CHICAGO — About a month before training camp last fall, the Chicago Bulls began meeting up in their city, which would become a new home for most of them.
They got together for workouts they didn’t have to do. They played five-on-five. They hung out. With only three players who had been with the team during the previous off-season, there were a lot of introductions to make.
“Everybody that came here was very excited for this project to work,” said Nikola Vucevic, one of the longer-tenured members of the Bulls, having joined the team at the trade deadline in March 2021. “There was a very positive energy going into it. I think that helped a lot. Also, we had guys that were still trying to prove themselves.”
Those workouts built team chemistry, and the Bulls surprised people — Vucevic included — with how quickly they started winning. And when injuries and coronavirus infections depleted their roster, they had a foundation that allowed them to adapt.
This season has demanded that teams be pliable, given how the pandemic has disrupted it. A virus outbreak during a wave of the Omicron variant in December meant that the Bulls were missing 10 players at one point — and once they emerged from that setback, they began losing key players to injury. Despite all that, the Bulls, with a 38-21 record after Wednesday’s 125-118 win over the Sacramento Kings, are well positioned for the run up to the playoffs after All-Star Weekend.
“We’re not able to see us at our full potential since the beginning of the year,” said Zach LaVine, Chicago’s two-time All-Star guard and the longest-tenured Bull. “Even then we were working out the kinks, getting to know each other.”
He added: “We’re still at the top of our conference and we’ve been doing a patch job.”
With the Heat inactive Wednesday, the Bulls broke a tie with Miami — which has dealt with its own virus and injury issues — for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference by beating Sacramento. It has been more than a decade since the Bulls were truly considered contenders in the East. They have missed the playoffs for the past four seasons, and two years ago they tried to shake up their front office in hopes of changing their fortunes.
They traded for Vucevic last season, and he became the first part of their remodel. Only the third-year guard Coby White and LaVine remain from the team that began last season.
DeMar DeRozan became their marquee free-agent signing, a player who had been written off because of his preference for midrange jumpers over 3-pointers.
The Bulls traded for Lonzo Ball in the off-season, and paid a small price — the forfeiture of a second-round draft pick — for tampering to get him. They signed Alex Caruso, who comes off the bench for a defensive jolt, in free agency as well. And they drafted Ayo Dosunmu, a Chicago native who had spent three years at the University of Illinois.
Critics wondered if this group would actually work, and how.
Bulls Coach Billy Donovan said the players’ time together before training camp “really helped our team.” For Vucevic that meant reconnecting with DeRozan, with whom he’d played at the University of Southern California. It meant getting to know others he’d played against in the N.B.A.
“It’s one of the great things about team sports,” Vucevic said. “You meet so many people and you never know who you’re going to build friendships with.”
The Bulls started the season 6-1 and went on a nine-game winning streak in late December and early January after their Omicron wave had passed.
Ball’s outlet passes, LaVine’s dunks and DeRozan’s buzzer-beaters were just part of the fun. Their up-tempo offense, fueled by DeRozan, LaVine and, eventually, Vucevic, was balanced by a clear defensive identity, led by guards Ball and Caruso.
“They look like they’re having fun playing basketball together,” said Joakim Noah, who played for the Bulls from 2007 to 2016, including seven straight trips to the playoffs. “When you look around the league you realize you can probably count that on one hand.”
Friendships might seem like a small thing on a professional sports team, but discord can derail even the most talented teams.
“I think when you have a lot of guys built into the foundation as if we’re one household, one family, when you have guys going in and out it’s much easier to plug guys in,” Dosunmu said.
DeRozan was out for almost two weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus in December. LaVine has missed 11 games, most of them because of a lingering knee injury, though he also played with back spasms earlier this month. Ball has been out since Jan. 15 with a knee injury.
Caruso missed 13 games in December and January with a foot injury. In the second game after he returned, he fractured his wrist after a hard foul by Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen. Caruso has not played since, but he has been on the bench, helping younger players learn from what he sees.
“We have a strong-minded group,” said Vucevic, who had a double-double Wednesday with 21 points and 10 rebounds. “A group of fighters. When we’re going through it, we just talked about how we can’t feel sorry for ourselves because nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”
They have stayed afloat by beating lesser teams, but the league’s better ones have proved a tougher challenge. So far they are winless against Miami, Milwaukee, Golden State, Philadelphia, Memphis and Phoenix. They have only two wins against teams currently in the top four in their conferences — they beat the Jazz and Cavaliers once each.
“We understand that we are a good team, we are not yet at the level of the best teams, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Vucevic said, adding, “We have to wait to get full to be able to do that, but all of this is a good test for us to get to there.”
After shootaround Friday at Chicago’s practice facility, Ball hopped through a drill as he worked on rehabbing his knee. Nearby, Caruso watched a scrimmage. LaVine practiced shooting free throws and then spoke to reporters.
“We get healthy and we do what we’re supposed to do, I don’t see anybody better than us in the East,” LaVine said. “That’s my opinion. Competition-wise, you step on the line you go throw the ball up, I don’t think anybody’s better than us.”
That night LaVine played 37 minutes and winced as he landed on his feet after a dunk. The Bulls announced Monday that he would be out until the All-Star break because of that lingering knee injury.
Since returning from his coronavirus-related absence, DeRozan has offered some consistency. He’s scored at least 35 points in the team’s last seven games — losses to Phoenix and Philadelphia, followed by five wins over pesky but less-accomplished teams. He had 38 points on 16 of 27 shooting from the field against the Kings.
After Saturday’s home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, DeRozan spoke wistfully about what it might feel like when the Bulls are all healthy again.
“It’s like a dream I dream about every night,” DeRozan said as he looked into the distance.
Outside the United Center, the winter Chicago air was biting cold just a few hours before the city would be dusted with snow.
“Being on a sunny beautiful island, that’s how I picture it when we get back healthy,” DeRozan said. “We’re going to get there. It sucks right now, but we got to weather it. It’s going to come.”