The Chicago Bulls were always going to need a few breaks to have a serious shot at competing with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They may have just caught a massive one, and now it's on them to take advantage of the situation.
Chicago won the teams' season opener at the United Center. Just a day before the Bulls and Cavs' second of the season, Cleveland sent shock waves through the NBA. Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday that the Cavs fired head coach David Blatt and replaced him with lead assistant Tyronn Lue.
Cleveland's firing of Blatt isn't much of a surprise. His partnership with LeBron James was awkward from the beginning, and they never clicked. But the timing of the firing was surprising. The Cavs were coming off a 115-102 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, and at 30-11, they held a three-game lead for first place in the Eastern Conference.
But Cleveland had its reasons for firing Blatt when it did, and the change lays bare the team's vulnerabilities. Despite being clearly the most talented team in the East, the Cavs are still a group without an identity beyond the mere fact that LeBron James is on their roster. Despite their record, they have struggled to use Kevin Love effectively since Kyrie Irving returned to the lneup, and Timofey Mozgov, a transformative presence when they traded for him last season, hasn't been himself.
The Bulls have a chance to jump into that conversation as well, and on paper, they have the talent to do it. But Chicago has its own issues to figure out. Following Friday's 110-101 loss to the Celtics in Boston, it has dropped six of its last eight games and given up at least 100 points to nine of its last 11 opponents.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg is aware the Bulls are underperforming thus far, and he made that clear following Friday's loss, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Hoiberg: "There’s such a fine line in this business of being a great team and a very average team. And we teeter on that line."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 23, 2016
It's a line the Bulls have walked all season, vacillating wildly between quality wins against the league's best and embarrassing losses to lottery teams. They have a first-year coach who is still figuring out how to implement a new offense and earn his place as a leader. They also have a flawed, aging roster that was better suited for Hoiberg's predecessor, Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls have the worst offense of any team in line to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, scoring just 100.8 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Their defense has slipped to ninth after being among the league's best earlier in the season, with players citing lack of communication after seemingly every loss.
Despite all of this, Chicago has a chance to win the Eastern Conference, only because somebody has to. They still have one of the best two-way players in the league in Jimmy Butler, and Derrick Rose has been much more consistent on the offensive end since Christmas. The Cavs have never been more vulnerable than they are now. They have a talent advantage over the rest of the Eastern Conference, but something is off with their chemistry, and it's going to take the rest of the season for them to solve it.
Maybe Lue is the catalyst for that, and it's still likely Cleveland rolls through the rest of the season and into the playoffs. But even for a team playing at a 60-win pace, firing a coach midseason is not a recipe for title contention. Lue talked on Saturday morning about wanting to feature Love in the offense more than Blatt was, but it will be difficult to implement new play sets on such short notice, without training camp or much time to practice.
The Bulls will be the first team to get a taste of the Cavaliers in the post-Blatt era with their game in Cleveland on Saturday night. Don't be surprised if the Cavs demolish them—firing a coach has a way of making things like that happen in the immediate aftermath.
Still, it's hard to look at a team in this much disarray and not think there's at least some window for another team, one that has its house more in order, to sneak in and upset them in the postseason.
Will that be the Bulls?
Who knows? They have a lot of questions to answer. They're still reeling from the loss of Joakim Noah for the season and biding their time with an inconsistent wing rotation until Mike Dunleavy returns. Noah's injury makes a trade harder to pull off. But now more than ever, they have to be open to making a win-now move if one presents itself.
In the meantime, Chicago has a tough schedule leading into the All-Star break, including a seven-game road trip. It can either use this time to set itself apart among Cleveland's challengers come April or continue to drop winnable games and slip further into the cluster of mediocrity that is the middle of the Eastern Conference's playoff race.
The Cavs may not leave the window this wide open again for years. The Bulls have an opportunity to make the kind of push that has seemed just out of reach, and they have to make the most of it.