While the winds of change swirled around some other contenders, there was relative calm in Chicago. Much to the curiosity of many around the NBA.
There’s no question the Bulls were slowed by injuries in 2021-22, and Zach LaVine‘s lingering knee rehab coupled with the continued absence of Lonzo Ball has led to an uneven 6-7 start to the current campaign.
But when the Celtics acquired Malcolm Brogdon, Cleveland got Donovan Mitchell and others in the East looked to be improved, it was a bit surprising that Chicago didn’t do much more than pick up the always solid Goran Dragic.
Said one league exec to Heavy Sports, “If they play to their max, they’re in the second tier. That’s assuming they all get healthy and stay that way.”
Billy Donovan: ‘We Never Saw Our Team’
The Bulls clearly think otherwise, and that’s the message coach Billy Donovan got over the summer.
“I really felt after sitting down and talking to the front office that the hard part was we never saw our team really whole together for a long period of time,” Donovan told Heavy.com. “I think the feeling was, you know what, like, hopefully we can get healthy and we can see what this group looks like.
“Last year it started about the seventh or eighth game when Patrick Williams broke his wrist, and then it kind of snowballed after that. But I think the feeling was let’s see what this looks like, you know? So hopefully we can get whole to find out what it does look like at some point, but we haven’t been that way yet.”
Ball hasn’t played since last January 14th, dealing with surgery for a meniscus tear and a bone bruise that occurred prior. With others periodically on the shelf, the Bulls have been unable to duplicate the type of success that had them atop the Eastern Conference when Ball went out 40 games into the year.
“As I look at it, I think a lot of teams have had to deal with the same thing we’ve dealt with — maybe not to the level we have,” said Donovan. “I think we’ve had more missed games than any team.
“It’s hard, but, you know what, you try to focus on what you can control and focus on impact you can make. Some of those players just weren’t coming back last year, and obviously we’re dealing with some of that right now with Lonzo still being out. We’ve been without some good players, and you want them there on your roster and you want to be able to use them. But at the same point, when they’re not there, you’ve still got to feel like we’ve got to give ourselves the best opportunity to compete and put ourselves in position to win.”
A Lonzo Ball Return Could Change Everything
The question is whether it will be enough against the Bucks, Celtics, Cavaliers and others who may get their act together as the season progresses.
“They really miss Lonzo Ball,” a personnel director told Heavy. “They’re not really deep, but having Lonzo back changes the rotation a lot. They really need Patrick Williams to come up big for them, and he’s just not that good right now. As much as I admire Javonte Green, he’s 6-4 and having to play the 3 (small forward) against 6-8 guys.”
LaVine and 33-year-old DeMar DeRozan are still an explosive combination, but it’s fair to wonder if there’s enough around them. The Bulls lost four of their last five last season and were the victim of a 4-1 “gentlemen’s sweep” by Milwaukee in the first round. It was expected they’d look to be bold in the offseason, and they did inquire about Kevin Durant early after his since-rescinded trade request, but there were no fireworks.
“You’d think they’d want to do everything they can to go for it while DeMar’s still this capable,” said an NBA source. “Maybe last year was just an outlier for him, but the guy can still play. He hasn’t looked like last year’s DeRozan, but it’s early and they still need to get their rotation together as much as they can right now. They still have to see how the pieces fit. But it’s still hard to see how they can deal with any of the best teams in the East when we get to the playoffs.”
The Bulls are betting on patience.