Sports

No Bull—Chicago’s Reshaped Roster Could Be a Threat

The win-now acquisitions of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso set the stage for a high-stakes season for the Chicago Bulls. Zach LaVine, one of the NBA’s best scorers, can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. But the Bulls showed the past two days that they are all in on competing, and this revamped roster has the potential to be the best team of LaVine’s career.

LaVine became an efficient 27 point-per-game scorer last season on a game fueled by explosive at-rim baskets and deep 3s, yet he will now share a backcourt with DeRozan, whose midrange style is a relic of a bygone era of basketball. But DeRozan’s shot selection and playmaking also quietly evolved in his three seasons with the Spurs. Since 2018-19, DeRozan ranks third in isolation scoring efficiency among all 104 players to log at least 200 chances, according to Second Spectrum. Only Steph Curry and James Harden rank ahead of him. Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are right behind him.

This statistic may come as a surprise, considering DeRozan’s reputation as an inefficient player. But even on the Spurs, a team without a lot of knockdown 3-point shooting on the roster, DeRozan was able to feast, getting to the basket or pulling up from midrange.

That uptick in scoring efficiency is a by-product of DeRozan’s playmaking development. He takes better shots and looks to pass far more frequently. He weaponizes the threat of his midrange jumper, snaking his way into the paint and using jabs or pump fakes to draw defenders out of position and open passing windows. He plays with a seasoning that he lacked earlier in his career, when he was making All-Star teams.

DeRozan could be a perfect mentor for LaVine, who faces similar questions about his passing ability. But more immediately, DeRozan will provide balance as a shot creator worthy of taking the ball out of LaVine’s hands. DeRozan can now create opportunities for him, or carry the load on nights when he’s feeling it. This is why the Bulls will sign him to a three-year, $85 million contract, after sending Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, a protected first-round pick, and two future second-rounders to the Spurs to acquire him.

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan had a thing for three-guard lineups during his final season with the Thunder. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schröder formed one of the most devastating offensive lineups in the league during the 2019-20 regular season. Expect Donovan to do the same by rolling out lineups with LaVine, DeRozan, and Ball.

The new Bulls trio has complementary skills. LaVine gets to the basket and takes a lot of 3s. DeRozan is a midrange artist. Ball has become a knockdown spot-up shooter who plays well within the flow of the offense by facilitating and cutting.

It’s worth noting that Ball’s improvement as a shooter came once he was connected with Pelicans assistant Fred Vinson, who has become something of a shooting coach guru over the past few years. Ball made 39.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s the past two seasons in New Orleans. Maintaining his mechanics without Vinson’s guidance will be a new challenge. But his success is encouraging.

With DeRozan and Ball able to run the offense, LaVine won’t need to carry such a massive offensive load. He could play off the ball more often, utilizing his versatile shooting and lurking as a constant lob threat. With Nikola Vucevic’s ability to facilitate from the elbows and the post, as well as score inside or from 3, Chicago’s offense has the potential to play different ways and generate baskets from a wide variety of players.

Getting stops will be a concern, though. Ball is a strong defensive playmaker away from the ball who can alertly rotate into the paint to deter would-be attackers, jump into passing lanes for interceptions, and close out onto shooters with both energy and fundamentals. But as a man-to-man defender, he isn’t a stopper. Neither is LaVine. DeRozan seemed allergic to defense in San Antonio. And having Vucevic, a solid-at-best rim protector, behind them to clean up mistakes doesn’t inspire much optimism for Chicago’s ability to have an average defense, never mind a very good one.

After signing with the Bulls in 2018, Jabari Parker said, “They don’t pay players to play defense.” Maybe he was right. Even if the Bulls stink on defense, they’re more than equipped to outscore enough teams to grab a playoff or play-in tournament spot. This team will undoubtedly be fun. But being more than a team that just makes the playoffs requires defense.

Caruso was an important signing in that regard, adding someone who can get stops at the point of attack. Though he didn’t make an All-Defensive team last season, he did receive a few votes. Much like Ball, he’s a good help defender. But he can also be trusted to toggle between wings and guards on the ball. For years, his mere presence on the court helped fuel the Lakers’ defense; he should make a similar impact in Chicago.

Finding more players like Caruso is critical. The Bulls aren’t finished filling out the roster. They have the room exception, worth $4.9 million, still available, as well as the ability to sign league-minimum contracts and sign-and-trade Lauri Markkanen, a restricted free agent. Chicago needed a backup center and found one on Wednesday morning in Tony Bradley, who excelled last season with the Sixers and Thunder. Finding anyone who can play defense at wing or forward should be next: Justise Winslow or Andre Iguodala? How about Jarred Vanderbilt or Stanley Johnson? Options are slim.

The Bulls constructed a roster that will be competitive. Defenses will have a hard time stopping them from scoring. Fans will want to watch and fill up seats. This is progress. It beats anything Bulls fans have experienced since before the Fred Hoiberg era. But going from a nice team that competes for the playoffs to being a contender will require Patrick Williams to also make a leap with his own development.

After getting drafted fourth in 2020, Williams showed promise as a rookie, flashing versatility on defense and the ability to create his own shots. As noted in the video analysis of his game below, Williams takes a heavy dose of midrange jumpers at this stage of his career but displays the touch to potentially become a more potent dribble-jumper shooter behind the arc.

The Bulls could also be positioned to make a play for free agents or trade targets. If recent sign-and-trade acquisitions have proved anything, having cap space is overrated. Chicago spent heavily this summer but all of the players it acquired have manageable, tradable contracts. After so many years of losing, it became easy to forget the Bulls are a big-market team with one of the most recognizable names worldwide. Looking competent and competitive on the court could be appealing to the next star who becomes available.

There’s immense risk in Chicago’s approach, though. Acquiring Vucevic required giving up first-round picks in 2021 (Franz Wagner was drafted eighth) and in 2023 (top four protected) or 2024 (top three protected). The pick the Bulls traded for DeRozan will go to the Spurs in either 2025 or 2026, meaning they can’t deal another first until 2027 at the earliest. A lack of draft picks will restrict their ability to make big moves via trade.

Of course, the next domino is having LaVine commit beyond this season. If Chicago is a competitive playoff team, he’ll have all the more reason to sign a five-year, $205 million extension next summer. If not, a long line of teams will be interested in adding him. LaVine will have options, and the pressure is on the Bulls to start winning games. Pressure sure beats the frustrating irrelevancy of the GarPax era. When you’re under pressure, you have something to lose.

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