For much of this season, the rebuilding Bulls were the butt of more jokes than a Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon monologue.

The verbal jabs, putdowns and constant mocking came from all directions and were well deserved.

At a league-worst 3-20, the Bulls were Spam and beans at a White House dinner. Ick!

Bobby Portis had punched teammate Nikola Mirotic in the face at practice, was suspended eight games, the team appeared divided and the season lost barely two months in — or so we thought.

Then the unexpected happened. Mirotic returned, he and Portis made nice-nice, and the Bulls never looked back, having won six straight games.

No one's laughing at coach Fred Hoiberg and his Bulls now.

Leading the charge are Mirotic, Portis and point guard Kris Dunn. They have the Bulls looking like a playoff team (which will never happen), not the lottery team they were originally meant to be.

Vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman had emphasized overall effort above won-lost record from Day 1. They refuse to talk about "tanking it" this season, while admitting not all the pieces are yet in place to be a regular playoff contender.

The Bulls still need a franchise player. Dunn, rookie Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are part of the future, but changes will and need to be made.

The current win streak creates a wrinkle, however.

This group of Bulls like playing for each other. They're a spirited group that's fun to watch.

So, who do you eventually trade —to a contending team — for future picks that are young and talented?

I like center Robin Lopez, gangly and awkward-looking but a workhorse inside. Any good NBA team would want him in its lineup.

Justin Holiday can shoot the 3 but needs to be consistent. He scored all 20 of his points in the first half of Monday night's win over Philadelphia.

Denzel Valentine has great range and seems better the more minutes he gets.

David Nwaba is fearless, covers the court like floor wax, and provides instant energy off the bench. Jerian Grant is a capable backup at the point.

"I love that Nwaba kid," Bulls' color analyst Stacey King said. "I hope he's here a long time because every team needs a kid like that."

Nwaba, Grant, Mirotic and Portis give the Bulls a dangerous bench that contributed 49 points to the 117-115 win over the Sixers.

"We never give up, especially with me and Markkanen shooting 3s," Mirotic told reporters after Monday night's comeback win, which the Bulls ended on an 18-8 run.

"You (media) guys like to make fun of me. Nothing personal. I know you guys are doing your work, so am I."

We're led to believe by Chicago media that Lopez, Mirotic and even Portis will likely be dealt for the rebuild to carry on successfully — though I would stick with Mirotic based on what I've seen.

He's more physical now, down in the paint, more animated and vocal in the huddle, encouraging teammates to play hard and smart.

Mirotic no longer is a quiet sulker.

And he's playing defense, finally.

"Last season you probably did not see me putting that emotion in the game," Mirotic agreed. "It's never (too) late for those huge plays and huge stops, especially when you are winning. It's been fun.

"You see the crowd differently, everybody cheering for us and giving us energy. Just need to have more patience for us and we will do our job to compete each night and try to win as many games as we can."

Mirotic once had to defer to Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Now he has the needed confidence to take over games when his shot's dropping.

This six-game streak is nice with wins against the Hornets, Knicks, Celtics (minus Kyrie Irving), Jazz, Bucks and Sixers.

Five were by eight points or less.

It moved the Bulls up from 25th to 18th in the recent NBA Power Rankings.

Tonight, they have the Magic, who've lost 18 of their last 23 games.

Do I hear seven wins in a row? I'm not joking.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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