The Chicago Bulls have had an aggressive approach in rebuilding their roster and now head into next season with a fairly talented group of players ready to suit up.
Chicago has struggled to find much success of late, however, and has not been able to make it beyond the first round of the playoffs in any of the past six seasons. But as they hope to break the streak of four consecutive years without a berth in the postseason, there are mixed opinions about whether or not their squad will mesh well enough to make much noise.
Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Bulls campaign.
Returning: Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Coby White, Troy Brown, Javonte Green and Devon Dotson
Additions: DeMar DeRozan (Toronto), Lonzo Ball (New Orleans), Derrick Jones (Portland), Alex Caruso (LA Lakers), Stanley Johnson (Toronto), Tony Bradley (Oklahoma City), Alize Johnson (Brooklyn), Tyler Cook (Detroit), Matt Thomas (Utah), Marko Simonovic (Mega Basket), Ayo Dosumnu (Illinois) and Ethan Thompson (Oregon State)
Departures: Thaddeus Young (San Antonio), Tomas Satoransky (New Orleans), Al-Farouq Aminu (San Antonio), Cristiano Felicio (Ulm), Lauri Markkanen (Cleveland), Daniel Theis (Houston), Garrett Temple (New Orleans) and Denzel Valentine (Cleveland)
* They have a player who is finally settling into his stride… When the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2017, much of their future success gambled on the shoulders of Zach LaVine. While he was a solid scorer during each of his first three seasons with the team, LaVine took his game to the next level in 2020-21. He averaged a career-best 27.4 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent from beyond the arc, which is a better mark than he had ever recorded before as well. Chicago will only go as far as LaVine carries them but based on what we’ve seen from him at every level of late, including for Team USA at the Olympics in Tokyo, he has a lot to offer his team. If the team plays well and he takes another step forward, he could be an All-NBA candidate.
* Their pick-and-roll combination is one of the best in the NBA… LaVine is Chicago’s star but the Bulls front office decided it would be wise to cash in a developing young big man, Wendell Carter Jr., for a win-now option player in the frontcourt, Nikola Vucevic. The duo will play a strong two-man game when they run ball screen actions once they establish their chemistry. LaVine has always been a threat to score but he has never had someone as lethal on the pick-and-pop as Vucevic. While they didn’t have a ton of opportunity to play together this past season, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with on the screen-and-pop because of the way that Vucevic can float to the perimeter.
* They have one of the more competitive starting lineups in the league… Even though LaVine and Vucevic are the team’s premier players, Chicago’s got some serious talent that surrounds them. Their big offseason move was to land DeMar DeRozan, a four-time All-Star who has scored at least 20 points per game in each of the past eight seasons. While his veteran presence will help them in their playoff push, they will assuredly get solid contributions from other offseason addition in Lonzo Ball, who is still just 23 years old – younger than Sacramento Kings rookie guard Davion Mitchell. Ball provides value as a playmaker, defender and rebounder. But Chicago’s biggest step forward may come from the natural development of the 20-year-old forward Patrick Williams, who showed a ton of potential both last season and then again during summer league.
* Frontcourt depth is a serious problem… Chicago’s frontcourt has a great player in Vucevic but otherwise, the pickings get slim pretty fast. His backup, Tony Bradley, has little experience playing meaningful minutes. Bradley is not someone fans will feel confident in as the starter if Vucevic ever has to miss extended time. They will also offer extended minutes to Derrick Jones Jr., acquired in a three-team deal that sent away former Bulls lottery pick Lauri Markkanen. Jones, who is shooting 29.4 percent from beyond the arc in his career, doesn’t bring the floor spacing Markkanen ever provided.
* Turnovers are an issue for this group… Last season, 15.0 percent of the team’s offensive possessions ended in a turnover. That was the second-worst mark in the Eastern Conference, per NBA.com. Meanwhile, they only forced turnovers on 12.7 percent of defensive possessions – which ranked poorly as the third-worst mark in the East. LaVine and Williams, especially, need to be less erratic because turnovers are a sure-fire way to shoot yourself in the foot and cost yourself big moments down the stretch. Plus, they need to step up their defensive playmaking on the other end of the floor.
* Do they have enough to actually move the needle? When dissecting the roster for the Bulls, one name that comes to mind as a team that had similar vibes is the 2020-21 New Orleans Pelicans. Was there a lot of talent on that team? Sure. But did that amount to winning? Not exactly. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Bulls made the playoffs. They have so many different ways to score, especially if Ball becomes a more consistent option as a shooter. But does anyone think that Chicago has what it takes to match up against the top dogs. Maybe the Bulls make the postseason. But it’s unclear if they have enough playoff experience to get past the first round, and being a middle-of-the-road team is one of the worst places to be in the NBA.
* After having arguably the most aggressive offseason league-wide revamping their roster, the Bulls will now need to test out their new core and see what they’ve got. They are set to play with a relatively small lineup after trading Thaddeus Young as part of their package for DeRozan. They are loaded at the guard spots and have plenty of center depth but are very light on power forwards. That is one position they could target in a player through the trade deadline. Such a trade should become easier to make past December when most of their roster becomes trade-eligible.
* The Bulls still have some flexibility on their roster to make additional moves. They are sitting on a $5 million trade exception they created by trading Daniel Theis to the Houston Rockets. They also have $29 million in potential salary fodder between their four highest bench players who aren’t on minimum salaries. Chicago is currently sitting $4.7 million below the luxury tax so that could limit just how much more aggressive they wish to be on the trade market. On the flip side, they are just $10.1 million below the hard cap, so they are also limited in terms of how aggressive they could be.
* LaVine is eligible for an extension but he likely won’t sign it. This is solely because the four-year, $105 million extension he is currently eligible for is far below the projected five-year, $207 million maximum contract he can re-sign with the Bulls for next summer. While Chicago could’ve used cap space to renegotiate LaVine’s $19.5 million salary to a maximum salary and extend him for an additional four years, they correctly utilized their flexibility to build the best possible team they can around him. Even if the Bulls fail to make the playoffs again, he is still a good bet to re-sign with them given how little cap space there is elsewhere. Vucevic is also currently eligible for an extension worth up to three years, $85.5 million. He can only sign it during the offseason.
– Yossi Gozlan
3rd in the Central Division, 9th in the Eastern Conference