Bulls

Chicago’s Outlook Remains Uncertain Amid Team’s Down Season

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What comes up must come down.

That just about exemplifies a Chicago Bulls franchise that is continuing its fall from grace this season after a superb 2021-2022 campaign.

Prior to last season, Chicago hadn’t secured a spot in the playoffs since 2018, finishing with a losing record for four straight seasons as the team lacked direction.

But, the Bulls underwent a complete turnaround two offseasons ago, acquiring San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan to pair with three-leveled scorer Zach Lavine and former Orlando All-Star Nikola Vucevic, who Chicago traded for in 2020-2021. It was a lot to give up in hindsight: roster flexibility, multiple first-round picks, and taking on the tall task of building a team around three offensive scorers who lacked defensive upside.

But, the overhaul worked (at least to start). Chicago finished 46-36 last season, the most wins by the franchise since the Bulls went 50-32 back in 2015. As an added bonus, DeRozan earned an All-NBA second-team selection.

Since then, it’s been all downhill for the Bulls this year.

Chicago currently sits four games under .500 (20-24) with tons of questions facing the franchise moving forward. Will Lonzo Ball return to his pre-injury self? Can Vucevic overcome his now multi-year offensive struggles? What is to make of Lavine’s and DeRozan’s recent chemistry concerns this season? How does the trade deadline impact Chicago’s future for the rest of this year?

As we approach NBA trade season, the Bulls remain the league’s most fascinating team in terms of its direction. A lot could happen between now and February, especially as the trade deadline nears.

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How did Chicago get here?

This season’s struggles by Chicago stem from the franchise’s desire to return to immediate relevancy at the expense of a long-term rebuild.

During its 31-41 campaign in 2021, Chicago traded for Nikola Vucevic, an aging former All-Star center approaching his mid-thirties. In the deal, the Bulls forked over a lot of rebuild capital, including two promising youngsters (Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner) to Orlando while taking on the remaining three years and $72 million left on Vucevic’s deal.

Broadly speaking, the Bulls sat in the NBA’s “no man’s land” even with Lavine and then Vucevic on the team. Prior to the 2021-2022 season, the Bulls won between 22 and 31 games in the past four years. The franchise never embraced a full-on teardown or youth movement.

But, trading for DeRozan continued Chicago’s “win now” focus. Yes, the Bulls turned into a borderline playoff team in one fell swoop in 2022. However, the team’s ceiling was never high no matter how good the floor turned out to be.

And now, everything seems to be crashing back down.

Lavine’s uncertain future with the Bulls culminated in chemistry concerns and trade rumors galore. Vucevic’s persistent struggles continue with another year of declines in points and shots per game (not to mention his defensive limitations). Chicago’s basis for success last season (performance in the clutch) turned into its downfall so far this season.

That’s all culminated together in what’s been a down year for the Bulls.

What’s gone wrong this year?

To keep things simple, Chicago doesn’t excel in any one particular team.

The numbers so far prove that the Bulls aren’t anything more than a middle-of-the-pack team. Chicago ranks 18th in offensive efficiency and 17th in defensive efficiency. The team is actually pretty efficient on offense, but its lack of rebounding and volume makes its offensive ceiling limited. And defensively, Chicago ranks towards the bottom in opponent defensive rebounds per game (25th), opponent three-point attempts and percentage (both 27th), and opponents assists per game (29th).

Overall, the Bulls are incredibly streaky. The team will win three games in a row, then drop two or three in a row. In fact, Chicago hasn’t won more than three games in a row all season, but it also hasn’t lost more than four in a row either.

Early-season injuries to Lavine and Ball complicate matters. Is this team better when fully healthy? Or, is the ceiling of this iteration of the Bulls limited to a fringe playoff team, at best?

That leads the franchise into an intriguing predicament moving forward this season…

An interesting trade deadline awaits

As of now, Chicago remains the most fascinating team to watch for as the All-Star break approaches.

This is a team that lacks a clear direction, with more questions and uncertainties than definites on its roster.

On the one hand, Chicago still sits in the Play-In Tournament conversation, only trailing the six-seeded Knicks by four games. It could easily surge in the second half of the season and sneak into a playoff berth.

However, the Bulls are also just three games separated from the 13th-seeded Magic. Behind Chicago are Washington, Toronto, and Orlando, none of which are intending to bottom out.

So, Chicago can stand pat and let this season play out. Or, it could go on the aggressive.

With the Bulls stuck in NBA purgatory, trade rumors involving DeRozan, Lavine, and Vucevic will continue as February approaches. Contenders will definitely have their eyes on Alex Caruso and some of the other Bulls’ rotation players.

To an extent, Chicago could set the market for this year’s trade deadline. If it chooses to or not is entirely the franchise’s choice.

With a little over half its games under the franchise’s belt this season, the Bulls sit in an uncomfortable and difficult situation from a team-building context.

But, with all the uncertainty, one thing is guaranteed: this year’s Bulls team is definitely not the same as last year’s.

About Dominic Chiappone

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