The Chicago Bulls (46-36) felt “really good” at the trade deadline head coach Billy Donovan said, per CHGO’s Will Gottlieb. They are set to make their first postseason appearance since 2017. Then, they were led by Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo.
That group, known as the “Three Alphas”, took the first two games against the Boston Celtics before losing four straight and bowing out in six games after Rajon Rondo suffered a fractured thumb that took him out of service.
This time, their “Big Three” of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic are limping into the postseason somewhat healthy and riding a 7-15 record since the All-Star break.
Again, though, it is an injury to their starting point guard that has altered their trajectory. Lonzo Ball’s absence since January 14 following meniscus surgery has hurt the team in multiple facets from their defense to getting quality looks on offense.
Bulls at the Deadline
Donovan was speaking before the Bulls’ eventual 124-120 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the regular-season finale when he made the remarks.
“Coming up to the trade deadline, Arturas and I both felt really good about our team. But we really hadn’t had a good sample size of these guys at all playing together”
There are a couple of things at play here. First, the Bulls were 34-21 at that time and sitting second in the Eastern Conference. But they had lost 10 of their last 16 games while navigating without their starting point guard in Ball or their top backup in Alex Caruso who had each missed 13 of the games in that span.
That was immediately after their nine-game win streak, though, so prudence still seemed to be in order.
This meant that they were left relying on impressive second-round rookie Ayo Dosunmu starting more games than either of the Bulls’ veteran point guards, both of whom were brought in to fix the issues that have plagued them in the latter stages of the season.
Gottlieb also reported Donovan’s thoughts on what this trying stretch has meant for the players. Several of them will be making their first postseason appearances including the free-agent-to-be, LaVine.
“For a lot of these guys, this has been an incredible learning experience of mental fortitude and toughness you have to have when you’re going through and playing in these kinds of games against really high-level teams.”
Did Donovan Tip Bulls’ Hand?
By mentioning the sample size and, to a lesser extent the experience gained, Donovan could be hinting at this current group getting a chance to prove their mettle once they are all healthy. That would, of course, be next season.
They have to address LaVine, who has battled through a fractured thumb, back, and knee injuries this season. The eight-year vet is eligible for a max deal worth $210 million over five years, per CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn.
LaVine spoke with Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill back in February about the situation noting, “I remember everything” in regards to it taking a four-year, $78 million offer sheet from the Sacramento Kings in 2018 to get his current deal with the Bulls completed.
“Is the [max] the goal? I don’t know if it’s the goal, but I should be getting what I deserve.”
Re-signing him could very well be their only major move this summer.
They were linked to Pistons forward Jerami Grant near the deadline. But the Bulls were also reluctant to send out Patrick Williams, a player that NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson reported the Pistons were believed to be interested in at the time.
Grant’s name recently came back up when The Athletic’s Shams Charania appeared on “Unfiltered with David Kaplan” and floated his name as a possible offseason upgrade.
He has ties to both Donovan and Bulls vice president of basketball operations, Arturas Karnisovas.
Charania noted that Williams has similar traits to Grant, but that did not stop the Bulls from trying to land the former Olympian via alternative methods, per Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer.
That was before the deadline, though, as well as their 17-19 record since Fischer’s report.
Has that changed the math at all? Are the Bulls still content with waiting for Ball to get healthy or will they make a drastic move to try getting closer to being over the hump? Is such a move even possible given how they fared against the league’s top teams?
The biggest question mark in all of that, Williams, might be starting to justify their decision to hold onto him.
He has averaged 15.8 points on 71.2% true shooting while knocking down 66.7% of his threes and hauling in 6.2 boards after his career-high 35-point outing in the finale. That adds to the excitement of seeing him in the postseason.
The Sample Size
What Donovan said about the sample size is intriguing on its own. The Bulls’ opening night starting lineup of Ball, LaVine, Williams, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic played just 63 minutes across five games together all season.
They sported a plus-11.0 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass, but did not appear together on the floor after a 104-103 loss to the New York Knicks on October 28.
Williams left that game early with a wrist injury that required surgery and began the Bulls’ run of mixing and matching pieces.
They trotted out 28 starting lineups this season, per Basketball-Reference. While there were 10 teams to have at least that many this season, only three finished the season with a better record than the Bulls. They are the Milwaukee Bucks – who the Bulls will face for Game 1 in Milwaukee on Sunday, April 17 – as well as the Philadephia 76ers, and Golden State Warriors.
Only two other such teams even made the Play-In Tournament. They are the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers who will start their two-game Play-In matchup on Tuesday, April 12 in Brooklyn.
The remaining five teams — the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, and Sacramento Kings — are all in the lottery.
Donovan was direct in giving his opinion of the defending champion Bucks during his press conference after the finale.
“We’re going against arguably the best team in the league.”
Ball will not return for the postseason. He was shut down for good after he did not respond well in his return from meniscus surgery. But the Bulls have gotten to see Williams flash his tremendous potential down the stretch. This could lead the front office to maintain their patience from the trade deadline this offseason.