It’s fair to wonder whether any team currently finds itself in a more hopeless situation than the Chicago Bulls. Recent wins against the Celtics and Bucks aside, Chicago’s present day is uneven and regrettable, muddled by unfortunate injuries, a youth movement that’s more theoretical than effective, and two former All-Stars that are unlikely to ever earn that distinction again.
What’s even more discouraging is Chicago’s future, considering this team was constructed to win now. When executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas chose to accelerate whatever track the Bulls were already on by ceding future assets to surround Zach LaVine with veterans Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan, so much had to go right.
Instead, 20 months after they traded Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round picks for Vooch, all they have to show is a depressing playoff appearance against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. Now, through 19 games, Chicago is 8-11. Its offense is made up of antiquated machinery that doddles uphill when they can’t create a bunch of turnovers on the other end. Earlier this month, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan called out his three highest-paid players before an embarrassing loss against the Magic. Then he benched LaVine in crunch time. One night doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of an 82-game season, but myriad structural issues do.
Let’s not mince words: The window that cracked open after DeRozan was acquired is closed. If any team in the entire league should tank, it’s this one. The first-round pick they owe to the Magic in next year’s draft is top-four protected. Finishing with one of the three worst records in the league would guarantee a 52.1 percent chance to keep that pick in a draft that may transform the sport.
The other side of this, according to FiveThirtyEight and Basketball Reference, is about a 40 percent shot at making the playoffs. That ceiling isn’t good enough—40 wins and another early playoff exit, assuming they get out of the play-in. But several roadblocks on the way there may be too tall, even if that tepid projection is viewed as an actual accomplishment.
Lonzo Ball’s body is broken. Patrick Williams rarely closes games and has yet to make a major statistical improvement from his rookie year (more on him later). The 23-year-old Carter is straight-up better than the 32-year-old Vucevic, which is a bummer in and of itself and downright humiliating when you realize one of the picks they gave up in that trade became Franz Wagner—a future All-Star. (Unrelated but also semi-relevant: Five years ago the Bulls drafted Lauri Markkanen, who looks like an All-Star with the Jazz.)
Chicago has backed itself into an unenviable corner. Just about every other organization has something to look forward to. Meanwhile, the light at the end of Chicago’s tunnel is a candle flickering its way through a downpour.
Still, some may believe it’s too early to give up on this season. That’s fair. Williams may catch a groove and blossom into a linchpin forward before our very eyes. (He created a pair of huge off-the-dribble shots against Jayson Tatum last week, then blocked Giannis Antetokounmpo at the summit a couple of days later.) Ball may soon be able to climb a flight of stairs, let alone run up and down a basketball court, without feeling any pain. LaVine’s knee could soon stop being an issue and let him return to being one of the most efficient three-level scorers in the league.
The Bulls rank 27th in quantified shot making (qSM), meaning only three teams have had worse luck shooting this season. So maybe things will turn around if some shots start to fall. Also their decent defense will improve if/when opponents stop hitting 37.4 percent of their 3s. The only team that logs a higher heavy contest rate on 3s is the Heat, according to Second Spectrum. And according to DunksandThrees, no defense has faced more potent offensive groups this season.
And while we’re discussing bright spots: I don’t care what Alex Caruso is shooting. He’s a vanguard for Chicago’s defense, which is where and how the Bulls win games. These two plays help illustrate why they are plus-77 when he plays and minus-79 when he sits. Watch this clip with the sound on so you can hear Caruso let LaVine know he needs to rotate over and help early to stop Wagner and Carter’s empty corner pick-and-roll. (Quick aside to the aside: If I were a Bulls fan my stomach could not digest the sight of these two linking up in any way at the United Center.)
Yes, Caruso is awesome, but even if all those aforementioned variables swing the right way, it would be a fool’s errand to wait too long for this group to figure itself out. At their best, the Bulls cannot beat the Celtics, Bucks, Sixers, or several other probable playoff teams in a seven-game series. DeRozan is a superhero—but also 33 years old. How are they growing next year, too? Will they be better than the Hawks, Cavaliers, or Raptors? What about (gulp) the Magic, Pacers, or Pistons?
A pivot may be on the horizon, whether the Bulls like it or not. Chicago is only 5.5 games behind the Pistons for the NBA’s worst record. Its next seven opponents are the Jazz, Suns, Warriors, Kings, Wizards, Mavericks, and Hawks. That last contest in Atlanta is the only one on the second night of a back-to-back, but five are on the road against stiff competition.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are minus-6.0 when DeRozan, Vucevic, and LaVine share the floor. That’s unacceptable. (They were minus-1.1 last year.) The clutch magic is gone. (They’re minus-22 in those situations, fourth worst in the league. Last season they were plus-56, tied for second best.) Some of the Bulls’ general offensive woes can be attributed to their shot selection. They’re 28th in 3-point rate, take more midrange shots than any other team, and rank 28th in field goal percentage at the rim. That’s a devastating combination and somewhat connected to whenever, say, LaVine drives into the paint and has to deal with a help defender who couldn’t care less about Chicago’s mild outside threats.
But the Bulls didn’t take 3s last season and still finished about league average on shots at the rim. LaVine’s individual drop in this category goes a long way. He’s down to 56 percent on attempts taken within 4 feet of the basket. Some of that’s spacing, but some of it’s also attributable to the knee surgery he had back in May. He’s missed four of the Bulls’ 19 games this season: the opening two, then a couple of front legs of a back-to-back.
There are plays when he explodes by his man and finishes with flair. Then there are others when the two-time dunk contest champion is a shell of his former self. In the opening moments of Chicago’s blowout loss against the Nuggets, he flubbed a wide-open finger roll that, once upon a time, would’ve made the rim flinch.
But even if Vucevic, DeRozan, and LaVine were all playing at an All-Star level, the Bulls would still need more. Ayo Dosunmu is a keeper, but overextended as a starting point guard, with a turnover rate that eclipses his assist percentage. A more stabilizing presence would go a long way. (Think Mike Conley, Tyus Jones, or even someone like Jordan McLaughlin.) But even if they had that, dreams of a deep playoff run aren’t likely to materialize unless Williams evolves into a powerful two-way wing who could lock down the opponent’s top scorer and get a tough bucket when the Bulls need it.
Coming into this season, Williams was the organization’s biggest source of (cautious) optimism—a tantalizing physical specimen with all the tools to fit in and enhance just about any lineup he’s in. Still only 21 years old, instead he is essentially averaging the same exact numbers he did as a rookie (apart from his 3-point percentage, which is up to 45.6 percent on three tries per game). It’s confounding. One minute he’s rumbling downhill and trying to bury a poor shot blocker 10 feet under the building, the next he’s passing up an open corner 3 for no reason and shuffling his feet into a turnover.
It’s hard to get oxygen on a team that has so many mouths to feed. DeRozan and LaVine are shooting until the defense forces them to pass. Vucevic needs his post touches. Williams should still be able to have an impact, even without his name featured prominently in Donovan’s playbook. Sometimes he does, in spectacular ways. But overall he appears unfit in a situation that can’t afford patience.
It’s a delicate dilemma; trading Williams for someone closer to Chicago’s present-day timeline would be a catastrophe. But less conspicuous buttons can still be pressed, if all the Bulls really care about is winning the next game. Donovan can slide Williams and Dosunmu to the bench and start Javonte Green with either Caruso or Goran Dragic. And, instead of sitting DeRozan at the start of every second and fourth quarter, go back to the same substitution pattern they adopted last year in which he leaves the game a little earlier in the first and third, then returns to close those quarters out before starting the following frames. The front office can shop for a real point guard with the protected first they’re owed from the Blazers.
If they (correctly) wanted to prioritize the future, the Bulls could trade DeRozan to a playoff team that’d absolutely love to fold an unstoppable late-game shot creator into its arsenal. Would the Suns offer a few expiring contracts and (up to) three first-round picks, as a contender that’s trying to salvage the back end of Chris Paul’s prime? Their defense would be an issue and the offensive fit isn’t obvious on paper. Sure. But good luck stopping Paul, Devin Booker, DeRozan, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton at the same time. There’d be enough shooting and playmaking here to create multiple headaches on every play.
The Clippers may need to consolidate what they have. DeRozan would certainly help their flailing offense and provide some Kawhi insurance. Would the Bulls take back some salary filler if they also get L.A.’s unprotected 2028 first-round pick? The Mavericks should jump into the conversation if they think DeRozan can alleviate some of Luka Doncic’s burden, though what they’re willing to offer may not be attractive enough.
After DeRozan, the Bulls should also see what they can get for LaVine (even though teams aren’t exactly lining around the block to take on his $215 million maximum contract), then diversify Williams’s playmaking responsibilities, give Dalen Terry a firm spot in the rotation, and pray their commitment to failure is rewarded with some lottery luck.
It might sound dramatic for a team that finally crawled out of the wilderness just a year ago. But if the Bulls opt for stasis, they’ll almost definitely stumble right back to where they were before this “era” began.