While the wayward Chicago Bulls have taken a different path of disappointment, they shouldn’t get bogged down in this sea of doubt. Instead of going all-in on a franchise switch trade, the Bulls went mid-stakes with the goal of regaining credibility and building a perennial playoff contender. But after last season’s thrilling 46-win run ended with a bang in the first round, Chicago is starting disjointed and uninspired after losing six of its last seven games on Monday. With hard feelings bubbling to the surface and a long road trip looming, the Bulls’ master plan is beginning to look like a shortcut to nowhere, prompting Coach Billy Donovan to challenge his team after a last-second loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday.
“I really believe in basketball you get what you deserve,” Donovan said. “Your record says exactly who you are. We are a 6-10 team. I have a lot of affection for this team, but as a group we have to pull out of it and we have to invest more and put in more. … We cannot be motivated from the outside by the scoreboard. We have to be motivated internally to play at a level.”
Years of losing can force a team’s hand and increase their risk tolerance, and that’s the environment Arturas Karnisovas found himself in when he was hired to lead Chicago’s front office in April 2020. The Bulls had just won under 30 games for the third straight season. and Karnisovas inherited a young squad that lacked proven talent save for goalkeeper Zach LaVine.
Looking ahead to an accelerated trend reversal, Karnisovas continued Trade young players and picks for center Nikola Vucevic in March 2021, DeMar sign DeRozan to a three-year, $82 million deal in August 2021, Lonzo Ball to a four-year, $80 million deal in the same month, and then re-sign LaVine to a five-year, $215-million maximum contract extension in this summer. The net result was a more experienced roster made up of three offensive-minded leaders in DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic, flanked by a supporting cast of defensive-minded role players like Ball and Alex Caruso. This redesigned group achieved their top-line goal as they overcame Chicago’s four-year playoff drought last season.
While each of Karnisovas’ major moves was defensible, there was plenty of room to argue with everyone. Vucevic was a reliable statistician, but he was also a defensive liability. DeRozan was a proven goalscorer and fan favorite, but he was 32 when he made his debut for the Bulls and is unlikely to emerge as a competitor’s top player after countless disappointments in the playoffs. Ball was an excellent fit as an underused playmaker and versatile defender, but his early career was marred by persistent injury woes. LaVine had averaged a career-year 27.4 points per game and 41.9 percent threes in 2020-21, but his mediocre distribution skills and below-average defense seemed to keep him from becoming a towering talent.
One by one, Chicago’s building blocks are showing cracks. Vucevic has seen his offensive role dwindle dramatically with the Bulls as he sometimes struggles to find a niche in a guard-dominated offense. Last season, Chicago ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency, being overwhelmed in the playoffs by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Both Ball and LaVine have struggled with knee injuries over the past 12 months, making the daily reality in Chicago even more unstable. The ball has not been played since January 14 and still does not have a clear timeline for its return. LaVine is back on court now, but he got off to a slow shooting start and was benched after Friday’s loss to the Magic and finished with a season-low four points in 1-14 shooting. After Donovan defended the bench press as a “one off” decision in the team’s best interests, LaVine still sounded upset about the move.
“It’s Billy’s choice,” LaVine said. “He has to live with it. Am I OK? no I think I can go out there and still be me even if I miss shots. That’s his choice. He has to stand by that.”
Over the past two seasons, DeRozan has performed as well as anyone could hope for, earning scattered MVP excitement with an average of 27.9 points per game over the past year. But he, like LaVine and Vucevic, had little impact against Milwaukee in the postseason. It made Chicago look like a team that has three All-Stars on paper but zero franchise players who grew in the biggest moments of the situation.
Donovan said last week he expects more from his core trio, especially early in games, but it’s unclear if DeRozan, now 33, has any untapped skills. Equally unclear is whether the bulls would be able to gain anything of significance if they put their headlines on the trading bloc.
“[Donovan] said the right thing,” DeRozan said, taking some responsibility for Chicago’s lackluster play. “It’s definitely up to us. We have to accept this challenge and get better, defensively and offensively. We must lead better. We are the older ones in this starting group and we have to set the tone.”
The changing competitive landscape of the Eastern Conference has further complicated Chicago’s long-term prospects. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks are up the table after big offseason trades Donovan Mitchell and Dejount Murray, respectively. Both Cleveland and Atlanta sacrificed more fortunes on their deals than Chicago did for Vucevic, but Mitchell and Murray are better suited to their new star teammates. Looking ahead to the next three years, the Cavaliers and Hawks appear to have a much brighter future than the Bulls given their relative youth and top talent.
Without a superstar anchor like Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant or Joel Embiid, Chicago’s hopes for a strong postseason run relied on strong offense and seamless chemistry. So far, the Bulls are 22nd on offense as they cope with injury problems and too many ball-dominated goalscorers. When Cleveland, Atlanta, and younger teams like the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers consistently outperform, the Bulls’ window to making real noise will slam shut before it ever really opens.