January 1 is a day of reflection. It’s an opportunity to look back at the year that was, and make resolutions about the year to come.
But as we reflect on the last 365 days, it’s hard to point to any major changes with the Chicago Bulls.
In fact, on paper, almost nothing has changed.
January 1, 2023: The Bulls were 16-20 with a -1.1 net rating, 10th in the Eastern Conference.
January 1, 2024: The Bulls are 15-19 with a -2.5 net rating, 10th in the Eastern Conference.
But there’s more going on than record and net rating. The story deserves a bit more context.
Following their loss to the Boston Celtics on November 28 that represented rock bottom, I wrote that this Chicago Bulls season was already lost.
Less than a month later, it’s clear I was wrong.
The Bulls, who are 10-5 since that game, have proven that no matter how wrong things go, there’s always something to be learned from it.
Improbably, the team has completely changed its on-court identity. They’re moving the ball like never before, playing an exciting, uptempo style. The young players are starting to show promise. It’s the brand of basketball they promised during training camp in Nashville.
My argument for a full-scale rebuild was to completely shift focus from competing for the Play-In tournament to building for future Playoff runs. That meant cashing in on their players to collect assets. To prioritize potential and find out whether the young players on the roster were worth building around.
At the time, those two ideas felt mutually exclusive. With Zach LaVine trade drama percolating and everyone on the roster playing miserably, a full-scale rebuild seemed to be the only reasonable path out of their predicament.
Since then, Coby White has emerged. Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu have found their form and have proven to be future fixtures. Dalen Terry has earned meaningful minutes. Those young players are playing well because of the way they’re playing off of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. The veterans are balancing production, while shepherding their developing teammates.
And as a result, the future looks a lot less bleak than it did four weeks ago. A incredible development considering where things stood at that time.
Now, it almost doesn’t matter whether or not the Bulls continue their recent winning rate — a 51-win pace based on their +3.7 point differential — because the quality of basketball has improved drastically. The building blocks have been a big piece of their success. That’s a win for this season in and of itself.
But the big-picture, existential questions persist.
If 10-5 is the new 14-9, this stretch has made life a lot easier on Arturas Karnisovas as he mulls his future plans. Retaining DeRozan is starting to make a lot more sense. DeRozan is proving he can adapt his style, make the young players better, help them develop long term while still dominating games in the clutch and helping the team remain competitive now.
Same for the decision around trading Alex Caruso. A month ago, his value to the rest of the league was far greater than it was to the Bulls. And though that is still probably true, the scales are evening out.
It remains to be seen what will happen with LaVine. That deal, if it occurs, will fundamentally change the structure of the team, even if the prospects of a juicy return seem less feasible with each passing day.
LaVine’s market has most recently been described as “barren“. With the way the Bulls have played in his absence, the pressure to hit a home run on a potential LaVine trade has dissipated. Fans seem ready to dump him for nothing. The optics of a less than optimal return aren’t as bad as they used to be, even if he still represents the Bulls best chance to eventually operate with a surplus of assets.
So if LaVine won’t net anything of value, does a trade make sense to execute? If DeRozan has played his way into an extension, and Caruso proves too valuable to move, what ends up changing about the team’s present or future?
The rebuilding pivot I called for wasn’t a teardown for the sake of a teardown. It wasn’t just because I believe only in ‘title or bust’ or that the top pick in the draft will save everything. Rather, the point of a rebuild is to set a goal for the future, create a roadmap, determine who fits into that plan, and build towards that goal.
That still needs to be done.
The Bulls have played their way out of needing a teardown and full-scale rebuild. But difficult decisions still loom.
Because at the end of the day, and now at the end of the year, the Bulls are still the same team playing for the same stakes.
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