The last time the Bulls were at .500 was November 7.
The Bulls improved to 6-6 that night by beating the Toronto Raptors by 14 points. In doing so, the team pushed itself into the top-five in many defensive metrics and, importantly, ranked 12th in net rating.
Furthermore, the Bulls — who unceremoniously sported a 1-14 record last season against the top-4 teams in the Eastern Conference — had seemingly discovered a path in overcoming quality opponents, beating the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics in consecutive games.
For the most part, there were signs this team could be a tough, respectable ball club.
Then the next 17 games happened.
The Bulls have lost 12 of their last 17 games, the latest coming in Sunday’s ugly 150-126 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Their defense has cratered, falling from fifth overall to 20th. Their net rating has slumped too, sinking from 12th to 25th. It’s hardly surprising the team has posted a 29.4 winning percentage over this stretch of games.
The worst part? The above largely occurred against opponents who the Bulls projected themselves to be ahead of in the standings.
This past week has underscored the woes plaguing the Bulls: A dramatic overtime loss to an undermanned Atlanta Hawks, followed by back-to-back defeat to the New York Knicks, only to be beaten to a pulp by a Timberwolves outfit missing Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Instead of seizing upon a weak slates of games and advancing up the standings, an ageing, win-now Bulls roster has capitulated toward the bottom.
The Bulls weren’t expecting this.
The plan, as proclaimed by executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas during a media day press conference, was to get back to the postseason and build upon last season’s first-round exit.
It’s safe to say that plan isn’t close to materializing. Instead, the inverse seems more appropriate. By design or otherwise, the Bulls are falling back into another period of bad, losing basketball.
Unfortunately, that’s the reality. In fact, their recent form suggests playing for the future makes significantly more sense than pursuing a path back into play-in contention (assuming the latter is even possible).
The Bulls need to pivot. They need to blow this thing to pieces.
I hate saying as much. I hoped I wouldn’t need to. I wanted to root for a good, fun Bulls team. I didn’t care if it amounted to nothing more than a competitive loss in the first-round of the postseason. For me, at least, that was more appealing than feigning excitement over YouTube highlights of raw 18-year-old prospects.
Despite there being ample time for things to change, I have no confidence that it will. Seeing the Bulls allow 150 points to the Timberwolves will do that to a person. This team has let go of the rope. They’re done.
Sure, other options exist. Pivoting doesn’t need to be the nuclear option. If the Bulls can swing a trade for readymade players that better fit as a collective than this current core does, they should. The Raptors are free-falling, too. If both teams desperately want to rescue their season, perhaps they could broker a deal centered around Zach LaVine and Fred Van Vleet? Should assistance be required, I’m more than happy to email Karnišovas and Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri a raft of trade machine proposals.
(No, friends, the Indiana Pacers will not accept Nikola Vučević in any trade for Myles Turner, nor will the Los Angeles Lakers be trading Anthony Davis to Chicago. That’s likely common knowledge, but you know, just in case.)
Retooling the roster and salvaging a wayward season doesn’t seem likely. Really, the only notable pathway forward is actively choosing to go backward.
The Bulls need to rebuild.
Doing so is hardly ideal when the team doesn’t control the rights to their 2023 draft pick — the pick will convey to the Orlando Magic should it fall outside of the top four. But, hey, maybe they get lucky and retain their pick?
And if not, well, what other choice do the Bulls have?
Start the purge.
Beyond this season, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan have two and one years remaining on their contracts, respectively. Nikola Vučević will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.
All three aren’t long for Chicago. All three need to be traded.
Doing so is in the best interests of the Bulls. Move these players to whichever contender offers you the most enticing offer. Trade them in separate transactions or as a package deal. It doesn’t matter. Just move them. It makes sense for the Bulls, but also the players. DeRozan has given this franchise his all since his arrival. Return the favor by ensuring his last peak seasons aren’t wasted on a team whose timeline doesn’t align with his.
Once that task has been ticked off, the next order of business is deciding which role guys you want to keep and, more importantly, finding new franchises for those who are no longer needed.
Javonte Green is an expiring contract at season’s end. Andre Drummond and Derrick Jones Jr. have player options on the final year of their deals. Goran Dragic is 36. Apologies to the Slovenian backup point guard. My intention wasn’t to reference your age as a form of discrimination. All I’m saying is maximize the little time you have left of your career by doing so elsewhere.
Selling off experienced players in a trade deadline fire-sale is the right strategy. But why stop there?
Coby White, 22, is still young enough to pretend he has lasting potential. Can a team who hasn’t been paying close enough attention hand over a second-round pick for the former No. 7 overall pick? Probably not.
Do the Bulls view something in White? His timeline may overlap with the Bulls’ proposed new path forward, too. Keeping him won’t materially change the fortunes of a team quickly sinking toward the bottom, therefore he can stay. However, if the Bulls have no interest in paying White his second contract, then hell, deal him for whatever you can get.
Beyond Ayo Dosunmu, Dalen Terry, and Patrick Williams — and Lonzo Ball, who no team will be interested in trading for given his knee and contract situation — there are few players on the current roster who should remain beyond the deadline.
And that includes Zach LaVine.
Due to rules within the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and his previous status as a free agent, LaVine cannot be moved via trade until Jan. 15, 2023. He is the lone Bull who currently is ineligible to be traded.
Though the above restrictions is in place, it is temporary — the trade deadline is Thursday, 9 Feb, 2023, thus leaving the Bulls with a few weeks to find LaVine a new home.
LaVine’s name should be involved in trade proposals. If he can be moved for a notable offer which nets the team multiple picks and young prospects, then do it. LaVine himself may welcome a change of scenery, especially if the Bulls embark on a structured tear down.
If it were to occur, moving on from LaVine only months after signing him to the richest deal in franchise history comes with an optics problem. As does diverting away from continuity and the false promises enclosed in such a premise. Tough shit. If it’s the right decision, so be it.
Every option needs to be explored.
Will the Bulls actually follow through with any of the above?
Only Karnišovas can answer this. Positing what Bulls management is thinking is merely speculative. However, we do know they intended to give this playing group more time together in order to properly evaluate impact and cohesion.
Have Bulls management seen enough? Do they need to see more?
We won’t know until the Bulls’ lead executive makes himself available to media and fans and speaks on the matter. Not that we’ll glean much.
(Karnišovas offers little substance or insight during his rare media appearances.)
What Karnišovas intends to do remains a mystery. It’s also not something within his complete control.
For the first time in years, Bulls ownership revelled in its chance to inhale the sweet scent of playoff ticket revenue. Maybe they’d rather stay the course and take another hit? Perhaps Michael Reinsdorf is as disgusted with watching this team as you and I are? He and his father, Jerry, much like Karnišovas, are rarely heard from.
The Bulls won’t enter a rebuild without full endorsement from its ownership group.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume ownership agrees to another rebuild. That’s one hurdle cleared. Still, the Bulls’ future is somewhat beholden to their competitors.
Trading the majority of the roster may be the right course of action, but its success will be determined by what is on offer in the trade market. To that point, it’s fair to note that Karnišovas has limited control of this outcome, too.
In principle, trading Vučević is the right move. But how much value does a soon-to-be free agent center who is exiting his prime really have? Unlike Vučević, the Bulls should expect something of substance in exchange for DeRozan. Ideally, multiple first-round picks. It’s possible, though, that expectations fail to meet reality.
Netting something of note for DeRozan is likely. What about the role players? Do they carry any value in trade? Caruso certainly does. A late first-rounder is possible in a bidding war. Beyond him, though, the Bulls won’t fetch much of anything.
Regardless of what the Bulls can receive back for its players via trade, change is necessary. Stumbling back into a rebuild is hardly desirable, but neither is the current scenario.
Unfortunately, it’s time to move on.