clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

To Be Real Title Contenders, the Bulls Likely Need One More Piece

With recent losses piling up and the team’s status at the top of the East starting to slip, Chicago could stand to make a splash at the trade deadline. But who should they go after?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Halfway through this NBA season, the Chicago Bulls occupy a strange position in the Eastern Conference. On the one hand, they sit in first place, percentage points ahead of Miami; on the other, nothing short of an apocalyptic wave of injuries to other teams’ stars could make Chicago the consensus favorite to advance to the Finals this spring.

Recent results have only furthered this dissonance. Chicago’s injury-ravaged rotation has lost four in a row, including three nationally televised defeats by a combined 81 points. And while the losing streak hasn’t knocked the Bulls from the top spot in the standings, it also hasn’t done anything to alter the notion that they’re a mere regular-season gadfly, not a true playoff threat to the likes of Brooklyn and Milwaukee.

Those past few losses are not representative of the Bulls’ potential, though. A healthy Chicago still has reason to believe it can compete with other top teams: Despite losing a 26-point blowout against the Nets last week, for instance, the Bulls won the first two matchups this season, with Kevin Durant and James Harden playing both times.

“Our confidence is there,” All-NBA candidate DeMar DeRozan said last week. “Nothing’s going to break that.”

But those losses also reinforce the idea that Chicago needs one more upgrade to vault into the same tier as the other teams at the top of the conference. With the defense in particular exposing numerous soft spots and the trade deadline three weeks away, the Bulls still look one player short.

A weaker defense doesn’t necessarily ruin a team’s title chances: The common belief that an elite defense is the most important factor for a team that wants to contend is actually a myth. In the past quarter century, the 50 teams that reached the Finals and the 100 teams that reached the conference finals were slightly more likely to have a better offensive than defensive ranking in the regular season, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Leaguewide Ranks for Best NBA Teams, 1997-2021

Teams Better on Offense Better on Defense Same
Teams Better on Offense Better on Defense Same
Finalists 25 24 1
All Conference Finalists 50 46 4

On average, finalists had an average offensive ranking of 6.8 and an average defensive ranking of 7.0. All conference finalists exhibited the same pattern, with an average offensive ranking of 7.1 and an average defensive ranking of 7.5. In other words: Offensive production is just as important as defensive ability—if not more so—for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.

And the Bulls have that area covered. They ranked third in the league in offensive rating until the weekend, when Zach LaVine’s injury and related teamwide struggles dropped them to sixth overall—but still just half a point behind the Hawks in second place. A healthy Bulls team has a legitimate argument for the league’s most efficient offense outside Utah.

This also isn’t a paper tiger like the Mike Budenholzer–era Hawks, which rampaged through the regular season because of a finely tuned system that was vulnerable to focused game plans in the playoffs. This is a team with legitimate one-on-one scorers who can salvage lost possessions with isolation baskets against the stingiest defenders in the league.

“They just go back and forth,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said of LaVine and DeRozan earlier this season. “They hunt matchups. Both those guys are among the best one-on-one players in the game.”

Out of 104 players who have used at least 250 isolation plays through the past three seasons, DeRozan ranks second in points per play and LaVine ranks 21st, according to Second Spectrum. (Zion Williamson is no. 1; come back soon, big guy!) Not many teams have the defensive personnel to match up, so for as many difficult decisions the Bulls face in determining their own defensive assignments, they force just as many on the other end. The Nets, for instance, opened last week’s game against Chicago with Kyrie Irving defending LaVine—a miserable matchup for a flighty defender.

With that manner of offensive explosiveness, the Bulls don’t need a top-five defense to contend for a Finals spot. Just a league-average unit will probably do.

The problem is that the defense hasn’t even resembled league average recently. Split the Bulls’ season into two halves, and a worrisome trend emerges. Over their first 21 games, they ranked fifth in defensive rating; in the 21 games since, however, they rank a ghastly 26th. Across their four-game losing streak—an admittedly biased sample, given the quality of opponents—the Bulls are surrendering 130.2 points per 100 possessions, eight points worse than the second-to-last team over that span.

Injuries are a large part of the problem. Alex Caruso has played in just four full games (and two partial games) out of the past 21, and an astounding array of wings are unavailable: Patrick Williams, Javonte Green, and Derrick Jones Jr. are all hurt, meaning the new starting power forward—either Troy Brown Jr. or Alfonzo McKinnie, the latter originally signed to a 10-day hardship deal—is the backup to the backup to the backup. Wing defense has been a glaring issue, to the point that undrafted rookie Malcolm Hill, a new 10-day signee in his first game with the team, was the best option to guard Jaylen Brown at the end of a two-point loss in Boston over the weekend.

Even when Caruso and friends return, the reality is that multiple defensive question marks will remain in the rotation—meaning the other starters, like Lonzo Ball, must pick up the slack. Some of Chicago’s best offensive players are vulnerable to matchup-specific game plans on the defensive end. For instance, the Bulls allow 1.11 points per chance when LaVine guards a screener this season—the fourth-worst figure among 237 players who have defended at least 100 picks. DeRozan doesn’t fare much better: The Bulls allow 1.09 points per chance when he guards a screener, 11th worst among the group.

Nikola Vucevic is also a necessary presence in crunch time because the team’s rebounding craters without him: The Bulls allow offensive rebounds at the equivalent of the league’s third-lowest rate when Vucevic is in the game, and the league’s absolute highest rate when he’s out. But for a big man, he doesn’t offer much deterrence at the basket.

“We’re going to have to find ways to take away some of the layups and easy baskets that we’re giving up, because it’s just too hard to overcome,” coach Billy Donovan said last week. The Bulls allow the highest percentage of opposing shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, and surrender 48 points in the paint per game, tied for 23rd in the league. No team below them has a winning record.

Chicago would seem to have three potential routes to fix its mounting defensive issues. The first is the simplest: Wait until the injuries lessen, and hope that the rotation that propelled the Bulls to the top spot in the conference standings—and a top-five defense for a quarter of the season—maintains that pace. The five-man unit of Ball, Caruso, LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic has outscored opponents by 20.6 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, fourth best in the league among lineups with as much playing time.

“I do think that we’ve proven, when we’ve been whole, we’ve been a pretty good defensive team,” Donovan said. “Maybe we don’t have great, great length, but I do think that we have enough.”

Yet even Jones is listed at just 6-foot-6, according to NBA.com, and Caruso and Green at 6-foot-5 each. (Basketball-Reference places them all an inch shorter.) They’ll all be giving up plenty of size to the sort of superstars who populate the Eastern favorites, so secondary advantages like Green’s physicality or Jones’s 7-foot wingspan might not help much. And while Jones boasts the best size of that trio, he might not be a great fit for playoff basketball: With his last two teams, he received much less playing time in the postseason than in the regular season.

Derrick Jones Jr. Minutes Per Game

Team Regular Season Playoffs Playoff Games Played
Team Regular Season Playoffs Playoff Games Played
2020 Heat 23.3 6.5 15 of 21
2021 Trail Blazers 22.7 5.0 2 of 6

To be fair, Jones and Green were not the team’s primary options as power forwards, anyway. The root of the problem was an earlier injury—and that’s the Bulls’ second possible route: Trust not just that the recently injured players will return and play effectively, but that Patrick Williams will, as well.

“Going into the year, we felt pretty comfortable with the size piece of it: Patrick would be a pretty versatile 4-man for us,” Donovan said. Unfortunately, Williams started only five games before dislocating his wrist. And while initial reports said he was likely to miss the rest of the season, that timeline is murkier now: In late December, the NBA denied the Bulls’ request for a disabled player exception for Williams, suggesting he might return after all. At the moment, Williams has been cleared for cardio and conditioning work but not much else; he can’t catch or dribble a ball yet, Donovan said last week.

So it’s possible that Williams will return and assume the meaningful role he was meant to occupy before the injury—though given the uncertainty around his physical status, his inexperience, and all that time off, it strains credulity to imagine him as a real Durant stopper come springtime.

But Williams also plays a key part in the Bulls’ third possible route, the biggest and boldest of the bunch: They have the means and motivation to make a trade. In Jones ($9.7 million) and Brown ($5.2 million), the Bulls have non-core players they can bundle to match salaries, and an extra first-round pick from the Trail Blazers—which is set to transfer the next time Portland picks outside the lottery—could sweeten any offer.

The real question is whether Chicago would part with its most recent lottery pick for a proven big wing. The Pistons in particular were linked with Williams before the 2020 draft, with The Athletic’s John Hollinger writing, “The hottest draft rumor is that Williams has a promise from the Pistons, or at the very least that they’re extremely interested in him.” (Hollinger added that the second name he’d heard linked to Detroit was Killian Hayes, whom they selected once Williams was off the board.)

That’s a convenient match because Jerami Grant is the best and most obvious candidate for the Bulls’ biggest hole. The 6-foot-8 forward hasn’t played since hurting his thumb on December 10—an injury with an initially reported timeline of six weeks—but he offers a precise mix of size, multilevel offensive ability, and defensive chops that no current Bull possesses. He’d be a perfect fit for this team, and this team might also be a perfect fit for him, offering a greater role than he tolerated in Denver, but a smaller burden than he’s been forced to carry in Detroit.

If not Grant, the Kings’ Harrison Barnes would be another logical trade target, with similar size and even more playoff experience. Barnes is a bit more offensively oriented than Grant, so he’s not quite the same fit. But as a willing and accurate 3-point shooter (42 percent this season, 38 percent for his career), he’d help space an offense that takes the fewest 3s of any team in the league. (This may be a longshot, though, as the Kings still have a chance at the no. 10 spot in the West and might opt to hold onto Barnes for a run at the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2006.)

If the Bulls don’t want to pay the presumably higher prices for Grant or Barnes, potential backup options range from T.J. Warren (if he ever gets healthy) to Kyle Anderson (if a deep Memphis team wants to trade an impending free agent) to former Bull Thaddeus Young. If the Clippers switch to sellers with Paul George out, Nicolas Batum would be a cheaper, lower-ceiling addition. Or if Portland embraces a full tank this season with Damian Lillard hurt, Robert Covington or Larry Nance Jr. could also fit—the latter an ironic choice, given that the Bulls spun Nance to Portland in the offseason, taking back that lottery-protected pick instead of keeping him in the Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade.

But is someone like Batum a difference-maker against the shiniest Eastern stars? There aren’t many enticing options—just as there aren’t many players who can feasibly defend Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first place. Those that do exist mostly already play for contenders, with no chance of being traded. “I don’t know if anybody has enough size for Kevin Durant. He just plays over the top of everybody,” Donovan said. “I just don’t think with guys of that elite caliber, one person by themselves stops them. So we’re going to have to be good teamwise.”

In any case, no blockbuster is brewing immediately: Last Friday, Donovan said that he hadn’t spoken with vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas about any specific trade possibilities.

Yet the Grant-for-Williams possibility is still enticing, and will remain so as long as the Bulls stay near the top of the conference—even if giving away a no. 4 pick with immense two-way potential just a year and change into his career would require a great deal of chutzpah. “A Williams deal would be about as all-in as it gets … But the Bulls have been good enough to at least think about it,” Hollinger wrote recently.

Windows aren’t open forever. Just ask the 2010-12 Bulls, who won consecutive no. 1 seeds in the East but whose window closed dramatically—and permanently—due to a single torn ligament. The Bulls haven’t won more than 50 games in a season since Derrick Rose’s injury.

In the present, it’s hard to imagine that LaVine and the 32-year-old DeRozan, who are currently averaging 50.5 combined points per game, will ever form a more effective duo than they do now. So if Williams’s future ceiling looks something like Grant’s present, then trading for the healthy, fully actualized version in his prime—with another year on his contract—makes a lot of sense to try to optimize the current opportunity.

The Bulls have three weeks left to decide. For a franchise that lost more games than any other during the past four seasons, having even a tricky choice like this is at least a good problem to have.