On January 20, everything was looking up for the Chicago Bulls. At 28-15, they owned the top seed in the Eastern Conference more than halfway through the season while boasting a top-three offense. Newly-acquired DeMar DeRozan was stringing together MVP-caliber performances, Lonzo Ball was having a great first season as a Bull, and Zach LaVine not only continued to produce at a high level, but was also the healthiest he had been in years. Arguably the league’s biggest surprise, it looked as if those re-tooled Bulls were well on their way to the franchise’s most successful season in nearly a decade.
January 20 also marked the start of a downturn in the team’s season. That day, the Bulls announced that Ball would undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee that would ultimately end his season. A little over 24 hours later, Alex Caruso fractured his wrist against the Milwaukee Bucks, sidelining him for the Bulls’ next 22 games. Just like that, two vital pieces of the backbone of that team were down and out for extended periods of time.
With the pair sidelined, Chicago posted just an 18-21 record down the stretch of the season. Their 46 total wins were still enough to avoid the play-in tournament and lock up the East’s sixth seed, securing the team’s first playoff appearance in five years. But in the opening round, they fell victim to a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Bucks, ending what was looking like an especially promising season very early.
Now, with a full offseason to heal up and continue to bolster the roster, the Bulls are looking to improve upon last season’s disappointing finish and make it past the first round for the first time since 2015.
For the most part, it’s been a relatively quiet summer in Chicago. On draft night, they used the 18th overall pick to select promising Arizona wing Dalen Terry. In free agency, they brought in Andre Drummond to serve as the primary back-up to Nikola Vucevic and signed Goran Dragic to bolster their guard depth. They also inked LaVine to a massive five-year, $216 million extension that will keep him in Chicago until 2027.
Yet much like this past season, health will be the top story moving forward. Most notably, details regarding Ball’s recovery from the aforementioned knee surgery continue to remain murky. Various reports have hinted at concerns about possible setbacks that could jeopardize his availability come opening night. If proven to be true, it would be a truly unfortunate development given how well Ball has settled in with this Bulls team. Prior to his season ending, he was having his best year from beyond the arc (42.3 percent on 7.4 three-point attempts per game) while posting career highs in effective field goal percentage (56.7%) and steals per game (1.8). Chicago was 5.2 points better per 100 possessions with Ball in the lineup last season, having the equivalent of the league’s fourth-best defensive rating with him on the court (107) as opposed to the fourth-worst with him off the court (115.1).
Lonzo is not the only Bull currently recovering from some sort of ailment. Despite appearing in 67 games this past year, his most since his second year in the league, LaVine underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome left knee in May. Though all signs point to him making a full recovery prior to the start of the season, it’s still another injury to one of this team’s key cogs that will have to be monitored.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of things to look forward to with this Bulls squad. Chief among them, LaVine and DeRozan still form one of the league’s most formidable scoring duos, as both averaged more than 24 points per game this past season. DeRozan, in particular, put together one of the best years of his career en route to earning third team All-NBA honors. He posted a career-high 27.9 points per game, good for fifth-best in the league. He logged the second-most 35-plus point games, which included a stretch of seven-straight 35-point games while shooting 50 percent or better from the field, setting an NBA record. With him and LaVine on the floor, along with Vucevic at center, Chicago will no doubt have a steady stream of buckets.
Development from some young guys will also be worth following. Patrick Williams, who missed a large chunk of the regular season due to a dislocated wrist before returning in time for the playoffs, has already shown flashes of being a legitimate three-and-D option at the wing. 2021 second-rounder Ayo Dosunmu will be looking to carry over momentum from a breakout rookie campaign that saw him make the All-Rookie second team. Coby White, currently extension-eligible, will aim to earn himself a solid payday before potentially entering restricted free agency. All three of those guys figure to factor heavy into the Bulls’ nightly rotation.
All things considered, this should be a very good Bulls team, assuming everyone stays relatively healthy. Unfortunately for them, the East is shaping up to be an absolute bloodbath. The Celtics, Bucks, Sixers, Nets and Heat will all likely be vying for the top seeds. The tier below them should be just as merciless, with teams like the Raptors, Cavs, Hawks and Hornets all looking to take leaps this season. The conference is shaping up to be as competitive as it has ever been in recent history.
At this current juncture, it certainly looks like the Bulls are destined to find themselves in the same situation they were in last season, which is competitive purgatory: not good enough to be a surefire contender, but also not destined for the lottery. They have a strong roster that will win them a good amount of games, but it just doesn’t appear as though they have enough juice to keep up with the Joneses of the East.
But if certain things break their way, Ball and LaVine stay healthy, DeRozan continues to dominate, and the young guys flash noticeable improvement, you never know where this team could go. The NBA can be really, really weird sometimes, and they have some of the weapons a team needs to take advantage of that weirdness.