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The Chicago Bulls aren’t good enough to compete right now but might not be ready for a full rebuild either. Where do they go from here?
In the first game back from last season’s All-Star break, the Chicago Bulls eked out a win against the Atlanta Hawks. DeMar DeRozan, eternally clutch, mid-ranged his way to five points in the final 46 seconds to swing a three-point deficit into a two-point lead and Chicago’s 39th win of the season.
Since that game, the Bulls are 21-37, including a 1-4 playoff trouncing to the Bucks and a 13-18 start to this season. I bring this up to dismiss the notion that Chicago’s current struggles have anything to do with small sample size. Over their last 58 games, the Bulls have failed to consistently show the resolve, chemistry or discipline they displayed in the first 60 games of DeRozan’s Chicago tenure, let alone to hang with the top teams in the East.
Even after Tuesday night’s much-needed win against the Heat, the Bulls are 11th in the Eastern Conference standings, five games under .500 with a third of the season gone. A scan of the roster includes respected players such as DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Alex Caruso and others, but something here hasn’t clicked. Last season’s No. 6 seed, the Bulls are in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. Recent locker room turmoil only emphasizes that the Bulls appear to be at a crossroads: Blow it up, or try to salvage something that may not be worth saving.
The truth is, even when the Bulls were winning last season it seemed flimsy. After last season’s win against the Hawks that put them at 39-21, FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Bulls just a 2 percent chance of making the Finals. If not for DeRozan’s buzzer-beating game-winners in back-to-back games on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, the Bulls may have fallen into the play-in tournament. Instead, they were the only playoff team in the East with a negative point differential. But, hey, they were in the playoffs! And after missing the postseason the previous four years, that was the goal.
So Artūras Karnišovas, the Bulls vice president of basketball operations, doubled down. He signed LaVine to a five-year, $215 million max extension, added veterans Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond and at media day publicly laid out the team’s expectations.
“What we want to see is obviously improvement,” he said. “We have to do better than last year. When you get to the playoffs, as always, things happen. A certain team is missing one or two key players and you can get by a round. So those are the expectations.”
How did the Chicago Bulls build this team?
Karnišovas deserves credit for at least setting realistic goals. This wasn’t a championship-or-bust declaration. It was, simply, to get out of the first round of the playoffs (even if injury luck paved the way to a second-round appearance). But, then again, he backed himself into a corner. Previous win-now trades drained the Bulls of draft capital, cap space and options.
Since Karnišovas took over in 2020, here’s a list of the significant moves he has made:
- Drafted Patrick Williams (2020 first-round pick)
- Traded for Nikola Vucevic (sending Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2023 first-round pick to the Magic)
- Drafted Ayo Dosunmu (2021 second-round pick)
- Traded for Lonzo Ball (sending a 2024 second-round pick and contracts to the Pelicans)
- Signed Alex Caruso
- Traded for DeMar DeRozan (sending a 2025 first-round pick, two second-round picks and contracts to the Spurs)
- Traded Lauri Markannen to the Cavaliers for a top-14 protected first-round pick (from the Trail Blazers) and a second-round pick
- Drafted Dalen Terry (2022 first-round pick)
- Signed Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic
- Signed LaVine to a five-year, $215 million extension
Besides finding Dosunmu in the second round and signing Caruso to a fair contract, can any of those moves be considered successful? The jury is still out on Williams, but the fact that Tyrese Haliburton and Devin Vassell went only a few picks later is tough to swallow. DeRozan has brought Bulls fans memorable moments and a playoff berth, but he’s also a 33-year-old floor raiser that has only prevented the Bulls from bottoming out. Markannen broke out in Cleveland, became a key part of the Donovan Mitchell trade and is now thriving in Utah.
The big bust is the Vucevic trade. Wendell Carter Jr., when healthy, is a better and younger center than Vucevic. That 2021 pick the Bulls sent the Magic became Franz Wagner, who is averaging 19.6 points on 47.5 percent shooting, 4.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his second season.
The core of LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic doesn’t fit. That trio is getting outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions this season and, going back to our largish sample size, were outscored by 1.1 points per 100 possessions last season. The move to acquire Ball has been a bust after two knee surgeries in eight months, and now the Bulls are on the hook for more than $61 million over the next three seasons. The Bulls have no cap space and just a single second-round pick available to trade.
It’s easy to imagine what could have been. Had the Bulls remained patient and not made those deals, they could be working with a core of LaVine, Carter, Markannen and Wagner, all of whom are either entering their primes or blossoming. Conceptually, that group works. LaVine as lead scorer, Wagner and Markannen providing size, playmaking and spacing and Carter providing stout paint defense. They’d still have Williams, who would fit nicely with that group, and full access to their own 2023 pick in a loaded draft class.
The 2023 pick owed to the Magic is top-four protected, which only further complicates Chicago’s decision-making between now and the February trade deadline. Even if the Bulls do blow it up, they would need to do so to such smithereens that they end up with one of the league’s worst four records. They are only two games out of a bottom-four record right now, but can the Bulls really out-tank the Spurs, Rockets, Hornets and Pistons? Even if they do, they’d still only have about a coin-flip chance of keeping the pick in the draft lottery.
Still, I see little reason not to. Starting over now at least gives you a chance to keep the pick. Scratching and clawing into the play-in tournament (likely a best-case scenario) would only guarantee parting with the pick and staying pot-committed to a roster that doesn’t work. The potential embarrassment of handing the Magic the No. 5 pick this summer should not dictate what is a pretty logical decision.
Struggling on the court and in the locker room
Perhaps making the decision easier is the reported infighting between the team’s star players. During last weekend’s embarrassing loss to the Timberwolves, players had a heated exchange in the halftime locker room as the Bulls were on their way to dropping 12 of their previous 17 games.
“We were in our coaches’ room, so I wasn’t aware of everything that was said,” Donovan said before Tuesday’s game in Miami. “But I heard that there was some confrontation, which I think, to me, personally, is healthy. That needs to go on, in my opinion. What was said, I have no idea.”
Much of the reporting around the internal frustrations are pointed at LaVine.
According to NBC Chicago’s K.C. Johnson, “some of the frustration was directed at Zach LaVine, if not directly by name than at least by defensive breakdowns involving him.” According to The Athletic, LaVine and the franchise “aren’t seeing eye-to-eye” and LaVine has “on-court, stylistic tension.”
If LaVine is concerned about the offense and teammates are upset with his defense, it’s easy to see why.
LaVine doesn’t look the same since returning from offseason knee surgery. His numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging his fewest points (21.7) and lowest field goal percentage (44.5) since 2018, and he’s not finishing around the basket at his usual rate.
Defensively, LaVine’s effort can best be described as indifferent.
But as Donovan pointed out Tuesday in Miami, the Bulls’ defensive issues go beyond just LaVine.
“Not only Zach,” Donovan said, “but we’ve got to be better collectively.”
“Some of that frustration probably was guys not helping or being in position or rotating nearly as much as we needed to to be in position to help one another,” he continued. “And we’ve got to be better there.”
Late or non-existent rotations make routine plays look difficult to defend. Opponents will often score after one or two passes and leave the Bulls staring at each other like they just got rear-ended at a stop light.
The Bulls rank 21st in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating on the season. They are getting outscored by 1.6 points per 100 possessions, a bottom-10 mark in the league. Back-to-back wins against the Heat and Hawks this week have shown marginal improvement and Chicago’s core players have spun the internal drama as a positive.
“It’d be a problem if we didn’t have any type of aggressive confrontation,” DeRozan said after Tuesday’s win in Miami. “It ain’t like nobody threw blows or chairs or anything like that. To have any type of confrontation is just a true sign of a competitor.”
Said Vucevic: “If something goes on and guys get to arguing, it comes from a good place. It’s never personal. I think guys are tough enough to take it and respond.”
And, finally, LaVine: “We’re in this together. Sometimes you need those conversations from top to bottom and you get through it. Everybody should be frustrated. I’m glad we got the win to try and get back on track.’’
What else are players supposed to say? Maybe they can scrounge together a few more wins, render this recent week a low point of the season and shine a light toward a path to the playoffs, giving the front office an excuse to ride this thing out.
Doing that, however, would still ignore the larger issue at hand: This team isn’t good enough to compete now or remain competitive long-term.
The best way forward is to take a step back. The Bulls should investigate what they can get for DeRozan, find a taker for Vucevic and auction off whatever valuable role players they have (Caruso, Goran Dragic, Javonte Green) for the best price. LaVine doesn’t become trade eligible until January 15 but that still gives the Bulls’ front office almost a month to trade him to a team desperate for scoring help. Prioritize young players, a manageable cap sheet and picks in return.
The Bulls are not a good basketball team. Short-term thinking painted them into a corner and potentially cost them a promising young core. But at least they have the means and the time to get out of it. It’ll take admitting hard truths and difficult decisions, but doing so could give Karnišovas and Co. something that rarely happens in sports: A re-do.
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