Column: Chicago Bulls escaped their 5-14 start — ‘it could’ve been a lot worse’ — but is a second consecutive losing season good enough?

Five months ago, coach Billy Donovan didn’t know if the Chicago Bulls would play any basketball after April 14.

It was mid-November, deep in the doldrums of one of the worst season starts in franchise history. The Bulls had just been clobbered by the Boston Celtics, 124-97, a loss made even more humiliating as the top team in the East racked up points to gain an advantage in the in-season tournament. And with a 5-14 record looming, Donovan wasn’t certain he could see a way out.

What came next for the Bulls was a surprise even for their coach. In the five months that followed, the Bulls dug themselves out of that hole to finish ninth in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls ended the season Sunday in the same fashion they spent most of the past five months — scrapping in overtime, scrambling for yet another clutch win.

Despite playing every starter but Ayo Dosunmu in New York, the Bulls couldn’t hold off the Knicks in a 120-119 loss. Though the season started with little to no hope, Sunday’s loss only set the Bulls back to a 39-43 record with the No. 9 seed and home-court advantage in a play-in tournament matchup against the Atlanta Hawks secured.

“It’s a tribute to what those guys did,” Donovan told reporters ahead of Sunday’s game in New York. “But we also paid the price of those 14, 15 games where we didn’t play good enough basketball which has put us in a position where we have to earn our way into the playoffs.”

This Bulls season has forced fans to become comfortable holding two things to be true at the same time.

The first: this roster showed a remarkable amount of poise to dig out of a disastrous beginning to the year and finish with a foothold in the play-in tournament.

The second: this still isn’t good enough.

There’s no denying the importance of overcoming that 5-14 start. For all the attention the Bulls earned after gathering for an informal players-only conversation after the first game — and loss — of the season, this roster has never really fallen into the sort of disrepair or dissatisfaction that underperforming teams often experience.

This is in part a credit to the locker room leadership helmed by DeMar DeRozan and Coby White, who kept the group’s identity intact even when the team was at its lowest. And that’s likely why the Bulls have stayed consistent in personality from start to finish.

Starters Zach LaVine and Patrick Williams went down with season-ending injuries. Stars like White and Alex Caruso and crucial rotation players like Torrey Craig struggled to stay in the lineup with smaller knocks. Consecutive wins were few and far between, impressive wins often followed by confounding losses. But the Bulls maintained a fairly level-headed team environment throughout the chaos.

“I really appreciate what those guys have done because of what we’ve had to endure and what we’ve had to overcome,” Donovan said. “It’s not where we certainly want to be, but I will say this — it could’ve been a lot worse. And it speaks to the character of those guys in the locker room.”

And this, of course, is the problem. Do the Bulls really want to settle for “it could’ve been a lot worse”?

Sure, the Bulls went 27-17 in clutch games this season, pulling off upsets over top-notch teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves. And yes, the breakout season of Coby White — who is in contention for the league’s Most Improved Player award — provided a bright silver lining in a losing season.

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But it’s hard to rally behind a team for whom “it could’ve been worse” is a fair mantra for a 39-win season. And nothing about the current state of the Bulls — finishing under .500 for two consecutive seasons, struggling to find a rhythm with stars like LaVine and remaining stagnant in the Eastern Conference — lives up to a winning standard.

The results of this week could slightly shift the overall feeling of this season for the Bulls. Advancing out of the play-in tournament to return to the playoffs would be an improvement — however minute — from last season, when the Bulls were bounced by the Miami Heat in their second play-in game. But should the front office define success by a team’s performance in two single-elimination games?

For a team stymied by a lack of roster adaptation over the past three years, success must be viewed through a more holistic lens. And whether the Bulls advance to the playoffs or not, the obvious truth is this team is still not a winning product.

Win or lose this week, the Bulls will have plenty of work ahead of them this summer. It’s up to the Bulls front office to accept that reality — regardless of a playoff berth.

Eastern Conference play-in schedule


No. 7 versus No. 8: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat, 6:30 p.m., Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia
No. 9 versus No. 10: Chicago Bulls vs. Atlanta Hawks, 8:30 p.m., United Center


Winner of 9/10 game vs. loser of 7/8 game (loser of 7/8 game will host)