The Chicago Bulls look deflated, unappealing, and nowhere near as strong as they did 12 months ago. Injuries have played a factor but currently sitting outside the Play-In race, what’s the ceiling for this Chicago team at full strength, and is it worth pushing for?
Chicago’s front office hasn’t signaled that they’re doing anything other than winning but with the team currently sitting five games under .500, Arturas Karnisovas might be in a difficult position.
Zach LaVine recently expressed disappointment with his playing time, specifically, (the recently extended) Billy Donovan’s decision not to play him down the stretch. This led to Marc Stein reporting that the Dallas Mavericks would be interested in the scoring wing if he were available in a trade. There were no follow-up reports or confirmation from the Bulls’ side of the story, but it was out there.
A few days ago, Bill Simmons floated the idea of the LA Lakers trading their two future first-round picks alongside Russell Westbrook for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. The reasoning from the Bull’s point of view would be to try and tank this season, keep their top-four protected pick owed to the Orlando Magic, and nab some potentially premium assets in return for aging All-Stars.
Again, the Bulls’ front office didn’t entertain these rumors, and to be honest, they shouldn’t. The Chicago Bulls are trying to win games here and at about the quarter mark of the season, there’s reason to believe they could still be a solid playoff team.
But just how good can this team be? Are they a playoff lock or did last season just catch lightning in a bottle?
How far can this Chicago Bulls team go and is it worth not trading any pieces away?
The bracket broke poorly for the Chicago Bulls last season who had to face the defending champion, Milwaukee Bucks, in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs. Not only was that team better across the court, but they also had the personnel to neuter Chicago’s attack.
If the Bulls had faced a few other teams in the East, maybe they’d be carrying some momentum into this season and looking better. Hypothetically, what if it were Chicago that eliminated the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, not the Boston Celtics? We’d be feeling pretty good, even if it ended in a second-round exit.
So let’s say they’re currently a one-to-two-round playoff team. Can they get better than that?
The NBA is a star-driven league and in that department, the Bulls have DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine. DeMar established himself as a bona fide first option and All-NBA scorer last season in a late-career renaissance and LaVine has been an All-Star for the past two seasons.
While DeMar’s magnificence and shot-making helped the Bulls become a playoff team again, he’s on the wrong side of 30 and while right now, he’s putting up excellent numbers, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when he’s no longer a number-one option.
Alongside this, Nikola Vucevic isn’t the All-Star floor-raiser he once was and his lack of defensive versatility brings its own issues for Chicago’s playoff runs. Regardless of my opinion about his defense, the Montenegrin is a quality starter in the NBA, he shouldn’t be an issue in the regular season.
These two flank LaVine who, at 27 years old, presents the most upside on the roster. In the past few seasons, he has established himself as a volume scorer whose off-the-dribble shooting game makes opens up plenty for the Bulls.
At the moment, LaVine isn’t in the top tier of scoring guards, sitting well below the best like Steph Curry, Luka Doncic, or Ja Morant, but being only 27 means there’s a world in which he can continue to grow.That upside has been dampened by a slow start to the season. This season, LaVine is averaging 21 points per game while shooting a disastrous 41 percent from the floor and 35 percent from the 3-point line.
This past offseason, he had arthroscopic knee surgery and hasn’t looked as comfortable when on the court. He’ll eventually regain his shooting form but it’s a hard sell for the games after he signed a five-year, $215 million extension.
If the Bulls turn things around this season and get back to a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference, how far can they realistically go?
Will they always be a step behind the East’s elite like the Celtics, Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers? Few would pick the Bulls right now in a seven-game series against a top team in the East, and they’d have to show considerable improvement in the coming months for that to change.
Because of this, the ‘blow it up’ crowd of NBA fandom would suggest the team tears everything down and try and build a new contender through the draft or free agency.
But that’s (much) easier said than done and it also doesn’t factor in the goals of ownership. Is Jerry Reinsdorf happy empowering Karnisovas and Marc Eversley to build a consistent playoff team, raking in playoff revenue each season with little-to-no risk of falling out of the playoff picture?
If that’s the case and the end goal isn’t a title, then this team could easily remain in the playoff picture for years to come. They might win one round if the bracket breaks well for them but with aging stars and the uncertain health of two key contributors (LaVine and Lonzo Ball), the upside isn’t there.
But let’s not end on a sour note about the treadmill of mediocrity, if the Bulls want to push as hard as possible for the present, they still own their first-round picks in 2024 then 2026 through to 2030 as well as the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2023 first (lottery protected).
The Bulls might be able to bundle tradeable contracts, young players (Pat Williams, Ayo Dosunmu), and future picks to get into some bigger-name trades at this season’s deadline. If that’s the case and a trade partner likes the look of Chicago’s own future picks, then the ceiling of this team could get interesting.
That potential to shake up the roster is what’s pushing this team’s ceiling over the top. As it currently stands, this Chicago Bulls roster isn’t one of the league’s best but they’re trying to be.