Bulls Veteran Still Haunted by Close-Call in Playoffs

Goran Dragic, Chicago Bulls

Getty Goran Dragic of Slovenia looks on during the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 quarterfinal match.

New Chicago Bulls guard Goran Dragic calls Derrick Rose’s infamous dunk on him back in 2010 his “nightmare”. Dragic can laugh about it now, saying the moment at least keeps him on television.

The 36-year-old is coming off of an impressive run with Slovenia in the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 tournament after a five-year retirement.

Slovenia was knocked out in the quarterfinals in a stunning 90-87 upset at the hands of Poland – a defeat Dragic’s friend and teammate on the national team, Luka Doncic, took personally saying that he “let the country down”. Even in the defeat, Dragic showed that he has plenty left to offer the Bulls this season.

But there is another recent memory that Dragic holds that he says still bothers him to this day.

Haunted by Finals Letdown

“Every athlete, every basketball player wants to win a championship, and it’s the same thing with me,” Dragic said on Media Day. “I’ve already been close with Miami. Unfortunately, I got hurt in the NBA Finals and it still — to this day I cannot sleep well because I want to be back. I still have that hunger and I feel good. I feel healthy. I’m 36 years old. I’m not the youngest anymore, but I still have that passion and that is the most important.”

That was Dragic’s “easy” answer to the rather profound question of what still drives him at this stage of his career. His Heat fell in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2020 NBA Finals in the bubble.

Dragic became Slovenia’s all-time leading scorer this summer and was rather particular about where he played last season.

Now, he heads to a Bulls team with aspirations of making a deep playoff run despite dour prognostications.

Lonzo Ball’s injury is certainly a curse and a gift in some ways.

It has inevitably soured the opinions of many on the Bulls’ chances of having much success this season. They were already projected to take a slide amid some dramatic changes to the Eastern Conference landscape. Images of last season’s second-half collapse are still too fresh in our collective memory to see this team is better prepared for that on paper.

Dragic is expected to bring that experience and leadership to a squad still light on playoff battle-tested players.

Dragic’s Role With Bulls

Ball’s absence not only leaves a void in terms of his production. But it also creates a hole in the starting lineup. There has been some thought that Bulls head coach Billy Donovan would turn to the newly-signed veteran having seen what the other options have to offer last season.

“I’ve always been an admirer of Goran,” Donovan told reporters. ”Whether it’s through leadership or the way he plays, playing on the ball, off the ball, I think throughout his career he has just always prided himself on winning and competing. And I think as a veteran guy who’s deep into his career, that kind of player in the locker room can help the entire group.”

Bulls guard Alex Caruso was on that Lakers team and saw how tough Dragic was firsthand.

They can certainly use it.

The bulls went 24-23 without Ball last season including winning just seven games after the All-Star break.

Dragic’s comments about choosing the Bulls over the Mavericks have also been misrepresented. Some believe he was promised 20-25 minutes per night when, in reality, he said that he is still capable of doing so.

But Donovan hinted at not wanting to overtax the 14-year veteran before the playoffs.

“He’s certainly by far the most seasoned, most experienced point guard on our team,” Donovan admitted. “But, at the same point too, at 36 years old – and I think he’d be the first one to admit – he’s not a guy that’s going to play 36 minutes a game.”

While Donovan did leave open the possibility that Dragic starts, he won’t dominate the role.

Bulls Could Create Two Units

This could go beyond a simple starting and bench unit split for the Bulls. That is what they had last year. But, by season’s end, so many players were injured or out that they were starting many of their reserves.

Bulls vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas acknowledged their offseason was focused on protecting themselves against Ball’s absence and addressing their depth.

Dragic, whose signing was initially heavily scrutinized, showed he can help in both regards.

This could lead to a more staggered approach for the team’s stars. One in which he plays alongside a group with DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic where the Bulls can be much more deliberate in their attack. That way, their other unit could feature a more athletic group of Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, Andre Drummond, and Zach LaVine.

Players like Coby White, Patrick Williams, and (eventually) Dalen Terry could fit in either group.

All of these options were not available after Ball went down last season and should lead to a better effort this time to start.