40 games into the 2021-22 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls stand
alone atop the Eastern Conference standings with the third best win
percentage in the league. Their 27-13 start is an impressive flip
from their 18-22 record at the same point last year, in an arguably
more competitive conference than in years prior. The Bulls notably
haven't made the playoffs since Fred Hoiberg's second season as
head coach with one of the uhhh ... most interesting roster build
experiments in recent memory.
The Bulls have legitimately carved their path this season —
they're 15-10 against the current top-10 seeds in each conference.
They beat up on the bad teams, and have also shown their worth
against playoff teams. However, they are only 3-5 against the top
teams in the league and only have one top-8 win outside of their
two wins against Brooklyn. That is of course not everything, and
the Bulls have been impacted by injuries and COVID absences, but
the majority of the teams in the NBA can make a similar
Chicago is a very good basketball team, much better than most
expected coming into the season (maybe even better than the front
office expected), but they have some notable flaws when looking at
the highest levels of team play in the NBA. While I of course
disagree with writing them off as a playoff team, I'm not sure how
to view them as a true contender. Being this good is GREAT, but it
brings up difficult questions for an organization.
The defense that inspired early in the year has fallen off,
dropping significantly each month, down to 26th in defensive
efficiency since Christmas, per Cleaning the Glass. Alex Caruso has
missed a great deal of time and his impact has been heavily missed,
but the overall activity and attention to detail just hasn't quite
been there in the same way.
Patrick Williams entered the year with a great deal of
expectations for his sophomore campaign — with Chicago looking for
a guy who would hopefully paper over some of the concerns over lack
of a bigger wing defender and function as a vital cog in the
offensive flow. Unfortunately, he only managed five games before
being lost for the season due to a severe wrist injury. The Bulls
have struggled to find a consistent fifth option release valve who
can capably space, defend, and be a neutral or better
decision-maker all in conjunction.
DeMar DeRozan has played at a level that will place him on MVP
ballots. Zach LaVine's own All-NBA play has been overshadowed to a
degree by his teammate. It is so hard for an organization to look
at this year — with two players performing this well — and deciding
to just ride it out, in spite of the ability to make moves to
better equip themselves for a postseason run. While I wouldn't
expect a steep decline from DeMar next season, it's of course a
reality that seasons like this are not often replicable, especially
considering his age. Contention windows are smaller than typically
believed or theorized, and man they are fickle.
Speaking of possible moves to
make — they exist because of intrigue caused by the youth on the
Bulls' roster. Wendell Carter Jr. has excelled in Orlando this year
(and was unfairly judged in Chicago), but moving on from him was a
necessary part of Chicago's forward progression. While Nikola
Vucevic has struggled this season (he's been better from the field
recently, but his three-point range hasn't been there), he's still
been essential to the Bulls when they're at their absolute best.
It's also important to note that moves don't just happen in a
vacuum. If the Vucevic trade isn't made and the Bulls don't show
their full commitment to a playoff push and winning with Zach
LaVine last season, it's reasonable to assume that that would
negatively impact the likelihood of any of the signings that took
place the following off-season.
Would it be nice to have Wendell,
those first-rounders, and still have this same team?
Hell-freakin'-yes, but that's not how it works!
When I talk to scouts, coaches,
or fans, often the idea of 'threading the needle' and winning with
a team while still maximizing youth development is brought up. That
is just so difficult to actually do. Patrick Williams could develop
into a very good basketball player — in fact I would bet on it —
but I do question how capable he is of reaching his best possible
outcome in Chicago. He's been cast into a smaller and different
role while simultaneously being given small margins for error.
That's without even taking into account his unfortunate
Coby White's stellar player
(read this article by Larry
Golden if you haven't, it's fantastic), has thrown another variable
into the equation. Since returning from health and safety protocols
on Dec. 19, through 13 games, Coby is averaging 16.0 points per
game with incredible efficiency (66% True Shooting percentage),
bombing from deep (43.2%) and is overall more comfortable and
adapted to an off-ball role as a secondary scorer off the bench.
His defense, while still relatively poor, is much improved from
last season. He's playing fantastic basketball and has been a
significant positive for the Bulls over the past month.
He's also greatly increased his
I don't have an answer as to what
the Bulls should do. In some ways, I'm not sure that there is a
right or wrong answer. Staying the course, maintaining stability,
and not selling out for a potential title shot may be the right
move for a team that's struggled to find its footing since Derrick
Rose's injury. Maybe exchanging youth for established talent to
round out the roster, bolster depth, and shore up perceived
weaknesses is what sets up a deep playoff run and plants the seeds
for the next great crop of Bulls basketball — perhaps luring in
veteran free agents or opening the door to the next star who wants
out of a poor environment this off-season.
I could write all about how I
think trading for Harrison Barnes would add a valuable elite
shooter and four who can draw defenses in the slot (something the
Bulls strongly lack). Or about Jerami Grant's potential to make an
impact defensively with his length and tenacity at the point of
attack, or roaming weak-side in the Bulls scheme while doing enough
offensively to be guarded. I HAVE written about how I think Arturas
Karnisovas should look to pry Jalen McDaniels away from
Charlotte to add another rotational forward with upside, all
while not giving up as much as one of the veteran deadline darlings
Ultimately, the Bulls may well
end up surprising us again in the playoffs without any change, even
if I doubt the chances of that. There is no simple solution, nor is
there a defined formula, and that's what makes the Bulls so
fascinating from a team-building standpoint. How the Bulls decide
to capitalize is one of the more interesting storylines to follow,
as we head toward the Feb. 10 trade deadline. Getting good fast
makes things uncertain, but that's positive pressure that many
organizations can only hope for.