The 2021-22 NBA season has presented us all with its share of
surprises – chief among them is the Chicago Bulls.
Chicago’s 2020-21 season was messy. The Bulls ended the season
31-41, good for 11th in the Eastern Conference. The 2021
NBA draft marked Chicago’s fourth consecutive lottery appearance,
and the fact that none of their recent lottery picks appeared on
track to lead a playoff team resulted in limited optimism. But, as
is often the case, looking too far ahead results in incorrect
Chicago had a surprising 2021 offseason centered around three
key additions – DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Ball,
the first to sign, was a highly sought-after 2021 free agent.
Chicago was forced to relinquish their next second-round pick for
violating league rules while solidifying a sign-and-trade deal for
the guard. Prior to suffering a recent knee injury that will cost
him between six and eight weeks, Ball was averaging 13.0 points,
5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals (career high) per game,
shooting 42.3% on three-point attempts. Caruso was playing well,
too, averaging career-highs (or near career-highs) in points,
rebounds, assists and steals. But like Ball, Caruso is also out for
between six and eight weeks with an injury of his own.
The loss of Ball and Caruso will certainly hurt the Bulls, a
team that has been playing its best basketball in years; but they
are still projected to be an East leader, thanks in no small part
to DeRozan. DeRozan is an enigma, in that he’s produced everywhere
he’s been, and yet he’s still looked over when discussing the best
players in the league.
DeRozan entered free agency hoping to head home to Los Angeles.
A sign-and-trade was being discussed by the San Antonio Spurs and
the Lakers, but the latter decided on adding Russell Westbrook
instead. Thus, DeRozan landed in Chicago, where he is averaging a
career-high 26.4 points per game.
The Bulls have won 30 of their first 47 games thanks in part to
their offseason additions. But Chicago’s success is obviously about
more than just three players. Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are
both playing excellent basketball, as are Coby White, Patrick
Williams and Ayo Donsunmu. Vucevic is another recent addition,
having been added via trade at the deadline last season.
Much of Chicago’s recent maneuvering was about keeping LaVine in
Chicago. LaVine will enter free agency this upcoming offseason, and
the Bulls knew they had to convince him that he could compete soon.
And while LaVine and Vucevic are foundational pieces, they’re not
enough to compete without other stars around them. So, what if
Ball, Caruso and/or DeRozan chose to sign elsewhere?
As far as All-Star caliber players go, only Chris Paul, John
Collins, Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry hit free agency, meaning
Chicago’s options were limited last offseason. Of those four, only
Lowry changed teams – and Lowry-to-Miami was the worst kept secret
in the NBA for some time.
Had Ball not signed with Chicago, the Bulls probably would have
pursued Spencer Dinwiddie or Dennis Schroder. Dinwiddie was
immediately linked to Washington, whereas Schroder had fewer
suitors. Schroder eventually signed with Boston on a one-year $5.9
million deal, making it fathomable that Schroder was an option.
The Bulls could have also pursued Victor Oladipo, who signed
with Miami for the veteran’s minimum. But Oladipo is still
recovering from a torn quadricep. And while he’s projected to
return sometime in February, that type of addition tells a very
different story to potential free agents. Adding Schroder and
Oladipo wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact as Ball, Caruso
and DeRozan on the Bulls’ play, thus jeopardizing their ability to
Who else would remain in Chicago? Obviously LaVine, Vucevic,
White, Williams and Donsunmu would still be around. The Bulls dealt
Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu to San Antonio for DeRozan;
Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple to New Orleans for Ball – and
finally Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland for Derrick Jones. Young,
Aminu and Satoransky were still under contract, but Temple and
Markkanen signed new contracts with their new teams after being
traded. Markkanen was an RFA in 2021, whereas Temple was a UFA.
Ultimately, the lack of difference-maker free agents means that
if the Bulls hadn’t signed Ball, Caruso and DeRozan, their roster
would look eerily similar this season to that of last season – and
as we established above, last season’s roster was flat-out
Without Ball, Caruso and DeRozan, the Bulls would be mediocre at
best. Their roster would be inferior to that of Miami, Cleveland,
Brooklyn, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Charlotte – and they would be
in the same class as disappointing teams like Boston, Washington
and New York. They would probably still qualify for the playoffs
(or at least the play-in tournament), but they would struggle to
compete with a top-four seed.
Talking longer term, LaVine would inevitably test free agency,
taking meetings with teams with the requisite cap space or
creativity to shape a deal. DeRozan joined, partially, because he
wasn’t prioritized as an elite free agent. But let’s be clear,
established superstars don’t join teams without a clear path to
compete, like DeRozan did last offseason. That means the Bulls
would be under intense pressure to perform with no alternate
courses of action.
Like the rest of the league, the Bulls had limited options last
offseason. Fortunately for Chicago, the Bulls made the absolute
best of a bad situation, signing the crown jewel of free agency in
DeRozan. Free agency, and the 2021-22 season, could have gone
significantly worse for Chicago. As it is, it couldn’t really be
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