The Play-In Tournament perfectly encapsulated the Bulls season.
A slow start against the Raptors flipped fast after the Bulls started turning them over, scoring in transition and getting some good luck when it came to opponent three-point percentage. They pulled out a 109-105 win in Toronto to keep their season alive.
Until their second Play-In game in Miami. Feeling good coming off a explosive scoring performance from Zach LaVine and a come back win, the Bulls swept the Heat in the season series and were licking their chops after Miami looked completely overwhelmed by the Hawks in their first Play-In game.
The Bulls season now comes to an end with a 102-91 loss to the Heat, in a game where they shot 8-of-28 on threes and losing the free throw battle 11-of-15 to 28-of-32. For as well as they defended, they got unlucky with Max Strus making seven threes. Despite leading mid-way through the fourth quarter, their offense evaporated in the clutch.
The Play-In games were a microcosm of the Bulls season, a microscope on their flaws, proof that things need to change and affirmation that this was not a pleasant basketball season.
Though they had some highs (LaVine and Nikola Vucevic’s play, DeMar DeRozan earning an All-Star appearances, a road trip to Paris, growth from Patrick Williams and Coby White and an elite defensive season spearheaded by Alex Caruso), the lows were devastating and a plenty.
Record: 40-42 (10th in East, 19th in NBA)
Offense: 113.8 (24th)
Defense: 112.5 (5th)
Point Differential: 1.3 (13th)
Here’s a look back at what has been a disappointing, underachieving season.
Continuity and Randomness
The Bulls entered the season preaching continuity in hopes of improving upon their 46-36 season last year. Though they lost to the Bucks in five games during the first round of the Playoffs, they weren’t healthy. LaVine wasn’t right, Lonzo Ball was out and Caruso was a shell of himself.
After signing Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic over the offseason, the Bulls banked on continuity improving the level of play across the board and growth from their young players. While all of those players performed well, it wasn’t quite to the level they would have needed to see meaningful production.
As a result, the Bulls relied too heavily on DeRozan to generate offense every single possession. If they could implement more randomness and unpredictability into their offense, it would take the burden off DeRozan and be more difficult to defend.
Lonzo Ball sadness
Starting off with Ball, who underwent second and third procedures on his left knee, the Bulls were screwed from the jump.
Ball was reportedly hoping to return for the start of the 2022-23 season. There was confidence in the organization that he would be ready, but with two weeks before training camp, he had a debridement procedure to try to identify the source of discomfort in the knee.
Though they hoped Ball would be ready, there were no guarantees, but the Bulls did very little (signed Goran Dragic, who was later waived) to address the hole at point guard.
With Ball’s recovery stagnating, the Bulls again had an opportunity to address their point guard problem at the trade deadline. Conveniently, news that Ball would be shut down for the season came 12 days later.
A month later, it was announced that he would undergo a third surgery, this time a knee cartilage transplant, and would be out indefinitely.
This potentially career-ending injury is obviously a blow to the Bulls, who are limited in flexibility with his $20 million guaranteed on the books for 2023-24 and 2024-25. But much more importantly, it’s a blow for Ball, who has lost nearly two years and may have to hang it up for good.
Truthfully, ‘inconsistent play’ is a generous way to put it. The Bulls had a few great wins, but this season will be defined by their bad losses. Yes, they did a better job competing against good teams, but finishing the season 21-30 against .500 or better teams isn’t much to write home about.
It will be remembered for the blown leads and losses at the buzzer.
The Pacers beat the Bulls twice after trailing by 20 or more. The Magic stormed back to beat the Bulls on a Jalen Suggs buzzer beater while Zach LaVine rode the bench. AJ Griffin had a game-winning layup. De’Aaron Fox hit a game-winning three. Tyrese Haliburton did too.
The Bulls lost back-to-back games against the Knicks, the second by 30 at home. They had a locker room blow up after letting the Timberwolves score 150. They lost to the Rockets, Spurs, Hornets, three of the four worst teams in the league. They let Donovan Mitchell score 71 points against them. They went into the trade deadline on a six-game losing streak, made no trades to improve to set themselves up for the future, and then lost to the Nets that very same night. When they finally had a chance to move up in the Play-In, they fumbled the bag against the Hawks.
The Bulls did have some good wins — Boston twice, Milwaukee twice, Denver, Memphis and Philadelphia — but those good wins are canceled out by the bad losses. It’s hard to be encouraged by occasional good play when the record is what the record is.
Defense, against all odds
It will be forgotten, but the Bulls did put together a top-five defense in the NBA in 2023. Given that they were without Ball all season and played Vucevic, DeRozan and LaVine together for the vast majority of the season, this was quite an accomplishment.
With Caruso making a First Team All-Defense push, the Bulls spearheaded an elite defense by taking away the paint, staying connected on rotations and contesting threes. They closed out possessions with rebounds and didn’t foul. An impressive outcome for an unimpressive group of individual defenders.
Billy Donovan has been a source of frustration for the fanbase, and that frustration is almost completely unwarranted. Donovan is a good coach who has developed a scheme, and gotten the buy in required to build an elite defense. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Dead Pat Bounce
I think we can all agree standing pat at the trade deadline was not ideal. Either bring in some help to start moving towards the Play-In or sell off some parts to recoup the assets you’ve shipped out to put this thing together.
Of course, they did neither. But the buyout market was kind to the Bulls.
After brining in Patrick Beverley, the Bulls put together a nice final stretch of the season. They looked a much more competitive team, ranking in the third in defense, 15th in offense and ninth in point differential. They had a 14-9 record and even won a Play-In game.
Vucevic played extremely well for all 82 games. LaVine had a monster season after shaking off the post-surgery rust. DeRozan was an All-Star. Alex Caruso will be an All-Defensive team player. Patrick Williams and Coby White both showed signs of growth. The team was a top-five defense all year.
That’s about as much as you can ask for from this group, and yet, they topped out two games below .500. Every time they had a chance to put together a run at .500, they took a bad loss. Lineups with Vucevic, DeRozan and LaVine were +0.7 on the year, which simply isn’t good enough.
The flaws are the flaws: three-point shooting, lack of two-way wings, pointguardsmanship, transition play, depth, three-point shooting, versatile defenders, three-point shooting and three-point shooting.
They’ll have to address those flaws with limited resources this summer.
Draft pick: 1st Round Pick outgoing to Orlando (top-four protected), 2nd Round Pick forfeited (Ball tampering fine).
Tankathon odds: 1.7 percent chance to win the lottery, 8 percent chance to retain their pick
Key Free Agents: Nikola Vucevic (UFA), Coby White (RFA), Ayo Dosunmu (RFA), Javonte Green (UFA), Patrick Beverley (UFA), Derrick Jones Jr. (PO), Andre Drummond (PO).
Salary Cap Info (via Spotrac):
Active Roster Cap: $122,259,970
Cap Holds: $67,991,303
Total Cap: $190,251,273
Practical Cap Space: $11,577,598
With the expected cap at $134 million and the tax at $162, the Bulls could, in theory open up about $11.5 million in space, that would require them wiping all of their free agents off the books, which is almost certainly impossible.
Realistically, they will be right up at the tax line if they elect to bring back their group (I.e. signing Vucevic to a $16-20M per year deal, signing White to a $12-14M per year deal, Dosunmu to a $5-7M per year deal). That means no space to go out and make any additions.
All of that only works if Vucevic indeed wants to return. But that’s out of the Bulls hands. More likely, the front office will have to rethink the core and rework the roster around one or two of their current big three. Without their draft pick or any cap space, it will be an interesting summer for the Bulls front office.
I’m excited to see what they come up with.
For now, we say goodbye to the 2022-23 Chicago Bulls.
You will not be missed.