The Chicago Bulls have loaded up on offense this offseason and intend to score their way back into the NBA playoffs.
It might not yet be enough for them to contend for the championship this year, but the Bulls promise to be one of the more electric teams to watch when the NBA regular season kicks off in October.
Their roster already had two of the best scorers in the league at their position, All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, before adding DeMar DeRozan, a four-time All-Star himself, to their group. They also acquired Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso to bolster their backcourt and add to what should at least be an appealing, up-and-down team.
Chicago had the 11th best record in the Eastern Conference last season, missing the playoffs and even the inaugural play-in tournament last year. They were strongly in contention for the postseason until their leading scorer LaVine missed 11 games due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols. The Bulls went 4-7 in his absence and his return for the last leg of the regular season was too late for them to salvage their campaign.
LaVine fully blossomed into one of the best all-around scorers in the league during the ‘20-’21 season, averaging 27.4 points on over 50% shooting with 3.4 three-pointers, five rebounds, and 4.9 assists. He has improved on those statistics in each of the four years that he has been with the Bulls and his efforts were rewarded with his first-ever All-Star nod.
A couple of weeks after the All-Star game, Chicago traded Wendell Carter Jr.,Otto Porter Jr., and two first round picks for Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu. The oft-injured Carter Jr., who was the Bulls’ seventh pick in the 2018 draft, did not develop as expected which prompted the trade for the two-time All-Star Vucevic.
The move for Vucevic was seen as a win-now deal for the Bulls, as he is nine years Carter Jr.’s senior, as they try to show a commitment to building a winning team around the 26-year-old LaVine before he enters free agency in the 2022 offseason.
Though the Vucevic trade did not pay off immediately last season, Chicago has continued its course over the past few weeks. They have re-tooled their roster with the same mindset as they work towards returning to the playoffs for the first time since securing the eighth seed in the 2017 postseason.
DeRozan gives them a third player, in addition to LaVine and Vucevic, who averaged over 20 points per game last season. Though he was known primarily as a scorer while with the Toronto Raptors over his first nine years in the NBA, the 32-year-old has matured into a reliable playmaker in the three succeeding seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. He doubled his assist average from 3.1 with the Raptors to 6.2 while on the Spurs. The former ninth overall pick led San Antonio in assists last year with a career-best 6.9 a night, proving that he can handle the role as a team’s facilitator.
This should allow DeRozan to fit in as a pseudo point guard for the Bulls alongside LaVine and Vucevic. He is still a potent scorer, especially in the midrange, who demands respect from rival defenses and this will only help open up looks for his high-scoring teammates.
The sign-and-trade for Lonzo Ball a few days before they signed DeRozan looks even better now as he will slide in seamlessly on the perimeter as an ancillary threat. Miscast as a true point guard coming out of UCLA because of his dazzling passing abilities, Ball had the best run of his four-year career last season with the New Orleans Pelicans as a supporting creator flanking Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. He averaged a career-best 14.6 points and 3.1 threes on 37.8% shooting together with 5.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals.
Ball is an excellent defender, both on and off the ball, and stands at 6’6, just like DeRozan, which gives them a number of taller options to play with the 6’5 LaVine. His perimeter shooting has also improved by leaps and bounds since he entered the league and, coupled with his athletic abilities, has allowed him to become an effective contributor even without the ball in his hands all the time.
Their other new guard Caruso, who brings championship experience from his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, gives them another solid defender to reinforce their prolific line-ups. Ball and Caruso fill a major need for a Bulls team that struggled to contain opposing guards last season.
Sophomore Coby White put up 15.1 points and 4.8 assists in over 31 minutes per game last year, but has a score-first mentality and seemingly no plans of playing defense which does not add value to a team that already has a few high-end offensive options. White will likely see a diminished role with two strong defenders in Ball and Caruso around and may be used as an asset as the trade deadline approaches.
As White’s value to the Bulls continues to plunge, the importance of the 20-year-old Patrick Williams to this team continues to rise. After a promising rookie season, the 6’7 forward with a knack for defense will be a major piece for them this season and beyond, especially with the departure of the ever-reliable veteran Thaddeus Young in the sign-and-trade that netted DeRozan.
It also seems imminent that Lauri Markkanen, another Chicago first round pick who has not developed as planned, will be traded to another team before the regular season begins, opening up more opportunities for Williams who flashed his upside in the recently concluded NBA Summer League.
The Bulls have an exciting team that can put up points with the league’s best, but the biggest question surrounding them is defense. LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic are not known for their defense though they have shown in the past that they are willing to put in the effort and buy-in on that end. This will be the key for their success in the coming season as they try to make a playoff push in an Eastern Conference that continues to grow stronger by the day.
The reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and the top-heavy Brooklyn Nets remain the favorites in the East while the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, and Boston Celtics are a tier below them yet ever-deadly. The Bulls have not proven that they belong, even in that second tier, but they have enough talent to compete with the best of them on a nightly basis.
Whether or not that talent meshes is another question altogether and will be interesting to watch as the season begins. The number of high profile names on this Chicago team will put them under intense scrutiny throughout the year and a strong start to the season will be essential for them to avoid the usual pressure that comes with the territory.
Though this will be the first year of this team together, the risk of LaVine declining a contract extension and entering free agency next offseason makes this a crucial campaign for the Bulls’ future. They are still far from rekindling their glory days, but this Chicago team promises to at least be an entertaining one to watch this coming season.