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You want the Chicago Bulls to pick a direction? They already have.

Will Gottlieb Avatar
February 8, 2024

Another NBA Trade deadline has come and gone with the Chicago Bulls sitting on the sidelines.

Really?

Again?

For the third-straight year?

What are they doing?

But we’re asking the wrong questions.

The question should not be “what are they doing?” The question should be “why are they doing it?”

And when you phrase it that way, there are a couple of good answers.

All the news, rumors and nuggets during the deadline stretch have made the Bulls’ plans clear: 82 competitive regular season games and a play-in tournament appearance, without crossing the luxury tax line.

“Remain competitive” is the mission statement.

It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

When decisions are made through the lens of “remain competitive”, it’s difficult to make any moves considering the chips they have to trade.

The Bulls have been better without Zach LaVine this season, and with his massive contract clogging up their future cap space, moving on from the former All-Star made sense. Rivals had little interest in trading for LaVine before his third surgery, and it’s definitely not happening now.

With any LaVine deal now off the table, rather than pivoting to a new plan, the Bulls opted to stand pat.

In order to “remain competitive”, Alex Caruso has more value to the Bulls than the two first round picks that were available for the defensive ace, as reports suggest.

Similarly, trading DeMar DeRozan for future assets doesn’t fit under the mandate of “remain competitive”. Instead, the Bulls will keep DeRozan, with plans now pivoting to re-signing the 34-year-old to a new deal in the offseason–just as the Bulls did with Nikola Vucevic in the previous offseason.

“I think it’s harder for Chicago to do some of these deals with contending teams because they want players back,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said recently on his podcast. “They’re not looking to get draft assets and expirings. They want to reboot this on the fly. They want to stay competitive.”

In that sense, it’s no surprise the Bulls haven’t made any meaningful moves since August 2021.

It’s not that the Bulls don’t have good options being presented to them during deadline discussions. It’s that they aren’t willing to accept value when it’s available because it conflicts with their plans to “remain competitive”.

But what does “remaining competitive” even mean? As it stands, the Bulls sit in ninth-place in the Eastern Conference standings. ESPN’s BPI tool is projecting 36 wins and a 9.7 percent chance to make the Playoffs.

A less than 10 percent chance of making the postseason. Is level of competition good enough for a once storied franchise?

This is the problem with inflexibility.

No external variable has the power to shift the plan. Last season, a 14-9 finish and almost winning a play-in game against Miami matters more than a losing season and missing the playoffs. And now, an erroneous 5-14 start to the new season has been absolved by a more-recent stretch of competitive play.

For the Bulls, wins count different. Sure, a win is a win. But a victory against a good team? That counts for double. Chalk up a close loss is as good as a win. Losses only count in the standings if it occurs in blowouts.

“I’m selling a competitive group that is competing right now for playoffs,” Arturas Karnisovas said in his media availability. “And that’s just evidence, you know, you bring up the standings. I mean, we’re all bunched up in that area in the middle. So that’s what I see with this team at this point. Any adjustments will be made in the future, but, you know, this group is really good.”

While the Bulls abstain from doing business under the guise of “remaining competitive”, building through the middle requires some form of action. Building through the middle implies eventually moving out of the middle and onto a higher plane. It implies a franchise which is focused on constructing a team that has upward mobility.

And when you put it that way, it becomes clear that the Bulls aren’t building anything at all. They’re existing in the middle. That’s the plan with no pressure or consequences to change.

And why would they?

Look at their most recent home win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. A random Tuesday evening in February. All seats sold out. The United Center filled by fans losing their voices and getting blisters on their feet from all their cheering.

Competitive games against good teams with a fully invested and joyous crowd — why intentionally take a step backwards when the status quo is delivering on all stated plans and goals?

So, while the rest of the basketball world continues ask why the Bulls haven’t picked a lane, it’s clear they already have.

They picked the middle.

And they intend to stay there as long as they can get away with it.

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