The Chicago Bulls Are Relevant Again

For the first time since Rajon Rondo broke his thumb in Game 2 of a 1st round series in 2017, I am excited to watch the Chicago Bulls.

With Zach Lavine missing almost a month with the Rona, and the Nikola Vucevic trade not producing the high-powered offense Bulls fans had (over-optimistically) hoped for, the 20-21 season closed disappointingly. With two decades of low-balling free agents, pinching pennies, and trading away beloved stars scarred into our memory, Bulls fans went into this offseason just hoping things didn’t get worse.

It didn’t start well. One of the picks the Bulls traded to the Magic for Vuc had a chance to stay in Chicago if it ended up in the top-4. We can’t complain too much about ping-pong balls after stealing the 1st overall pick in 2008, but it seems all of our luck got used that night. So we ended up with no 1st round pick this year, which to be fair hasn’t really mattered in the last ten years anyway. We’ve whiffed on mid to late first round picks over and over (Bobby Portis & Doug McDermott became impact players elsewhere, I’m not expecting big things from Coby White).

That changed last year, as Marc Eversley & Arturas Karnisovas took over the garbage fire left behind by GarPax & Jim Boylen, and hit on a big gamble with Patrick Williams. It was such a breath of fresh air to know management actually knew how to find talent that not having a draft pick this year was actually disappointing. Especially with no clear path for significant improvement coming after the draft.

Then the Lonzo sign & trade broke. Lonzo Ball had been attached to Chicago in rumors for so long that I’d already decided it must not be true a year and a half ago and prepared myself to not be disappointed. But it happened, and the Bulls didn’t have to give up anything significant (sorry Sato). The Bulls have needed a real point guard, again, since Rajon Rondo played his last game in a Bulls uniform. Ball fits perfectly offensively with Zach Lavine, able to create for himself and others, but still effective off the ball after becoming an above average 3-point shooter in New Orleans. But more importantly he’s one of the best defensive point guards in the league. If Lavine’s defensive effort stays in Tokyo and remains as theoretical as it was last season in the NBA, it’ll be huge to have someone who can guard the other team’s best guard every night.

Lonzo’s got some injury history though. So what if he feels nostalgic one night, dusts off some Big Baller Brand kicks and goes back to twisting his ankle every ten steps?

Well with the first big surprise of Chicago’s offseason, the Bulls signed Alex Caruso who at at some point last season was leading the league in some obscure defensive metric (don’t trust defensive metrics, they’re really unreliable and defense has too many non-quantitative variables to be boiled into one robust number). So every night we should have a guard playing real defense. Which is big when Zach Lavine & Nikola Vucevic are your best players.

Or are they?

Hi. My name is Jaxson, and I’m a DeMar Derozan truther.

Now I’m not insane- DeMar Derozan is not the best player on a championship team, and never was. That was unfortunately proven time and time again back in the LeBronto days with the Raptors. At his peak his ideal role was probably the clear number 2 on a great team. We’re not that far away from that peak though, certainly not as far as many people seem to think. He went from slightly overrated to being underrated and almost forgotten in San Antonio. His scoring dropped in a more egalitarian Spurs offense, and his inability to shoot threes was exacerbated being surrounded by a supporting cast with the same issue. But Derozan averaged nearly 7 assists last season, and has grown leaps and bounds as a playmaker in 3 years without his BFF Kyle Lowry playing that role.

Not to mention DeMar is still one of the best isolation scorers in the league, offsetting his lack of 3 point shooting with one of the best midrange games in the league. The Bulls have gone from having one player that can reliably create his own shot and no one to reliably make plays for others, to having two scorers in Lavine and Derozan and two playmakers in Derozan and Ball. It’s a big shift from having Kris Dunn playing point guard just a couple years ago.

The final chip in the Bulls offseason fell with Lauri Markkanen finally getting the fresh start he’s been looking for. And quite frankly after how poorly his development was handled by GarPax & Jim Boylen, I don’t think any Bulls fan blames him. The Dirk Nowitzki comps were always ridiculous, but he has far more potential than spotting up for threes off the bench. Whether or not he’ll reach that potential is another conversation, but that’s Cleveland’s problem to worry about now.

I made the conscious decision not to expect anything significant coming back Chicago’s way whenever the inevitable sign & trade did happen. So when Derrick Jones Jr. ended up on the roster, it felt like finding twenty bucks in a jacket you haven’t worn in a few weeks. Depth and defense will be this team’s big weaknesses, especially if Patrick Williams doesn’t make a leap. Derrick Jones Jr. is far from an All-Defensive team candidate, but he’s wildly athletic and really tries on that end of the floor.

All that change, all that improvement, all this excitement. Is this a championship team?

No. Absolutely not. There is no way this team even sniffs the Finals, and I’d be shocked if they hosted a playoff series. The 5 seed is the ceiling, maybe 4 if the 76ers don’t get a good package for Ben Simmons.

So why am I so excited? Because the Bulls haven’t been on a upward trajectory since at least 2015, and you could argue since losing to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. Watching that 2012-13 team was the most fun I’ve had watching any sport, but we all knew that team had no shot at a championship. We were just waiting for Derrick Rose. Then the emergence of Jimmy Butler kept the team as a mid-tier playoff team for a few years, but he hadn’t developed his ability as a playmaker yet and those teams had a clear ceiling. I was shocked when Butler was traded, but deep down I knew it was the right move.

Since then it’s been…ugly. Lauri was sold as the new franchise player, something I never bought into. Zach Lavine evolved into a go to scorer, but until last year his face was next to the definition of “empty stats.”. I didn’t like the Vucevic trade- I thought it would make the team a perennial 8 seed and nothing else. And then when the team didn’t even muster an appearance in the Play-In tournament, there wasn’t any clear path to relevance.

It cost the team a few draft picks to get out of the rough and onto the trail, but overall I’m impressed with the offseason. Even though the next steps to become contenders aren’t clear, I now have some confidence that this front office is actually going to make moves to try and get there instead of just sitting pat, winning 40 games every year, and waiting to get lucky on a draft pick.

More than anything though, I can’t wait to watch good basketball be played in the United Center. And honestly, as long as this team is at least hosting a game in the play-in tournament I’ll be happy with this season, knowing no matter what we can realistically expect to be better next year.

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