanen, a 20-year-old from Finland who has the shooting and ballhandling skills of a 6-footer. Markkanen is so skilled, it’s almost frightening to think about how good he can be.
The next Dirk Nowitzki with a dash of Kevin Durant thrown in? We can dream.
And now long-injured Zach LaVine is playing in his first games with the Bulls. In two games, LaVine is averaging 16 points. In their 119-111 victory Monday against the Heat, LaVine had 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in less than 20 minutes. Imagine what he can do in 35 minutes.
Which leads us to another thing about the Bulls: They have embraced the mathematics of the three-point shot. A made three-pointer is worth 50 percent more than a made two-pointer, so firing from beyond the arc with proficiency — 33 percent on threes equals 50 percent on twos — means you will beat a grunt two-point team most of the time.
Against the Heat, the Bulls were 16-for-39 from three-point range, a .410 percentage. Watch the cherries spin!
The game has changed so much in terms of embracing the three-pointer that a player such as Markkanen, usually the tallest man on the floor, often fires from way outside. And he does it well. He was 3-for-6 on three-pointers against the Heat. How do you guard a 7-footer shooting from 25 feet?
If the Bulls continue to win at the rate they are, it is possible they could make the playoffs. Winning at a .667 clip would give them a 42-40 or 43-39 record. Entering play Tuesday, eight Eastern Conference teams were above .500. You never know.
So what about the tanking, the plan for the future? The Bulls can go back to being bad — trading Mirotic, which seems possible, might do it — or they can stay gung-ho and try to make this team the nucleus of the future. Forget that lottery superstar.
‘‘The thing I love about this team is that they’re in this thing together, and they’ve shown great chemistry,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said.
If that is so, why subtract ingredients from a bubbling pot?
It’s a tough call for Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman. It’s likely they’re as shocked by this success as anybody.
Earn your money, guys. Make the right call.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.