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Will the Chicago Bulls return to .500? With 12 games remaining, they’re poised for yet another losing season.

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

In the days leading up to Thursday’s game against the Rockets in Houston, Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan was tired of hearing about the team’s record.

What would it mean for the Bulls to return to .500? That question had been repeated to Donovan — in different ways and settings — as the team continued to edge closer to the threshold over the last two months.

“Everybody keeps asking me that,” Donovan said, laughing. “I really don’t look at it that way. I mean, we dug ourselves such a hole and — not to say that I don’t pay attention to the record or the standings, but if we do do that, like, what does that mean? I don’t know what the meaning is behind it.”

Donovan dodged the question Thursday after the Bulls lost to the Rockets, falling to 34-36. And failing to draw even is a familiar pattern for a Bulls team that could be on track to finish under .500 for a second consecutive season and sixth in the last seven.

The Bulls will need to win seven of their final 12 games to emerge at .500. The path isn’t easy — they face only four teams below them in the standings and face some heavyweights, including the Boston Celtics and three against the New York Knicks.

Even after finishing 40-42 last season, the front office remained adamant that continuity would be enough to create change for the franchise. But nearly a year later, the Bulls face the prospect of finishing with a losing record. Again.

This appears to be the status quo. They have finished with a winning record only once since Artūras Karnišovas took over in 2020 — they were 46-36 in 2022.

The pattern makes one thing clear: The Bulls are no longer progressing at a competitive rate in the Eastern Conference. And even standing in place means regression in a conference full of teams on the up-and-up.

Two stories are to be told here. The first is somewhat hopeful. Despite starting 5-14, the Bulls have gone 29-22 since their November wake-up call. They are 19-17 since the new year and 8-7 since the All-Star break.

Individual improvement has been uniform. Ayo Dosunmu is steadily building into a regular 20-point producer. Alex Caruso is set for the best shooting season of his career. Coby White has transformed into a bona fide leader.

This growth, paired with the rebound from a terrible start, reflect a cohesive locker-room identity from young players and veterans such as DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević. And even with the early-season frustration, the Bulls have felt as if they were in the fight.

“It’s just the position we put ourselves in with the bad start,” Vucevic said. “Obviously it is frustrating. The couple of times we’ve gotten it to one game under .500, we’ve never been able to win that one game and get there. We’re not going to stop fighting to get there and while there’s a chance we’re going to try to continue to fight to climb up the standings.”

Even with the young players’ gains, the framework of the roster has not provided enough consistency for success. This season did little to prove that Zach LaVine’s return would be enough to transform the Bulls into a serious contender in the East.

And this brings the conversation back to Donovan’s original question: What does it even mean to finish below or above .500? Regardless of where they finish, this season has served only to sharpen the focus of what the Bulls must improve.

Take the offense, for example. The Bulls have found minor success because of the improved shooting of Caruso, Dosunmu and White. But they need more players who can thrive in both catch-and-shoot and creation off the dribble, which can relieve the offense’s overemphasis on the pick-and-roll and playing out of post-ups.

This is the problem Karnišovas must attack — even if the Bulls manage to eke out a winning record.

The Bulls will spend the coming weeks fighting to push for a higher seed in the East. But the front office must spend that time figuring out a new path and plan for the franchise so that a winning record is no longer a primary goal for the season.