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The Bulls Are Done Waiting. So … Now What?

Chicago prioritized the present with its trade for Nikola Vucevic. But as the early returns show, there’s still a lot to figure out in a limited amount of time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A trade is the most honest form of self-reflection an NBA franchise will allow itself in public—a declaration of intent drawn up from a transparent judgment of the players involved. By swinging a deadline deal for All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls told us what kind of team they want to be. Rather than continue the developmental project begun by the previous front-office regime, Chicago traded a 21-year-old prospect and two future first-round picks for a proven entity. The Bulls stumbled through the first half of the season in their efforts to give Zach LaVine the support his play deserves; now, they’ve imported a refined pick-and-roll partner for the express purpose of making LaVine’s life easier and the offense around him more diverse.

The mere willingness to overhaul the roster this deep into the season speaks volumes. Incorporating a star like Vucevic is complex in its own right, requiring a team of players with their own working dynamic to suddenly account for a do-it-all big man. To further complicate that transition, Chicago also acquired Daniel Theis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Troy Brown Jr., and Javonte Green in its deadline dealings, who together make for a fairly comprehensive reworking of the Bulls’ second line. In the two games Chicago has played since the trades, 14 different Bulls have seen rotation minutes. “Sometimes I think things look good in theory, but you’re never gonna quite know until you experiment or explore it,” said head coach Billy Donovan, who already has started two significantly different looks in his free-associated frontcourt. In Vucevic’s debut, Donovan paired him with Lauri Markkanen, a floor spacer who could give the former Magician room to feel his way through the offense. For Chicago’s next game against Golden State, Donovan started Thaddeus Young in Markkanen’s place, tilting toward the cutting and defense of the veteran forward. Along the way, the Bulls also tried out Theis with Vucevic, flanking their star center with the closest thing the roster has to a rim protector.

Some of those pairings fit more naturally than others, though as Donovan pointed out to reporters this week, it would be premature to call any of them definitively wrong. The early days after a trade are much too clumsy for that, with players overwriting instinct for the sake of a first impression. “Early on, we were just trying to figure each other out,” Vucevic said after his Bulls debut. “I think we’re just trying too much to not step on each other’s toes.” The result was one of the biggest deficits of Chicago’s season: a 36-point hole to the Spurs in the thick of the game, brought on by the confusion of a newly assembled team playing NBA basketball without so much as a practice. Donovan simplified the offense as best he could for Chicago’s first outing after the deadline, but when his team hit the floor, it was understandably as if the new-look Bulls were playing off their impressions of one another rather than the real thing. When Vucevic tried to work the post, his teammates—knowing he was brought in to help facilitate on offense—tried to cut through the paint to give him a target. They wound up bringing a double-team to the ball instead. When LaVine tried to create, Vucevic floated out to the perimeter to make room for his teammate, a more talented scorer than any he played with in Orlando. Sometimes he disconnected himself from the offense in the process.

“Obviously it’s different, in knowing the actual play and actually getting an exact feel how to run it, getting the timing right and all those things,” Vucevic said. “You can tell at times we were getting a little stagnant. We were hesitant about what to do.” Even then, there were visions of what the offense could look like when it draws on what makes LaVine and Vucevic so effective all at once:

“Us playing in a tandem together is going to do really well,” LaVine said. “It’s going to fit. I think we’re pretty high-level guys, and we’re going to figure it out. I’m not scared about that.” Nor should he be. Chicago had managed a functional, average offense with LaVine as its only standout shot creator, swinging to extremes in efficiency depending on whether he was on the floor. Most everything else was a product of motion; some 62 percent of Chicago’s field goals this season have been assisted, according to NBA Advanced Stats, notable considering the team’s iffy point guard play and lack of passing talent in general. Vucevic is an amplifier for a team with that sort of profile—a rolling playmaker who can help LaVine connect the dots of the offense. That element is already taking shape from feel alone, even before LaVine and Vucevic really have any fuller sense of how to play with one another.

“I felt like at times, him and I were a little bit too passive in trying to figure out each other,” Vucevic said, their efforts surely complicated by LaVine playing through an ankle injury. “We made it easy for the defense where maybe if we were more aggressive, a defense would collapse on us or be able to open up more things.”

In a broader sense, there are more than a dozen Bulls dancing around one another, unsure of when to cut in. The most meaningful development of Chicago’s two-game orientation was the depth involved. It’s not just Vucevic getting run; all five players who joined the Bulls last week have had the opportunity to audition with real, competitive minutes. Here’s how the playing time has broken down so far, with the black bar accounting for a player’s minutes in the first game against the Spurs, and the red bar indicating that player’s minutes in the second game against the Warriors:

*Theis wasn’t with the team for the game against the Spurs, and Coby White missed the game against the Warriors due to injury.

We can pencil in eight rotation locks: LaVine and Vucevic, Chicago’s new co-anchors; their fellow starters Patrick Williams and Tomas Satoransky; second-year guard Coby White; and the trio of utility bigs in Markkanen, Young, and Theis, all likely to play meaningful minutes regardless of whether they start or come off the bench. The question is how Donovan will balance those eight within lineups, and how—with the remaining minutes up for grabs—he’ll choose to counterbalance them. Brown fell in and out of favor during his time in Washington, but he’s already made a strong bid for playing time behind LaVine, where his hard drives to the rim could do the most good. Garrett Temple has been rock steady for the Bulls all season, but couldn’t there be nights when Donovan might prefer Green’s more athletic brand of defense or the flexibility of playing bigger, longer lineups with Aminu?

Individually, the new Bulls will be figuring out entirely new systems on the fly with the bare minimum of practice time. In his first action, Theis didn’t seem entirely sure when he should be showing out to cover a pick-and-roll and when he should be switching. Vucevic, whose only hope of being a factor on defense is his positioning, was dropping a bit deeper in his efforts to contain the pick-and-roll than Donovan and his staff would like.

“He’s figuring out positioning, spacing, how high he should be up on the screen, where he needs to be on the floor,” Donovan said. “There were times that he was way, way back in a drop and he was just kind of sitting back there as guys were coming at him. Trying to move him up a little higher, I think, could help.” That’s the work of a film session, ironed out in the repetition of typical play. Yet while the new Bulls start building those foundations (beginning with a new, team-specific vocabulary for how those concepts are communicated), the rest of the team will spend the day-to-day of the playoff race learning how the newcomers operate.

It’s an amazing amount to digest, with little time to spare. Most NBA teams take months to settle, beginning with the dedicated space of training camp and stretching well into the practiced rhythms of the regular season. Chicago’s front office looked at the version of its team that had that luxury, sitting at 19-24 and ranked 21st in net rating, and opted instead for a roster with greater potential but a more challenging timeline. Accepting this trade means accepting the stakes of a compressed schedule. The regular season ends in a month and a half. To last beyond it, the Bulls will need to win enough games to hold their ground as a play-in team or, preferably, climb into the mess of .500-adjacent teams that stretch from fourth place in the East to ninth.

The restyled Bulls have the talent now to scale up a few rungs, though they’ll have to hurry toward solvency. Their first two games, both losses, were mostly an exploratory exercise. Still there were times when Chicago looked close to something—in keeping pace with Golden State, for instance, until losing balance in the end. There’s a corner to turn there, a chance for a newly formed team to win while still in process. All the Bulls need is a more exact sense of how the pieces fit. Teammates will learn to cut the way Vucevic prefers as he operates from the elbows. Guards will have to get used to how Theis flips screens—or, in LaVine’s case, used to the idea that Theis can be a lob threat rather than just a roll threat. “I gotta figure out his game,” LaVine said after their first outing together. “On one of the passes, I should’ve thrown an alley-oop to him. I didn’t know he could get up and go get it like that.”

The Bulls can find joy in discovery, even as they angle for a playoff berth. During the game against the Warriors, Satoransky settled the offense into a fairly ordinary post-up for Young on the right block against James Wiseman, presumably to end in some wily fake testing the rookie’s retention of the scouting report. Yet as Young began to budge Wiseman toward the rim, something unexpected happened: Vucevic caught his defender eyeing the ball, and dove right down the middle of the lane for a catch and a layup.

There’s so much we don’t know yet about how an infusion of this kind of talent will work—so much we can’t know about the way a player like Vucevic, in particular, can change the system around him and the players who run it. We can work through all the possible lineup constructions in search of what makes the most sense for the Bulls and what best accentuates the skill sets of Chicago’s new star pairing. We can talk through the pros and cons of starting Markkanen, or Young, or Theis, debating which would allow Vucevic to play his best game. Then, in the natural rhythm of the game, those ideas might be flipped over to reveal some new wrinkle, inverted as when Vucevic spaced the floor for his journeyman teammate, at least until the perfect opportunity arose.