The contemporary NBA has conditioned basketball fans to seek out unhappy All-Stars like lions stalk the most vulnerable wildebeest. The Chicago Bulls dropped to 6-10 on the season after a one-point home loss to a Paolo Banchero-less Orlando Magic on Friday, and Zach LaVine set off some alerts.
The ninth-year guard was not happy after being benched by coach Billy Donovan late in the fourth quarter with the game still close.
“I got to do a better job at the beginning of the game to make my shots, but you play a guy like me down the stretch,” LaVine said. “That’s what I do. Do I like the decision? No. Do I have to live with it? Yeah. Be ready to put my shoes on and play the next game.”
LaVine deserved it. He was 1-for-14 on the night, O-for from 3, and finished with a plus/minus of -19 in 25 minutes. Before thirsty supporters start doctoring IG photos though, they should be reminded that the two-time All-Star inked a five-year, $215 million max contract in the offseason and isn’t even eligible to be moved yet.
The main issue among many for Chicago isn’t LaVine’s slowish start. It’s the absence of Lonzo Ball, who recently eclipsed the four-to-six-week reevaluation mark from September knee surgery, with no timetable to return. When the procedure was announced a month or so ago, one couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ball after how dejected he sounded over the unknown status of his knee and the way Chicago looked with a full backcourt last year.
While optimistic Bulls fans could’ve talked themselves into a healthy Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams being able to help the team tread water until the almost all-star gets back, Chicago has been lifeless save for the occasional flurry of footwork out of DeMar DeRozan. Nikola Vučević’s shooting splits (46/38/88) are the only positive things about his game. Coby White is in a shooting slump. And although Ayo Dosunmu has improved, relying on him to be anything more than a spark off the bench at this juncture in his career is indicative of where Chicago is as an organization right now.
I was all for giving LaVine a bag. He’s proven to be more than a good stats, bad team guy, and was one of the linchpins of Team USA’s gold medal run at the 2021 Summer Olympics. I also was under the assumption that Ball would be back.
The gamble lead exec Artūras Karnišovas made on DeRozan was rightfully lauded during the early parts of the 2021-22 season, as was signing Ball. He wasn’t perceived as a risk at the time, but the sports gods are fickle, especially with the post-Jordan Bulls.
As currently constructed, Chicago is in the worst kind of NBA purgatory. The Magic own the Bulls’ 2023 first-round pick unless it lands in the top four. They have the rights to the Trail Blazers pick, but it’s top-14 protected, so basically Chicago will be picking outside the lottery unless they sink to a bottom-four level.
DeRozan and LaVine would need to get injured or traded for that to occur, and both are relatively durable so the out would be a move. An impromptu tank is possible, but it’d have to start now, and I don’t know if you could talk ownership into it after shelling out that kind of cash for LaVine.
Sure, dealing Vuc is an option; I’m just uncertain whether the return would raise the ceiling above the play-in or the first round. I don’t think firing Donovan will affect change either. He’s proven to be a high-level coach, and it’s not like the players are underachieving due to his system.
Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Javonte Green, Derrick Jones Jr., White, and Caruso make up the bench mob, and I’m not sure anyone other than Caruso and I guess White are rotation players in the NBA. If I was in the front office, I’d move on from Vuc as soon as possible in hopes that it frees up some touches for Patrick Williams, brings back a role-playing big more apt to keep the ball moving and protect the rim, and maybe a low-maintenance point guard who’s happy passing and shooting open threes. (I know Utah has a couple of those guys, and a package that would work for what both teams are trying to do also works in the trade machine.)
It might be early this season, but since Ball went down in mid-January last year, the team is 26-37 without him. That’s a 63-game sample size. They have to start operating as if he’s not coming back anytime soon because even when he does return, who knows if he’ll be the same guy given the injury history with that knee.
It feels terrible writing this after how much of a surprise the Bulls were at this time last season. Whatever adage you prefer for life coming at you fast works to describe Chicago’s luck since Ball went down, but fortunes can change just as quickly.