The Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy begins as Dante approaches the gates of Hell, above which reads “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” After the poor start the Chicago Bulls have suffered in 2022-23, it would be unsurprising if the same message is soon posted across the president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas’ office door.
Facing a crossroads as the 23 post-All-Star Break games loom, the Bulls have set up this offseason to be a less-than-poetic walk through hell (John Paxson and Gar Forman wait in the ninth circle). Nikola Vucevic will be a free agent, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are a year older, and Lonzo Ball’s future health is in doubt.
Compounding issues is the lack of direction taken at the trade deadline. Karnisovas and co. had a chance to define a direction, to decide whether they’d sacrifice this season at the altar of Wenbanyama or pursue upgrades and justify this core’s continuance. They did neither.
“Mediocrity and average is not okay with us,” Karnisovas said after the deadline. “But the next step is what’s going to happen for the rest of the season and then how we can address—during the draft and free agency—our shortcomings.”
Whether it’s “okay” or not, after a three-game losing streak prior to the All-Star Break the Bulls now sit at 26-33, in the 11th position in the East with only two games between them and the 13th-seeded Orlando Magic (who own Chicago’s top-4 protected first-round pick this year).
Mediocre, average, or abominable, playing out the string with the current core narrows how positively this offseason can turn out. Without completely bottoming out, the Bulls’ big three will likely prevent them from joining the high-lottery dregs. Even with flattened percentages, losing in the play-in or barely missing probably gift wraps that pick for the Magic (although that was always a likely scenario to begin with.)
The Chicago Bulls chose not to make a move at the deadline, and that may chart their course for the foreseeable future.
Barring a legendary playoff run, the Bulls — much like Dante — seem destined to enter Purgatory before reaching paradise. This offseason serves as an inflection point for how long that journey will take.
Removing the minute possibility they land a generational talent this draft, the roster will likely be headlined by an ailing-kneed LaVine, a 34-year-old DeRozan, aging Vucevic (if he re-signs), and maybe Ball. Barring a frozen envelope from above, the Bulls’ young core will consist of the underbaked Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, Dalen Terry, and Coby White (likely on an inflated RFA deal).
With that in mind, the two paths that stop the hamster wheel from spinning are, conveniently, more likely to preserve Karnisovas’ job. Not selling at the deadline makes it less palatable, but ripping up the floorboards aside from Williams, Dosunmu, and maybe Terry in hopes of stockpiling talent in ’24 and ’25 might not win playoff rounds but offers hope of being the next great core — and may extend a GM’s lifespan to whenever those picks boom or bust.
Alternatively, go for broke. If you’re convinced LaVine and DeRozan can put you in a position to compete, set them up for one more run. Re-signing Vucevic is in the cards, but some salary maneuvers could bring in a Khris Middleton or (gulp) Kyrie Irving. Going this way resembles going all-in on a two and seven, but you never know.
Unfortunately, what remains most likely is the string gets worn down from being played out. It might be too soon to abandon all hope but barring a move contrary to all recently made, the Chicago Bulls march toward those fiery gates. When they inevitably choose to begin their downward journey may ultimately define several seasons far beyond this current one.