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Julia Poe: Bulls need to make changes at the NBA trade deadline — don’t let that thrilling comeback win fool you

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls are unrivaled merchants of hope.

It was abundantly clear against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night. A 28-point comeback in an overtime victory can fabricate an undue measure of belief. The building shook with it as the Bulls marched persistently and doggedly back into the game.

Coby White edged closer and closer to half court as he launched deep 3-pointers. Andre Drummond nearly ripped the rim off. DeMar DeRozan danced through and around and over defenders. And the Bulls looked, at least for a night, like a team that could compete against the best in the West — and the entire NBA.

“It shows we have resiliency,“ guard White said after the win. “But it’s a hard way to live.”

It isn’t anything new. The last two Bulls games followed a near-identical pattern. Fall into a 30-point deficit. Valiantly clamber out of that hole. Send the fans to their feet, then back to their cars or the “L” with the same cheerful chatter — man, maybe this team does have something to it.

One was a win. The other was a loss. But the result was the same.

For three years, the team’s coach and executives and players have given the same assurance: There’s enough here. Just let them get healthy. Just let the guys get a little consistency playing together. Just let the young core grow a bit more. But it’s enough. This roster is enough.

“We feel we have enough,” center Nikola Vučević said Monday. “We have a lot of stuff we can do better on the court. We’ve also had some stuff, injuries, that’s unfortunate to deal with. But I believe we have enough.”

It’s not.

The issue with a win like Tuesday’s is that it can obscure reality. For all the effort taken to beat the Timberwolves, the Bulls only improved to 24-27 with four games left until the All-Star break, still white-knuckling their grip on one of the last two play-in spots in the Eastern Conference.

This has been the identity of the Bulls since they fully assembled under executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas’ vision at the start of the 2021-22 season. They’ll win a few games they were supposed to lose. Hit a couple of buzzer beaters. Play with a lot of heart.

This season’s team has been the greatest offender in last-minute finishes, ending 27 of their 51 games with a margin of five or fewer points in the final five minutes. The Bulls are 15-12 in those situations, an outsized result for a team well below .500 in other games — and one that only fuels the brash hopefulness that the team has thrived on all year.

But that still doesn’t translate into a winning team that can put up a real fight in the postseason, in which the Bulls have played in seven games — and lost five — over the last two years.

The Bulls core was incredibly levelheaded about this reality entering the season. Vučević was the first to say the central trio of himself, Zach LaVine and DeRozan had one last chance to prove the roster could work around them before the front office would have to make a significant change.

But after a 5-14 start with a tepid 19-13 stretch, even the veterans on the roster aren’t immune to the hope that maybe they’ve finally figured it out. And so this week, the same refrain returned from Vučević and others: This is enough, we’ve got enough here.

Front-office executives swear up and down that recency bias isn’t a factor in making decisions at the deadline. Still, it’s not ideal that the last game before the trade deadline highlighted everything that’s right about this roster: White’s incessant improvement, DeRozan’s unflinching abilities in the clutch, the new promise of bruising lineups highlighted by Vučević and backup center Drummond playing side-by-side.

Karnišovas made it clear in November that the front office understands the need for something to change, but the Bulls have not been straight-forward about their plans for the final 48 hours ahead of the deadline. Coach Billy Donovan said there was no major meeting with the front office before the team departed to Memphis, Tenn., on Wednesday.

That doesn’t mean a path forward is entirely unclear. The Bulls have plenty of options. Trading Drummond to begin improving upon draft stock would be a start. Making a serious move to trade Alex Caruso or DeRozan would show a more clear-eyed readiness for a full-on roster restructure.

Regardless of which deals actually land, movement is a necessity. The Bulls have given as long of a run to “continuity” as they can possibly handle. And one good win — no matter how (un)fortunately timed — can’t cause any hesitation as the front office potentially makes its first deadline move since 2021.