Billy Donovan knows very little is promised in the NBA from season to season.
Especially true when a team goes from afterthought to sitting atop the Eastern Conference like the Bulls did for weeks in the middle of the 2021-22 campaign.
But with the year ending poorly, courtesy of a first-round exit by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games, Donovan wasn’t assuming anything moving forward.
“We’ll actually have to work harder going into this offseason and next year to get back to this point,” Donovan said, when discussing a return to the postseason. “I think a lot of people were uncertain of what our team would look like, and I think as [this Bulls team] started to go through the year they earned and gained more respect around the league. I think it will be a lot harder next year.
“Because we got to this point there’s nothing guaranteed next year. What our approach and mentality will be next year going into training camp will be critically important for us to build off some of the positive things that happened this year.”
And the path the Bulls feel will best ensure that return to the postseason? Continuity.
That was the buzzword used for days during the exit-meeting interviews, and that sounded like the formula executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas was banking on.
“Not the way we want to finish, but we got back to the postseason and we have time now to figure it out, what we’re going to do this summer,” Karnisovas said. “I hope for continuity because we’re constantly competing against teams that have been together for three, four, five years. Results come obviously when you keep the same group when you keep the same group longer. We’ll figure out what additions we need. Is that shooting, is that defense, is that size, athleticism? So we’re going to sit down and figure it out with the group.”
A plan, indeed, but is it the right plan?
Miami finished atop the Eastern Conference, and the core of that roster will return. Boston has its “Big Three” of Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown locked in, along with key pieces Robert Williams and Al Horford. And the Bucks aren’t moving off Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday anytime soon.
Philadelphia has some intrigue with the James Harden player option, but as long as they have the Bull-killer in Joel Embiid, they should be a threat.
That’s four teams that not only finished in front of the Bulls, but went a combined 14-1 head-to-head this season. Also four teams that are headlined with elite two-way players. A key component that this Bulls roster lacks.
Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic are all great scorers, but aren’t messing with anyone’s game plan with their defense, while Patrick Williams has a long way to grow on both ends of the floor. Lonzo Ball is the best two-way player the starting group has, but is a fourth option offensively and remains an injury concern.
So while continuity with this core sounded good, that’s also why Karnisovas was asked if the make-up of this roster was flawed and worth bringing back as is.
“The small sample we had at the beginning of the season I thought was pretty good,” Karnisovas said. “We understand our roster and any shortcomings. I think it’s also, long season, lots of lineups, it’s very hard to find your identity defensively when your lineup is constantly changing.
“There’s definitely a lot of room to improve. For us to compete, we have to be top-10 in both offense and defense. We’ll try to figure out how to get there. I think another year under the belt will serve them well.”
BULLS FREE AGENTS
Zach LaVine – SG – (unrestricted) – 27 years old – The two-time All-Star is seeking a max deal after outplaying a four-year, $78-million deal he signed back in 2018.
Derrick Jones Jr. – SF – (unrestricted) – 25 years old – The former dunk champion played a key role in the first half of the season, but often had to play out of position.
Troy Brown Jr. – SG – (unrestricted) – 22 years old – Brown lost playing time to rookie Ayo Dosunmu, and fell out of a regular rotation spot.
Tristan Thompson – C – (unrestricted) – 31 years old – The veteran was a needed frontcourt body, but didn’t make the impact that was hoped for.
Tyler Cook – PF – (unrestricted/two-way contract) – 25 years old – Played in 19 games pre-All-Star when the Bulls were short-handed and had a few moments.
Matt Thomas – SG – (restricted) – 28 years old – Was supposed to give the Bulls an outside threat off the bench, but barely played in the second half of the season.
Malcolm Hill – F – (restricted/two-way contract) – 26 years old – Hill saw playing time when the Bulls were short-handed pre-All-Star Break.