It was another disappointing end to a season for the Chicago Bulls, after finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference at 31-41. What made 2020-21 even worse was there was even more opportunity for the Bulls to make the playoffs with the addition of the play-in tournament, which allowed teams seeded 7-10 to fight for the final two postseason spots in the East. Still, Chicago fell short as a crucial injury to franchise star Zach LaVine at the tail end of the season proved to be too much to overcome.
However, the Bulls spent the entire offseason making moves to heighten their chances of getting to the playoffs, and ensuring that if LaVine were to miss time, it won’t completely derail the season. They made splashy moves by signing point guard Lonzo Ball, trading for four-time All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan and bringing defensive stalwart Alex Caruso into the fold. Chicago also managed to trade Lauri Markkanen in a three-way trade that landed it athletic wing Derrick Jones Jr. to fill out its depth.
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Add those moves to already acquiring All-Star forward Nikola Vucevic at last season’s trade deadline and the Bulls have made it abundantly clear that their intention is to build around LaVine with hopes of him re-signing to a new contract this summer. These moves also signal that Chicago is in win-now mode, and with its current roster construction, expectations will be high entering the 2021-22 season.
As Chicago tries to live up to those playoff expectations with new players in tow, here’s a look at their roster along with four reasons why they could be a threat in the East playoff race this season.
Chicago Bulls roster
1. LaVine set to shed ’empty stats’ label
When the Bulls tip off the 2021-22 season, LaVine has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of guys who have been given the “good stats, bad team” label. We saw Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker smash that narrative throughout last season, especially in the playoffs. Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young was following a similar path, but in his first postseason performance he led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals. Both players were given quality talent to work with in order to shed that label, and LaVine will have his chance this season.
LaVine took perhaps his biggest step toward being recognized as a bona fide star last season when he averaged a career-high 27.4 points to go along with some other career numbers in rebounds per game (5.0) and assists (4.9). His stat line earned him his first All-Star nod, but it didn’t equate to team success for the Bulls. That says less about LaVine and more about the Bulls’ lack of quality talent surrounding him on the roster. After all, he was the reason they won most of their games last season, and his improvement on defense last season showed that he’s committed to developing every aspect of his game.
His time playing for Team USA and being surrounded by world-class talent also gave him a glimpse of what winning on the biggest stage feels like. Unlike when he plays with the Bulls, LaVine wasn’t the star of the show on offense, which meant he had to be impactful in other ways. LaVine’s performance throughout the Olympics “blew the coaching staff away” with his work ethic, and commitment to defense, per NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson.
If you’re the Bulls that’s exactly what you want to hear, as the new additions to Chicago’s roster could mean in a shift in LaVine’s role, specifically not having the ball in his hands as much. He adapted to a different role well during the Olympics — averaging 9.7 points while shooting 60 percent from the field and 45 percent from deep — which should serve as a positive sign that he’ll be able to adjust to not having the ball in his hands as much in Chicago.
2. Ball fills a hole that hasn’t been filled since D-Rose
One reason LaVine won’t have the ball in his hands as much is because of Ball. It’s not outlandish to say Ball’s the best point guard the Bulls have had since Derrick Rose — one season of Rajon Rondo aside — because there really hasn’t been much competition for that title. Just look at the list of point guards who have filled the role before Ball:
That’s not to say these aren’t quality players — Payne continues to be a crucial piece for the Phoenix Suns off the bench — but all are more suitable as backups, not starters. But just because the bar for a quality point guard is low in Chicago based off their recent players doesn’t mean that Ball isn’t someone to get excited about, because he most certainly is.
The former No. 2 overall pick is joining the Bulls fresh off a career year with the New Orleans Pelicans, where he finished with 14.6 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds a game. Even more eye opening: He shot 37.8 percent from 3-point range, a far cry from the 30 percent mark he put up in his rookie season. His improved shooting mechanics has led to him becoming more efficient from everywhere on the floor — he shot a career-high 41.4 percent from the field last season — which will be crucial in Chicago’s ability to spread the floor.
Last season with the Pelicans, Ball ranked in the 73rd percentile in the league in spot-up jumpers, generating 1.108 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. With the multiple capable ballhandlers that the Bulls will deploy between him, LaVine and DeRozan, Ball’s ability to knock down those shots will be a necessity.
But Ball’s most impressive quality is his passing. Entering the league he was billed as a generational facilitator, and he delivered some jaw-dropping dimes to Zion Williamson in New Orleans. Now, though, Ball will be responsible for running Chicago’s offense, and is capable of putting guys like LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic in the right position to score.
3. Williams’ development after strong rookie campaign
One of the bright spots for the Bulls last season was watching the growth of Patrick Williams, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Entering the league he was getting compared to Kawhi Leonard, which is a lofty goal for a 20-year-old. But once you watch him play, you can see where the comparisons come from, and while he still has a ways to go before he can legitimately live up to those pre-draft comparisons, he started off on the right foot last season.
Williams became one of Chicago’s most capable defenders last season, often tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best players, and for the most part holding his own in the process. Defense is where rookies struggle the most in their first year in the league, and although Williams still has work to do on that end, he possesses an IQ on that end of the floor well beyond his years.
In this play below, Tobias Harris gets to his spot and makes the shot, but Williams doesn’t make it easy for him. He does a good job denying the ball at first, then manages to slip under the screen to avoid the switch and stays with Harris as he tries to shake Williams loose:
Williams did struggle with rotating to the open man on defense, but that’s something that will improve as he continues on in his career.
After a rookie season where Williams put up 9.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and averaged nearly a steal a game, he spent the summer training with Team USA for the Olympics as a member of the Select Team, and shining in the Las Vegas Summer League. He was named to the All-Summer League Second Team, and showed that he simply was just too good to be playing in Summer League after a 30-point, seven-rebound outburst in the Bulls second game of the tournament.
Williams was knocking down 3s, finishing strong in the paint and showing off some of his midrange game in a 22-point comeback win for Chicago. He finished the tournament averaging 21 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and shooting 43.8 percent from deep in three appearances.
It’s unrealistic to expect those same numbers from him in his second season, mainly because he won’t be the primary, or even second or third scorer on the team. However, to see him improve as a more assertive decision maker, and show that he can get buckets in a variety of ways if needed, is a bonus for a Bulls team that is a little short on depth outside its big-name acquisitions this summer.
4. DeRozan + Vucevic + LaVine = tons of points
Let’s get straight to the point: The Bulls are going to score A LOT of points. After finishing last season ranked 21st in the league in points per game (110.7), the Bulls should dramatically improve on that number with the addition of DeRozan, and a full season of Vucevic after acquiring him at the trade deadline last season.
The Bulls are adding one of the best isolation scorers in the game in DeRozan, who ranked in the 96th percentile last season with the Spurs in points per possession (1.195). Although there have been concerns about the fit between him, LaVine and Ball all in the backcourt, I don’t think it’ll be that big of an issue. As those three build chemistry and figure out how best to maximize all of their talents, I think we’ll forget that was ever a concern. Imagine a pick-and-pop combo of DeRozan and Vucevic with LaVine coming around an off-ball screen for an open look.
With the number of offensive weapons the Bulls now have at their disposal, new head coach Billy Donovan can afford to get creative with the sets he’s running on offense. The Bulls already ranked seventh in the league last season in assists per game (26.8). With more talented scorers and capable facilitators in Ball and DeRozan, the latter of whom averaged a career-high seven assists last season, that number should increase.
The Bulls could be one of the most exciting teams to watch on offense, and they’ll surely be one of the most intriguing to watch out of the gate. After four years of missing the postseason, Chicago may not only find itself in the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all if this team finished fourth or fifth in the East.