It was January 2022. The Bulls had just gone on a 9-game winning streak, including back-to-back buzzer beaters in 2021 and 2022, to win.
Chicago was 25-10, in first place in the Eastern Conference, and one of the most fun teams in the NBA.

The Big 3 of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic played great basketball. LaVine and DeRozan were named all-stars, and DeRozan was getting MVP buzz. Role players like Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White, Javonte Green, and Alex Caruso were showing up. Billy Donovan coached the team up like he did the OKC Thunder in 2019-20. They were surviving without Patrick Williams, who had an injured wrist. It finally looked like the Chicago Bulls were back to the success of the early 2010s when Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Tom Thibodeau led the way.

Then Lonzo Ball, the Bulls starting point guard, was ruled out for a couple of national TV games with a knee injury. Then a few more games. Then on and on until April, when he didn’t return for the playoffs. Then it was revealed that he had a meniscus injury that required surgery, and then it dragged on into the 2022-23 season, which was completely unexpected, and he was ruled out for the season after the all-star break. Another surgery likely means he won’t suit up for the 2023-24 season, either—a tragic injury for a franchise that seems to be cursed with great point guards and bad knees.

The Bulls survived until the all-star break in 2021-22 without Lonzo, going 14-11, but they fell apart without him after that, with a much more demanding schedule. They went 7-15 to end the season, falling from the 1 seed at the break to the 6 seed. They matched up with Milwaukee, where they barely lost game 1, took game 2, put up stinkers in games 3 and 4, then lost game 5, where LaVine was out due to COVID protocols, and Milwaukee could just double-team DeRozan all game with no fear that the role players would hit enough open threes to win.

Unfortunately, but surely the Bulls would be back and better. Surely Lonzo would be back, and they could build on this season. Well, Ball, as stated above, did not return this season. And it seems as though the front office was counting on him coming back, at worst, by the midseason point. All they did in the 2022 offseason was draft Dalen Terry 19th overall, who barely played even when the Bulls needed help on the wing, and sign Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond, who both started the season well but struggled down the stretch. Dragic even got waived late in the season after the Bulls signed Patrick Beverley.

The Bulls had a couple of huge wins to open the season against the two ECF finalists, Miami and Boston. But then things started spiraling. They lost winnable, easy games. They fell to 11-18, far out of playoff contention. Finally, back within a game of .500, they went on a 6 game-losing streak. With a chance to get the 8 seed, they blew games to Atlanta and Milwaukee, both missing their best players. Finally, they blew a late lead in Miami to lose the final play-in game.

A frustrating season came to an end. Role players besides Alex Caruso and Coby White didn’t have the same magic from a season ago. The Big 3 performed but didn’t have the clutchness they had a season ago. Billy Donovan seemed to lose the team from time to time. The Bulls were one of the league’s biggest disappointments.


Now, Arturas Karnisovas enters a pivotal offseason.


The Bulls’ first-round pick, number 11 overall, conveyed to Orlando. They lack second-round picks in 2023 and 2025 (thank you, Adam Silver, for deciding randomly you want to punish tampering that happens all the time). They owe a heavily protected first to San Antonio in 2025, but even if it doesn’t convey, it limits their flexibility in trades due to the Stepien Rule. They own a Blazers first-round pick that is lottery protected until 2028. They have a few key unrestricted free agents in Nikola Vucevic, Javonte Green, and Patrick Beverley and restricted ones in Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu.

They have the MLE available and the Bi-Annual Exception but not much else, being an over-the-cap team. They could get a hardship exception for 50% of Lonzo Ball’s salary in 2023-24 if he is indeed going to miss the entire season (with their lack of picks, I wouldn’t bet on them dumping his contract).

They also have to be careful with a new CBA kicking in soon that penalizes teams paying more than $180 million in payroll, the second luxury tax apron (though maybe we never have to worry about it with an owner who hardly likes going above the first apron). The free agent class isn’t amazing, but it has a number of solid players. The draft class is deep, so the Bulls may want to grab somebody.


It seems Arturas Karnisovas has 3 general options, or 3 R’s: Run it back, Retool, or Rebuild.


Run it Back

Changes on the fringes. Use the exceptions on a couple of 3 and D wings, maybe an extra power forward, but the core Big 3 and the main role players will all be back. Vucevic is back on a 3-year/$60 million-ish deal, Dosunmu is back on a 2-year deal, White is back on a 3-year deal, and Beverley is back on a minimum, maybe Green too. Grab a late draft pick. Pray Lonzo Ball can make a miraculous recovery (they at least won’t be counting on it this time).

Hope their 15-10 record at the end of the season carries over and that they have come back together after some tenuous times in 2022-23.

Considering most of the players still played very well last season, it doesn’t seem like a terrible option; obviously, fans would hate it, but if the regression is normal, the Bulls will be better in clutch games and probably close to 50 wins. Still, it’s a considerable risk, as the Bulls could stumble out of the gate again, a mentality of ‘Here we go again” sets in, they fall behind in the East early, and Karnisovas has to fire the coach to try and salvage the season, and if that doesn’t work, trade DeMar for scraps at the deadline. Plus, it’s still worth asking if that team, without Lonzo Ball, can win a playoff series or two.

Retool

The Bulls could choose to break up the Big 3 while still trying to be competitive now while getting a little younger. This likely means one or both of Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan are gone; they have likely peaked already in their NBA careers, while Zach LaVine is just now in his prime. He seems to have one more level to unlock, with more plays for him off-ball to catch-and-shoot and improved playmaking.

They could do a sign-and-trade with Vucevic, getting back a slightly lesser package than the Spurs got from the DeMar DeRozan sign and trade (Thaddeus Young, aka a good rotational big, a protected first, and a second). They could trade DeMar DeRozan to a playoff team that is rich in role players but might want to consolidate them into an All-star.

Maybe they could dump the Lonzo Ball contract too. This gives them possibly better-fitting players around LaVine, more shooting, more defense, and more playmaking. Then maybe LaVine could blossom even more than he has in the past 3 seasons, even after losing two offensive stars. The Bulls must stop being so bad at three-point shooting if they want to return to being elite.

Rebuild

Maybe the Bulls need to blow it up again. It certainly wasn’t the right decision in 2017 when they got rid of Jimmy Butler a year after getting rid of Derrick Rose a year after getting rid of Tom Thibodeau. But it might be necessary. Let Vucevic walk in a sign-and-trade, trade DeRozan for a young player or two and picks, and get a haul for Zach LaVine. Keep Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White, run the offense through Patrick Williams, acquire rookies this season, run the Lonzo Ball contract down, and tank for a couple of seasons.

Follow the Chicago Blackhawks model, and you may finally win the lottery again, as they got Connor Bedard. Trade Caruso, who has a lot of value. Trade any other bench players who are older with value. Sign young free agents with the money saved, guys who may have been let go too early. I would hate a rebuild again because, at the worst this season, at least the Bulls were still playing relevant basketball in April, which is so fun.

At the very least, Karnisovas wouldn’t make the same mistakes GarPax made (not getting excess picks for Rose and Butler, picking high-floor players over high-ceiling players like Wendell Carter Jr over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr, wasting cap space on injury-prone players like Jabari Parker and Otto Porter Jr, and picking for need over best player available).


Whatever decision Arturas Karnisovas, Marc Eversley, and the front office make, it will be heavily criticized.
As long as he makes his decision, sticks to the process with that decision, and doesn’t try to play multiple sides, the Bulls will be in good hands in their future, even as things look bleak today.

Photo: —

Comments are closed.

Check Also

The Youth Movement in Chicago

The Chicago Bulls made a significant move this offseason by trading Alex Caruso for Josh G…