Just before last season, I penned a feature story on the NBA team I found to be the most interesting: the Chicago Bulls.
I wrote about the blaring saxophones and jazz music that used to serenade the fans that poured out of a packed United Center—usually following Bulls victories—during the 1990s and into the 2000s. That music stopped, literally and figuratively, quite abruptly during a four-year downturn in which the franchise had the league’s worst winning percentage after trading away Jimmy Butler. But there seemed to be real hope for a renaissance this time last year.
After trading for DeMar DeRozan, and acquiring guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, Chicago jumped out to a hot start fueled, surprisingly, by its defense. Ball and Caruso served as blitzing ballhawks in the late stages of games, often making up for three players less known for their defense. DeRozan made history with his clutch shotmaking. And amazingly, the Bulls, as late as Feb. 4 of this calendar year, had sole possession of first place in the East.
To say it’s been all downhill since then would be an understatement. A Ball knee injury lingered, and lingered and lingered, and he never made it back last season, even after a surgery. (And even now—after a second surgery, and nearly an entire year since he last played—he isn’t able to run without pain.) Caruso missed considerable time, too, between a hamstring injury and a controversial foul from Grayson Allen that resulted in a fractured wrist. Without the guards, the team’s defense predictably cratered, and games often became shootouts. Chicago, so solid to begin the season, barely finished with enough wins to avoid the play-in round and landed the No. 6 seed. They got blasted by the defending-champion Bucks, who finished them off in five.
After a relatively quiet offseason—the roster is essentially the same, save for the addition of backups Andre Drummond and Goran Dragić—there wasn’t a ton of reason for optimism, with the East around them getting stronger. Still, things weren’t supposed to look this bleak just two months in, not for a team that was in first place this time last season.
The Bulls, sitting at a highly disappointing 11–18 mark, have dropped four straight games, and have three more games on this trip, against the Heat, Hawks and Knicks. The first of the four losses came in Atlanta, in overtime, on a lay-in off an inbounds pass with 0.5 seconds remaining. The second and third were home losses to New York, in which the Bulls got blasted 30–5, combined, on the offensive glass. Chicago’s latest defeat, in Minnesota, was perhaps the lowest low: The Bulls surrendered 150 American points to a Timberwolves team that was playing without either of its All-NBA big men.
“Beyond embarrassing,” DeRozan said of allowing that many points, noting that the T-Wolves, minus Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, aren’t exactly the 2016 Golden State Warriors.
“We need to compete a whole lot better,” coach Billy Donovan said of his team, when asked about the effort, which somehow simultaneously looked full of both frustration and indifference at times. “I can switch to zone; I can switch to different pick-and-roll coverages. But if the compete level is not high enough collectively as a group out there, it doesn’t make a difference.”
There’s so much general weirdness around this team. The Ball injury is the saddest of those weird things, as his knee issue begins to sound more and more like something that might not ever allow him to be the same player. (Also, even if he could return this season, what would be the point of his putting his body on the line in a season like this one?) The club is getting embarrassed repeatedly, but aside from a few exceptions—mostly Caruso and Javonte Green—also not offering full effort in many cases. (My former colleague Michael Pina sounded the alarm on the Bulls early this season, saying their three stars don’t perform well together. This weekend, he pointed out this horrendous transition defensive effort against Minnesota.) Chicago got annihilated on the offensive glass a pair of times last week by the Knicks, but Donovan then moved to sit out Drummond, who has the second-highest offensive rebound percentage in NBA history after Dennis Rodman, with a DNP-CD against the Wolves on Sunday. The team, despite ranking 10th in three-point percentage, doesn’t have enough perimeter shooting and ranks dead last in three-point attempt rate. Zach LaVine has a permanent green light, but often takes ill-advised shots that feel outside the flow of the offense. He’s shooting 27.6% in the clutch—tied for the worst in the NBA among those with 25 tries or more—partially explaining how the Bulls have the league’s worst mark in close-game scenarios.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Chicago is that the club might not do anything about all this.
Donovan, in his postgame comments, flat-out said he could alter the different coverages the team uses, but that there’d essentially be no point if his guys aren’t committed to showing more effort. The team quietly gave Donovan a multiyear contract extension before the season, so it’d seem a safe bet that he isn’t going anywhere. And while truly shaking things up with a DeRozan trade would make sense, those who’ve had the strongest pulse on the Bulls’ thinking feel there might not be real appetite among Chicago’s executives to pull such a trigger, in part because they just went all in back in 2021, cashing in many of their assets after four seasons of futility. (If true, this is such a different stance than a team like the Raptors would take with Masai Ujiri, who seems to thrive on the opportune times to jump.) Meanwhile a pair of youngsters Chicago parted with to accelerate winning—Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.—have been thriving elsewhere, looking thoroughly improved from when they were budding Bulls. And while the cupboard isn’t bare in the Windy City, it’s also not clear yet whether Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu will progress to where they’re more useful players than guys like Markkanen and Carter. Or at least whether they’ll reach that point as members of the Bulls.
If you’re a Bulls fan, that’s likely the frustration. That there’s enough talent to be better than this—last year proved as much—but not enough to win anything of significance. But if there’s clearly not enough there to win meaningfully, why wouldn’t you at least start the process of trying to get assets for the future? (Dealing away center and third scorer Nikola Vučević, whose deal expires at season’s end, would be the equivalent of a half measure on this front.)
As Chicagoans know all too well in the wintertime: The middle is often a brutal place to be. In other parts of the country, the sun shines brighter, either allowing you to bathe in it, or go inside to stop from getting overly crispy.
Here, though, the Bulls figure to get burned worse by standing pat during a season that seems to be going nowhere fast. How they choose to handle things moving forward will be fascinating.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week
- Unrelated to hoops specifically but worth a read: Former SI scribe Jeff Pearlman had an interesting Substack post on how a good writer went bad, and what it says about the current state of journalism in seemingly far too many cases. At the end, he also offered beautiful thoughts about the great Grant Wahl, who died earlier this month.
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