The 2021-2022 Chicago Bulls’ campaign was a tale of two seasons. They started 26-11 and had the 5th best net rating in the league through January 11, while holding the top spot in the Eastern Conference as late as February 25.
As injuries began to pile-up with Patrick Williams and Alex Caruso both suffering significant wrist injuries, Lonzo Ball tearing his meniscus, and Zach LaVine dealing with a knee issue, they limped to the finish line.
Chicago went 19-25 in their last 44 games before Milwaukee made quick work of them in the first round of the playoffs, winning the series in five games with an average margin of victory of 19.25 points.
There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Bulls heading into the summer, as they attempt to determine whether the first half of the season reflected something real, or if they’re actually closer to the team we saw in the latter portion of the year. Let’s explore three specific questions worth asking heading into this off-season:
Should the Chicago Bulls offer Zach LaVine a max contract?
The biggest piece of the puzzle that will need to fall into (or out of) place is LaVine, who heads to unrestricted free agency. There are so many intricate moving parts in this particular situation, including the fact that the Bulls decided to kick the can down the road last summer, choosing to use their available resources to improve the team around LaVine, rather than extend his contract.
To a certain extent, the plan worked; Chicago spent significant dollars to acquire Caruso, Ball, and DeMar DeRozan, helping the Bulls to the most successful regular season since 2014-2015. All that said, no matter how much weight you put on the injury problems, the end result was a quick first-round playoff exit with LaVine often playing second fiddle to DeRozan. One would think that leads to questions on both sides: do the Bulls want to offer the max to LaVine, a deal that would reportedly pay him $212 million over five years, tying up a significant portion of their cap for a roster that might not be good enough to win a title? If they do extend that offer, does LaVine want to stay, or is he intrigued by the idea of playing somewhere else and willing to take less money to do so?
LaVine was willing to play through a significant left knee injury for a good portion of the season, including the postseason. Unfortunately, that same issue is going to force a scope procedure this summer, raising concerns over his long-term health. It’s the same knee in which LaVine tore his ACL in 2017, which further complicates matters.
Despite the concern over the knee, LaVine just turned 27 years old and is an extremely efficient, high-volume scorer with career 46.1%/38.6%/83.0% shooting splits. He’s coming off his second straight all-star season and is the last remaining piece of the Jimmy Butler trade. Chicago cannot afford to have him leave for nothing, while finding realistic and workable sign-and-trade deals is difficult. It seems safe to expect the Bulls to offer LaVine the full max and hope he comes back ready to help Chicago make a leap.
Which direction do they go in the NBA draft?
The cost of the Nikola Vucevic trade included two first-round draft picks: one in 2021 and another in 2023. Fortunately, Ayo Dosunmo was available for Chicago in the second round last year and played at a much higher level than what you would anticipate from the 38th player off the board. The Bulls are without a first-round pick again in 2023 and assuming the front office can continue to find hidden gems late in the draft is unrealistic, placing increased importance on getting the 2022 selection right.
The Bulls hold the 18th pick and have multiple holes to fill on the roster. They are woefully short on big, sturdy wings, often asking Caruso, Ball, and Dosumno to defend at significant size disadvantages. With that in mind, do they look at Tari Eason, a 6-foot-8 swingman from LSU? If there is concern that Ball’s knee injury might continue to linger, perhaps another reliable ball-handler like Ochai Agbaji of Kansas intrigues them. With one year left on Vucevic’s contract, they may try to find his successor in Auburn’s Walker Kessler.
Knowing that their next first-round pick won’t come until 2024, they could explore moving up. Does packaging Coby White with the 18th pick entice another team to move down a couple spots? Whichever route the Bulls go, they’ll likely need immediate production from the selection in order to seriously compete next year.
Is there an upgrade over Nikola Vucevic available?
At the time of the deal last March, it was hard to not be excited about the trade that brought Vucevic to Chicago. The price of Wendell Carter Jr. plus two first-round picks was certainly steep, but it seemed clear that LaVine was growing frustrated with the constant sub-par rosters surrounding him. Vucevic represented the best teammate LaVine would share the floor with in a Bulls uniform, giving him a legitimate 2-man game partner who made two all-star teams.
Even heading into last summer, it appeared as though the move was going to pay off, with Vucevic averaging 21.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in 26 games with Chicago after the trade on shooting splits of 47.1%/38.8%/87.0%. We also have to consider the effect of having Vucevic on the roster, and how differently the outlook of the team must have appeared to DeRozan and Ball as they made decisions in free agency.
Although it would have been impossible for anyone to predict Vucevic’s 3-point shooting would fall off a cliff, all that matters is he simply didn’t produce at a level close to justifying the price Chicago paid to get him. He shot just 31.4% from behind the arc on 4.5 attempts per game, which included prolonged slumps where his confidence seemed to waver. Combining the shooting woes with the fact that he’s a subpar defender with limited athletic tools, the Bulls might need to explore avenues to improve at the center spot.
Considering Phoenix’s shocking postseason collapse and head coach Monty Williams’s comments after their game 7 loss to Dallas, it would certainly seem that Deandre Ayton is available.
The Bulls and Spurs have a recent history of completing deals, so perhaps Chicago could pry Jakob Poeltl away from San Antonio. If there is an intriguing big man available for the Bulls to take with the 18th pick in the draft, maybe they can move Vucevic for wing depth.
With one year left on his contract at $22 million, in addition to the Bulls lack of assets, it’s hard to imagine workable deals that makes sense for both sides. That said, Chicago’s front office should leave no stone unturned.
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