The Bulls enter the NBA trade deadline at a crossroads

CHICAGO – THE COPS had a golden opportunity.

After starting the season 12-18, the Bulls rode a season-high three-game winning streak, winning back at home with a stunning home win over the Golden State Warriors, a win over the Detroit Pistons in Paris, and a convincing win over the Atlanta Hawks. With a soft schedule ahead, the Bulls had a chance to move up in a crowded Eastern Conference play-in race.

“We’ve got a hell of an opportunity to make our own history,” recalled Bulls star DeMar DeRozan as he told his teammates before they boarded their flight to Paris.

Instead, the story followed a well-known script. Chicago gambled away a 21-point lead against the Indiana Pacers — Indiana’s only win in 11 games in which guard Tyrese Haliburton was out with a bruised left knee — and then lost by 15 points to the Charlotte Hornets. The Bulls finished January with a 19-point loss to the LA Clippers and then bounced back with two home wins over the Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers, leaving them two games under .500 and ninth-place in the East.

It’s the latest microcosm of the team’s struggles this season: the Bulls have had three separate win streaks in three games but still have four straight wins left. In January, they lost four games while leading by more than 15 points, which was the most of any team in the last 25 seasons, according to a study by ESPN Stats & Information. And the Bulls are 9-10 against teams under .500.

“Take two steps forward, two steps back,” said coach Billy Donovan. “You go back and forth like that, it’s hard to grow.”

After finishing 46-36 last season and a five-year playoff drought, the Bulls retained almost their entire roster: Nine of the team’s top 10 players by minutes played this season are holdovers from the 2021-22 season. Management advocated continuity within the organization and believed that a step forward would come as the list continued to condense.

“What we want to see is obviously an improvement,” Bulls vice president Arturas Karnisovas said in September. “Once you get into the playoffs and you’re in a healthy body, I think a lot of things can happen. We have to do better than last year. … Those are the expectations.”

Yet in their second full season with a roster built around DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls are 25-27, three games behind the Miami Heat for sixth place in the East — the same spot they held in the last season and were tasked with improving it.

With Thursday’s close at 3:00 p.m. ET fast approaching, the bulls have not lived up to their self-imposed expectations. They are at a crossroads but do not intend to trade core players this week, team and league sources told ESPN.

“They have a talented list, but what is their identity?” an Eastern Conference scout told ESPN. “What do you want them to be good at? You’re not sure what you’re getting every night.”

MORE: Latest trading date buzz

A PERSON WITHIN The Bulls organization unsurprised by the team’s struggles is Donovan, who pointed to the team’s luck in close games in 2021-22.

The Bulls had the fourth-best record in the league in clutch situations last season at 25:16. They then lost their first seven clutch games at the start of the 2022-23 season and, at 10-17, already own more clutch losses than all of last season.

“Listen, DeMar was incredible coming down the stretch of games,” Donovan said while pointing out the back-to-back game-winning buzzer-beaters DeRozan hit around New Year’s Eve and New Year’s 2021-22. “And if we weren’t so lucky, we’d be in exactly the same situation that we’re in right now. We’re trying to fight to get back in the race.”

As such, the Bulls are preaching patience for now, allowing the team to work through their offensive struggles despite the individual scoring talents of DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic.

DeRozan was named an All-Star again last week and shot even better from the field (51%) and on 2s (52%) than last season. LaVine has bounced back from a slow start following offseason knee surgery to average 24 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. And while Vucevic, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, is averaging nearly identical points, rebounds, and assists as last season, he’s shooting much more efficiently (52% from the field, 36% from 3).

But together the group does not click. Chicago ranks 20th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, despite having their top three players on the court for most of the season. DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic have played 1,052 minutes together this season, the fifth-most among trios in the NBA, but the Bulls have outplayed opponents by just 16 points in those minutes, a number that just went positive last week. (Chicago was outscored by seven points with that trio last season in 1,206 minutes). In 43 games with this trio, the Bulls are 23-22.

“They’re still working on it. I feel like some games look amazing, some games still look disjointed,” veteran guard Goran Dragic told ESPN. “When I’ve been around stars, it’s kind of fun because at some point during the season it just clicks. Everyone noticed: ‘Okay, I can’t win alone, I don’t just need stars, I need everyone.’”

One of Chicago’s biggest problems on offense is that the team isn’t playing as many shots for each other as they were last season. According to Second Spectrum, 14.4% of the Bulls’ passes resulted in an assist opportunity, the third-lowest rate in the league. That percentage drops further when DeRozan, LaVine, and Vucevic share the court.

“Obviously we haven’t maxed out our capabilities,” LaVine told ESPN in practice last week. “Look at the three of us, of course we hit the ball well individually but we’re not consistent enough as a team where you can count on us to have a great game every night.”

A key player who hasn’t played at all this season and has had two arthroscopic knee surgeries since his last game in January 2022 is Lonzo Ball. Despite incremental improvements – running on a treadmill and some stationary jumps from both his feet to the dunk – he has Ball still has pain in left knee during basketball activities. Donovan reiterated last week that Ball “won’t play anywhere near”.

When Ball played with the Bulls’ all-star trio last season, Chicago outplayed teams by 59 points. This season, the Bulls have started second-year point guard Ayo Dosunmu in Ball’s absence, and he has struggled in the extended role. Chicago was 4.1 points per 100 possession better when Dosunmu was off the field this season.

LaVine, who signed a five-year, $215 million contract extension in July, has attracted interest from several teams including the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks, but competing executives say the Bulls have shown little interest have to move him the deadline. LaVine recently reiterated his commitment to Chicago, saying he signed an extension because he wanted to be with the Bulls and that hasn’t changed.

“The team isn’t playing well, so you’ll always hear these stories,” LaVine told ESPN last week.

Donovan said after the Jan. 26 loss to the Hornets that the Bulls shouldn’t go into teardown mode.

“I’m not at a point to say, ‘OK, this just can’t work,'” he said. “I think there’s too much substance from guys who are good guys who want to do the right things and care. But… we have no margin for error at all.”

That margin of error disappeared when Karnisovas traded two first-round picks to acquire Vucevic from the Orlando Magic in March 2021, then sent another first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in the sign-and-trade deal for DeRozan and Chicago with it left limited resources to improve the roster.

Due to pick protection owed to Magic and Spurs, the Bulls cannot trade any of their own first-round picks. They owed Portland an additional pick that they could include in a trade, but that pick is lottery-protected until 2028. You also only have one second round selection to act on.

Alex Caruso has attracted interest from other teams and Chicago has been open to offers from the reserve guard, a league source told ESPN, but the Bulls would likely need to be blown away by a deal to trade their perhaps key defensive player. Coby White is in the final season of his rookie contract and may be a restricted free agent this summer, although several members of the organization are encouraged by his improvements this season. Andre Drummond, one of the team’s free agent additions this summer, has mostly fallen out of the rotation.

After the team missed the 2020-21 play-in tournament, Karnisovas clearly stated his intentions at his first season-ending press conference, and those words appear ahead of Thursday’s trading close.

“We will not settle for mediocrity here,” said Karnisovas. The Bulls enter the NBA trade deadline at a crossroads

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