If Zach LaVine and Demar DeRozan thought backup was coming in the form of Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, or Patrick Williams, they might want to try buddy-copping their way out of the jam Chicago is in now. Fake argue like Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, or mix karate with charisma like Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, or call each other racist names like Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, because two of the three Bulls are back and yet nothing is sparking.
The team was one of the darlings of the early NBA season, at one point sitting atop the conference. As recently as Feb. 24 they were 39-21. Since that mark, they’re 3-9 and free falling down the Eastern Conference standings.
Caruso returned from a broken wrist a couple weeks ago and isn’t affecting the game the way he usually does. Whether that’s because he’s not 100 percent — he admitted as much on a recent podcast — or because it’s unrealistic to expect a guy who averages six points for his career to really do anything more than play defense, hustle, and hit a few big 3s, the Caru-show has been more miss than hit. The team is 2-4 in his six games back.
Williams, the second-year versatile power forward who’s been out since hurting his wrist five games into the season, returned to the lineup Monday, and Chicago needs whatever he can give them. Javonte Green has been their starting power forward most of the season, despite being 6-foot-4 and technically a small forward/shooting guard. Again, though, Williams is a role player this early in his career. He could be more eventually, but it’s unrealistic to think he’s going to blossom in a dozen games.
Ball had a non-setback setback a few days ago, and there’s no reason to rush him back from a knee injury when the newly signed point guard looked phenomenal next to the All-Star wings when on the court. He’s the youngest of the team’s three best players and appeared to have fixed the glitch in his jumper, shooting 42 percent from deep before the injury. Meniscus tears scare the shit out of me because it seems like the severity ranges from “Yeah, he can play through it” to “James Wiseman is going to miss the entire 2021-22 season.” So, yeah, I’m not risking shit when the postseason prospects are so daunting.
As of Thursday, Chicago is fifth, three games behind three teams for home court in the first round, and will likely have to win an opening series against a hot Bucks team, a hot Celtics team, a 76ers team with an MVP candidate, or the Heat. They’re also only a game up on Cleveland and two up on Toronto. The Cavs have had similarly bad injury luck as the Bulls, so if the Raptors catch anyone, it’ll be Cleveland.
Even if Chicago steals a series — my God, would a Heat-Bulls matchup be fun with how jacked up the United Center would be to boo Jimmy Butler — their second round opponent will be a peaking Eastern power or the Nets if they “upset” a high seed.
However, a year ago this team was flaming out of the play-in race. They traded for Nikola Vučević to make a run at the postseason, and still finished 10 games below .500 and 11th in the East. Trading two first-rounders for an All-Star center and slumping to the finish line wasn’t a great look for the new front office, but they redeemed themselves by signing DeRozan and Ball. Finding Ayo Dosunmu in the second round was a bonus and evidence that Artūras Karnišovas and his staff know what they’re doing, unlike the previous regime.
It appears they’re at least thinking about giving LaVine a massive deal this offseason after it seemed like Chicago was going to cheap out, as they are wont to do. There are even rumors of perennially frugal COO Michael Reinsdorf being willing to go into the luxury tax for the second time ever.
He admitted to Forbes last month that it’s a necessity if you want to compete for championships.
“If we can take the necessary steps next year that allow us to compete for a championship, then for sure we’ll go into the tax. It’s part of the nature of the NBA,” Reinsdorf said.
Therein lies the rub. Would a subpar first round exit be enough to convince ownership that this team is a title contender? When healthy, the Bulls certainly looked like a squad with enough talent, depth, offense, defense, and shotmakers to compete at the highest level.
Calling this season “lost’’ is only true if they allow LaVine to walk. Chicago found another All-Star, and it would’ve been two/three overall because Ball was performing like one. They also found a reliable sixth man in Dosunmu, and an energetic defensive pest in Caruso.
But really, for the first time since those Derrick Rose teams, they found hope. Hopefully ownership will find their pocketbooks next.