The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Bulls have three all-stars and zero franchise players

DeMar DeRozan (11) has played well, but the Chicago Bulls are stuck below the top tier of the Eastern Conference. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from Ben Golliver’s NBA Post Up weekly newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news and commentary and the best high jinks from #NBATwitter and R/NBA delivered to your inbox every Monday.

The first month of the NBA season has seen several big bets backfire, from the Los Angeles Lakers’ ill-conceived trade for Russell Westbrook to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ polarizing summer gamble on Rudy Gobert. Even Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s breakout campaign for the Oklahoma City Thunder has been a reminder that the Los Angeles Clippers have yet to reach the Finals after trading the standout guard, five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for Paul George in 2019.

While the wayward Chicago Bulls have taken a different path to disappointment, they shouldn’t get lost in this sea of second-guessing. Rather than going all-in with a franchise-changing trade, the Bulls made medium-sized bets with the goal of reclaiming respectability and constructing a perennial playoff contender. But after last season’s thrilling 46-win run ended with a thud in the first round, Chicago is off to a disjointed and uninspired start, having lost six of its past seven games entering Monday. With hard feelings bubbling to the surface and a long road trip looming, the Bulls’ master plan has started to look like a shortcut to nowhere, leading Coach Billy Donovan to challenge his team after a last-second loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday.

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“I’m a big believer that in the game of basketball, you get what you earn,” Donovan said. “Your record says exactly who you are. We’re a 6-10 team. I’ve got great affection for this team, but as a group we have to pull ourselves out of it and we have to invest more and put more into it. … We can’t be externally motivated by the scoreboard. We have to be internally motivated to play to a standard.”

Years of losing can force a team’s hand and increase its risk tolerance, and that’s the environment Arturas Karnisovas walked into when he was hired to lead Chicago’s front office in April 2020. The Bulls had just won fewer than 30 games for the third straight season, and Karnisovas was inheriting a young roster lacking in proven talent beyond scoring guard Zach LaVine.

With an eye toward an accelerated turnaround, Karnisovas proceeded to trade young players and picks for center Nikola Vucevic in March 2021, sign DeMar DeRozan to a three-year, $82 million contract in August 2021, ink Lonzo Ball to a four-year, $80 million deal that same month and then re-sign LaVine to a five-year, $215 million max extension this summer. The net result was a more experienced roster composed of three offensive-minded leaders in DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic, flanked by a supporting cast of defensive-minded role players such as Ball and Alex Caruso. That new-look group accomplished its top-line goal when it snapped Chicago’s four-year playoff drought last season.

While each of Karnisovas’s major moves was defensible, there was plenty of room to quibble with all of them. Vucevic was a reliable stat-stuffer, but he was also a defensive liability. DeRozan was a proven volume scorer and a fan favorite, but he was 32 years old when he debuted for the Bulls and unlikely to emerge as the best player on a contender after countless playoff disappointments. Ball was an excellent fit as a low-usage playmaker and versatile defender, but his early career was marred by persistent injury issues. LaVine had enjoyed a career-year in 2020-21 by averaging 27.4 points per game and shooting 41.9 percent on three-pointers, but his so-so distribution skills and subpar defense seemed destined to hold him back from becoming a transcendent talent.

One by one, Chicago’s building blocks have started to show cracks. Vucevic has seen his offensive role drop dramatically with the Bulls, as he sometimes has struggled to find a niche in a guard-dominated offense. Meanwhile, Chicago ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency last season and was overwhelmed by Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs.

Both Ball and LaVine have battled knee injuries over the past 12 months, adding instability to Chicago’s day-to-day reality. Ball hasn’t played since Jan. 14 and still doesn’t have a clear return timetable. LaVine, meanwhile, is back on the court, but he is off to a slow shooting start and was benched down the stretch of Friday’s loss to the Magic, finishing with a season-low four points on 1-for-14 shooting. After Donovan defended the benching as a “one-off” decision that was in the team’s best interests, LaVine still sounded irked by the move.

“That’s Billy’s decision,” LaVine said. “He’s got to lay with it. Do I agree with it? No. I think I can go out there and still be me, even if I’m missing shots. That’s his decision. He has to stand on it.”

Throughout the past two seasons, DeRozan has performed as well as anyone could have hoped, earning some scattered MVP buzz by averaging a career-high 27.9 points per game last year. But he, like LaVine and Vucevic, made little impact against Milwaukee in the postseason. That left Chicago looking like a team that has three all-stars on paper but zero franchise players capable of rising to the occasion in the biggest moments.

Donovan said last week that he expects more from his core trio, especially early in games, but it’s unclear whether DeRozan, now 33, has any untapped ability. It’s similarly unclear whether the Bulls would be able to extract anything of consequence if they were to put their headliners on the trade block.

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“[Donovan] said the right thing,” DeRozan said, accepting a shared responsibility for Chicago’s lackluster play. “It definitely is on us. We’ve got to take on that challenge and be better, defensively and offensively. We’ve got to lead better. We’re the older guys in that starting group, and we’ve got to set the tone.”

The Eastern Conference’s changing competitive landscape has further complicated Chicago’s long-term outlook. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks have climbed up the standings after major offseason trades for Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray, respectively. Both Cleveland and Atlanta sacrificed more assets in their deals than Chicago did for Vucevic, but Mitchell and Murray are cleaner fits with their new star teammates. Looking ahead to the next three years, the Cavaliers and Hawks appear to have much brighter futures than the Bulls given their relative youth and top-end talent.

Without a superstar anchor like Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant or Joel Embiid, Chicago’s hopes for a deep postseason run were reliant upon a high-powered offense and seamless chemistry. So far, the Bulls rank 22nd in offense as they cope with injury issues and too many ball-dominant scorers. If Cleveland, Atlanta and younger teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers are going to consistently outwork them, the Bulls’ window to make real noise will slam shut before it ever really opened.