Back in November I put a sticky note on my wall of writing ideas that said ‘Gloating about the Bulls while I still can’.
That sticky note stayed there, for weeks. For months actually. A huge chunk of this season was really fun, watching the Bulls play not just decent, but great basketball early on in the 2021-22 NBA season.
I never gave up on DeMar DeRozan when the rest of the NBA world seemed to forget he existed in San Antonio. Do I think he can be the best player on a championship team? No. But he’s not some empty calorie scorer, and seeing him have an All-NBA (2nd team, fine) caliber season was pretty satisfying.
He wasn’t the only bright spot. With DeMar’s wizardry, Lonzo Ball & Ernie Johnson’s son harassing opposing guards, Zach Lavine actually playing defense, and the surprise competence of Ayo Dosunmu, the Bulls had a genuinely fun play style.
We don’t need to talk about Vucevic…
And then things went bad. And in true Chicago Bulls fashion, things got real bad, real fast. And the sticky note ended up in the trash.
Lonzo Ball went down with a meniscus tear in January, and literally the day after that injury was announced Grayson Allen tried to murder Alex Caruso in front of 20,000 people, only managing to break his wrist.
Thank goodness Ayo turned out to be a draft steal, because otherwise Coby White would’ve been the only point guard on the roster and no one would’ve been there to protect his heat-check happy ass from himself.
Lonzo & Caruso were the pillars of the Bulls’ surprisingly stout early season defense though, especially with Patrick Williams missing basically the entire regular season. With no real pressure at the point of attack, and nothing else but a really big, somewhat athletic block of cheese – I mean Nikola Vucevic – to protect the rim, Chicago started to bleed points like preseason pundits had predicted they would.
Fourth quarter heroics and midrange mastery from DeMar on the other end of the floor weren’t enough to make up for the defense’s nosedive. Add in Zach Lavine being hobbled with a bad knee, even with Alex Caruso & Patrick Williams back from injury the Bulls limped into the postseason…
And got spanked. I’m not even gonna waste time talking about that series. Sadly, Giannis Antetokounmpo owns the Bulls just like Joe Rogan’s BFF Aaron Rodgers owns the Bears.
This season didn’t end well, sure, but there’s still plenty to be happy about as a Bulls fan. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since Jimmy Butler got traded, and it’s been even longer since the Bulls were actually fun to watch.
That second part is personally my biggest takeaway from this season. Jimmy Butler was and is one of my favorite players in the NBA, but that Dwayne Wade, Rondo team was painful to watch, just like the team the year before that missed the playoffs.
Even in the best years of Thibs they weren’t fun, outside of whatever superhuman feats pre-torn-ACL Derrick Rose was pulling off. Those teams won. Those offenses were a slog. I love Joakim, but if your best passer was a center and your best scorer was 5’8”, you weren’t exactly setting the net on fire (that 2013 team is still my favorite ever, shout out Nate Robinson).
In a lot of ways this season felt like playing with house money. The Bulls were exciting to watch, and for a lot of the season they were way higher in the standings than anyone expected them to be, myself included. I said back in August this team’s ceiling was a 5-seed. It was just nice to be good again, nobody needed this team to actually contend.
Next year though…
I still don’t expect this team to contend. Not for a championship. To host a playoff series? That’s definitely in the cards. A couple moves on the fringes, better health, some progression from Ayo & Pat-Will and next year’s team could definitely be closer to the top of the East.
That’s the downside to surprise success. Unless you win a championship, the only reward you get is expectations. Part of the fun of this team was being able to watch them (kind of) stress-free. They weren’t supposed to be that good, so when they were it was awesome. When they suddenly weren’t, it wasn’t as frustrating as those Jimmy Butler teams falling short.
It’ll be interesting to see what Arturas Karnisovas (our lord and savior) does in the offseason. I don’t love the idea of Zach Lavine on a max contract, but it must be done. There are no obvious other moves to be made, except maybe trying as hard as you can to get off of Nikola Vucevic’s contract and adding some wing depth.
Regardless of the moves the Bulls make, I’m optimistic about the team improving next season. As a Chicago sports fan born the year after Michael Jordan retired, that’s an unfamiliar feeling.