Zion Williamson is back and in better shape than ever. Meaning one of the most uniquely unstoppable forces in NBA history is in better physical condition than he has ever been. Combine that with joining a roster that proved they were a playoff team without him, and you have the recipe for an MVP season.
Where Do the Chicago Bulls Go From Here?
By: Khaqan Khan
The Chicago Bulls surprised everyone last year by making the biggest splash in free agency, signing Demar Derozan, Alex Caruso, and Lonzo Ball to pair with Zach Lavine and Nikola Vucevic. Safe to say, the Bulls exceed expectations. Before the season, it was unclear how Lavine and Derozan would fit next to each other. They put those conversations to rest as Lavine put up another efficient 20+ppg season, and Derozan had a career year. The Bulls were on track to get a home-court advantage in the playoffs before untimely injuries killed the momentum. They ended up falling to 6th and having to play the defending Champs, Milwaukee Bucks. The Bulls were without Lonzo Ball, and it didn't help Zach Lavine missed a few games due to covid protocol, but then again, this team never really felt like they had a realistic chance to make a finals run. So, where do they go from here?
The 2021-2022 season was a success. The Bulls are relevant again, but in this association, it's all about what's next. Consistently making the playoffs isn't enough. Just look at the state of the Utah Jazz. It's all about pushing for the finals. However, it's hard to imagine this Bulls team overcoming other established powerhouses in the eastern conference. So what do they do? It's likely we see the majority of the same roster run it back headed into the preseason.
It's unclear what the actual ceiling of this team is. Lonzo Ball's inability to stay healthy is a cause of concern because without him, the feisty point-of-attack defense loses steam, and the Bull's transition offense falters. Then there is the Vucevic conundrum. He was acquired to help space the floor for Lavine and Derozan, but his regression, paired with his lack of defensive versatility, will cause the front office to get ahead of the inevitable problem.
Taking from Bobby Mark's NBA Offseason Guide 2022: How the Chicago Bulls should approach the offseason:
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Vucevic recorded an effective field goal percentage of 44.7%, fifth-worst among 68 players to attempt 500 jumpers. Last year his effective field goal percentage was 52.6%. His 9% drop in 3-point shooting (from 40% to 31%) was the seventh-largest drop in the past two seasons. Only Cade Cunningham and Russell Westbrook shot worse from three this season.
If Vucevic can't bring out the other team's big out of the paint and can't hold his ground against switches or be effective in drop coverage, then the Bulls aren't going to reach the finals. That leads to the biggest off-season need for the Bulls, another front-court player/stretch 4 for Vucevic insurance.
Vucevic is a consummate pro. I am sure he's going to put in the work this off-season to get back to his all-star standard. Then again, he's owed 22 million dollars with one year left on his contract, making him tradable. However, the Bulls would probably hold off on making any moves until they sort out the Lavine situation.
Zach Lavine is eligible for a 5-year, $212 million contract. The uber-athletic, elite-jump shooter outplayed his team-friendly contract.
Depending on what Lavine wants, the Bulls are set up perfectly for him. His deficiencies included playmaking and defense. Though he improved incrementally, Lavine is best when he's just relied on scoring. Playing alongside Ball, Caruso, and Derozan frees Lavine from worrying about defense and creating for others.
Taking from Bobby Mark's NBA Offseason Guide 2022: How the Chicago Bulls should approach the offseason:
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, over the past two seasons, LaVine is one of four players to average 25 points and shoot 40% on 3-pointers, along with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving. He also ranked in the top 10 in clutch field goal percentage among 65 players with at least 40 shots this season (as did DeRozan)
It depends on what Lavine wants. If he wants money and a chance to win in a big market, re-signing with the Bulls is the easy choice. If, for whatever reason, he doesn't like the outlook of the Bulls, he has plenty of options. However, not many are the number 1 option. It's been reported the Trail Blazers, the Mavericks, and Lavar Ball himself speculated Lavine wants to play for the Lakers. So, you know, I think we can write it in ink: Lavine to the Lakers confirmed! Though I doubt it, the speculation that Lavine wasn't a fan of becoming a sidekick to Derozan when Lavine was supposed to be the face of the franchise is plausible. If Lavine wants to be the number one guy, that only leaves one team . . . The New York Knicks!
Before Knickerbocker fans wet their boxers, let's just say it's unlikely Lavine turns down extra money to leave the Bulls. Then again, for fake-trades sake, let's imagine Lavine lets the Bulls know he plans on signing elsewhere. What could the Bulls get in return in a sign-n-trade for Lavine?
3 trades that I like for the Bulls include:
Lavine to the Hornets for Terry Rozier and PJ Washington.
Bulls mitigate Lavine's scoring output with Rozier's 19ppg on 44% shooting and add front-court depth with Washington, who is capable of spacing the floor and has more defensive upside than any other Bull's bigs. Hornets hand Lamelo the ultimate lob threat, and Lavine gets to thrive in a fast-paced transition offense.
2. Lavine for John Collins and Kevin Huerter?
The Hawks have been willing to move off Collins for a while now. Perhaps this could be a mutually beneficial trade? The Hawks get another dynamic offensive creator next to Trae Young. While Lavine isn't going to move the needle on defense, he is an upgrade in size compared to the other Hawk's perimeter players. Lavine would enjoy playing off Young's gravity and elite open floor passing. The Bulls, in return would get two-way frontcourt help. Maybe even a potential small-ball 5 in Collins?
3. Zach Lavine to...the...Lakers?
I know I joked above about Lavine landing with the Lakers, but there is genuine mutual interest. However, getting that deal done would require so many moving parts in favor of the Lakers mainly getting off Westbrook's contract, which would require the Lakers to give up assets to entice a team to take Westbrook's $50 million contract. There just isn't a team in desperate need of Westbrook's skillset. Even if they did pull it off, it would then require the Lakers to have pieces that would help facilitate a trade between them and Chicago. I know ESPN will push this narrative, but let's be real here...Billy Donovan does not want to coach Westbrook again.
Regardless of Lavine leaving or not, the Bulls need more offensive output from Patrick Williams. Taken 4th overall in the 2020 draft and aptly nicknamed 'the Paw' for resembling a baby version of Kawhi Leonard, Williams is already one of the most important defenders in the league. Playing alongside Lavine and Derozan, two players not known for defense, Williams was often matched up with the other team's best offensive player. However, he has had minimal involvement on the offensive side. Averaging only seven shots in his first 88 games in the league. Regardless of the roster construction, I think it's in the Bull's best interest to increase William's usage. He has all the tools to follow the Paul George-Jaylen Brown-Kawhi Leonard-esque trajectory of an athletic defensive wing evolving into a reliable offensive scorer. Williams even resembles Kawhi whenever he takes an elbow jumper. Williams missed most of the season due to a wrist injury and was an overshadowed 'what-if' last season. Look for Williams to get back on track and become an untouchable piece of the Bulls' core.
Other moves the Bulls have to make
- Trading Coby White for depth
- The former lottery pick was unable to find consistent playing time last season. Usually, in cases like these, teams often swap disappointing lottery picks for other disappointing lottery picks (Josh Green?). White could be used to acquire a backup big or swap of point guards with different playing styles.
2. Trading the 18th pick for a high-end rotation player
- Attaching White with the 18th pick in a trade might help the Bulls land more of a significant difference-maker. This all depends on how teams value the 18th pick. The last three 18th overall picks include Goga Bitazde, Josh Green, and Tre Mann. Decent prospects, but the Bulls need someone who can contribute sooner than later. Then again, they drafted Ayo Dosumu in the second round last year. Maybe they hit the bullseye two years in a row?
3. Add depth via Free Agency
The main priority is re-signing Lavine, but that doesn't mean the Bulls can't add depth via free agency. Here are some free agents I think the Bulls should take a look at:
These might require some cap realignment, but I think they all could become key rotation pieces.
Overall, I am intrigued by what route the Bulls take to improve into a contending team. They have enough pieces around their key players to improve along the margins. They have shown they are willing to be aggressive, which might mean trading Nikola Vucevic two years after they made a splash trade to acquire him. Then again, health, continuity, and internal improvement might help them take the leap. The combination of young(er) talent surrounding Vucevic and Derozan means the team has upside, which could see the front office be more patient and examine how things look coming back from the off-season. I feel confident locking the Bulls in for the playoffs. I don't, however, feel confident they will be able to make it out of the first round. Then again, I thought the team wouldn't work after they signed Demar Derozan last year.
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