Looking back at 2021: a new era of Bulls basketball is born

This is when we look back at the previous year and think, snooze, fireworks again? Didn't I just see that at the Kane County Cougars Atomic Pork Chops night? For the Bulls in 2021, the skies did light up with perhaps not so much a Roman Candles' worth of highlights, though there were a few special ones these last few months. But with something of a smoke bomb that obscured basically every tenet in most of the franchise's history and perhaps might even be something of a template for the way NBA teams reconfigure and light up their futures.

Sports itself tends to be a virus that infects the senses, emotions and often the good sense of viewers. Talk about being sick about a result. That's something everyone has felt.

It was a shaky start to 2021 for the Bulls as the 2020-21 season began just before Christmas. And within a few days a third of the roster and several coaching and team staff members were in vans driving back from Washington, D.C. with virus positives or potential exposures, which were the rage then.

January 5: And then with 10 seconds left in Portland and a double-digit lead melting down to one with eight Damian Lillard points in a minute, Zach LaVine made a left wing three pointer for the winning basket.

February 1: Lauri Markkanen should have been a Knick. At the scene of his career best game when he had 33 points and eight threes and made New Yorkers cry about favoring Kristaps Porzingis, Markkanen led the Bulls with 30 points to beat the resurgent Thibodeaus. Lauri, we had so much hope.

February 10: The maybe-there-is-some-hope game when despite Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson all scoring more than 20 points, Zach LaVine with 46 and Coby White with 30 (17 threes between them) easily defeated the New Orleans Pelicans.

March 25: Bulls acquire Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu from Orlando for Vucevic, Otto Porter Jr. and two first round picks, 2021 an 2023. Though Vucevic was the fulcrum, a two-time veteran All-Star center, the significance was the first round selections. For essentially the first time in franchise history, the Bulls were getting out of the first round of the draft to pursue veteran players. They did that to an extent in the championship 90s, but that's because they had complete teams. When the Bulls built a champion with Michael Jordan and a contender with Derrick Rose, it was always through the draft dating back to Jerry Krause's start when the Reinsdorf group purchased the franchise in 1985.

Nikola Vucevic in late March of 2021 joining the team for a slight to San Antonio where he would make his Bulls debut.

The only time in franchise history the Bulls attempted to compete through trades and free agency, or what represented free agency in the early NBA years, was when general manager Pat Williams was hired by the Bulls in 1969. Williams first move the day he was hired was to trade for Hall of Famer Chet Walker. Then he reacquired Norm Van Lier. And that team was the only Bulls team to reach the conference finals until Michael Jordan's Bulls teams.

March 25: Bulls acquire Daniel Theis, Troy Brown Jr. and Javonte Green in a three-team deal in which Luke Kornet goes to Boston and Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison to Washington. The immediate results of the two trades weren't positive with the Bulls not improving much and the Wizards benefitting, at least, from Gafford's active play. The Bulls missed the play-in tournament and Washington didn't. And the fit with Theis wasn't proving effective. But the significance was becoming clear.

As famed coach Tex Winter used to tell Krause, "You win with men."

So it's not new, but perhaps hasn't been as popular as it should be in the NBA. Karnisovas and deputy Marc Eversley were making that clear. They were restructuring the Bulls with veterans. And it didn't have to be the top tier LeBron, Kawhi, Embiid, Durant super star level players that have been blinding teams in free agency. Then there was no second place; you either caught the big fish or went home hungry.

The Bulls were also quietly making a statement. Enough with the kids, as talented as they may become, assuming they ever do. You win in the NBA with men, and you win in the NBA with teams. Pay them and play them.

Zach LaVine scored a career-high 50 points against Atlanta back in April of 2021.

April 9: Zach LaVine sets a career high with 50 points and Nikola Vucevic adds 25. And the Bulls lose by double digits in Atlanta in what in some respects may have been the most important game of the season. Not because of LaVine's great scoring game. But Markkanen with five, Daniel Theis four, Toms Satoransky zero in 33 minutes starting, Patrick Williams and Thad Young starting and four each.

That game perhaps more than any other might have been the impetus to convince basketball chief Arturas Karnisovas and coach Billy Donovan that there had to be another way. The acquisition of Nikola Vucevic was the beginning. Enough with the experiments, the potential high ceilings and the hopes and dreams. Time for hoops and screens.

Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan joined the team in what became a busy Bulls offseason.

August 9: The Bulls acquire Lonzo Ball in what essentially was free agency, but then put together a sign-and-trade deal to send New Orleans Satoransky and Garrett Temple and a draft pick. Point guard had been a priority, but critics continued to lament the departure of draft picks. The Bulls also agree to a free agent deal with Lakers reserve Alex Caruso, who had sought to remain with the Lakers.

August 11: The Bulls in also was what mostly a free agent deal but became a sign and trade acquire DeMar DeRozan from the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs received Thad Young and Aminu, plus a first round pick and two seconds. Jerry Krause never would have believed it. Neither did most of the so called experts. Both Sports Illustrated and ESPN rated the deals poorly for the Bulls and opined the Spurs made out better. Both gave the Spurs higher instant analysis grades. Analytics-minded ESPN observations gave the Bulls a D-minus for the acquisition. It was not a lonely opinion.

August 29: Markkanen goes to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal in which the Bulls obtain Derrick Jones Jr. and a first round pick from Portland.

October 22: Both the could-be-something and what-were-they-thinking game when Zach LaVine had 32, DeMar DeRozan 26 and Lonzo Ball a triple double in an easy early season win over the Pelicans. Didn't DeRozan say Big Four?

November 1: DeRozan with 37 and LaVine with 26 and the Bulls with 30 assists in Boston as Marcus Smart sees how basketball is supposed to be played and calls out his selfish teammates following a dominant Bulls win. The Celtics go into the earliest team meeting of the last decade.

November 15 & December 19: DeMar DeRozan with identical 38-point games to each time defeat his hometown Lakers team that passed on a chance to acquire him this summer—he secretly did want to return home—and DeRozan smiles when asked if the twin takedowns were a coincidence. The second was his first game back from virus. Former Laker Ball who was supposed to be the new face of the franchise when drafted No. 2 overall averaged 23 points, six rebounds and six assists in the two games while shooting 10 of 19 on threes.

December 2: That's the Big Three we had in mind when DeRozan had 34 points and LaVine and Nikola Vucevic 27 each in a tough win in New York.

DeMar DeRozan helps clinch a win over Brooklyn in early December.

December 4: Preseason favorite this as LaVine with 31 and DeRozan with 29 outplay Kevin Durant and James Harden in the Bulls win in Brooklyn. Ball's three is the winner with 18 seconds left after DeRozan's 13 points in the fourth quarter. You know, the city they have to say twice, New York, N.Y. as in Bulls win, Bulls win again.

So gone in a few months was the youth and hope of all those lottery drawings, the Bulls with just three players remaining from the start of the 2020-21 season, Zach LaVine, Coby White and Patrick Williams. Out were three lottery selections, another first and a promising second in Gafford and the former lottery picks who weren't always fitting, Otto Porter and Thad Young.

It made a big difference that the Butler trade yielded a fellow All-Star in LaVine, albeit younger. And then the Bulls did what teams weren't supposed to do, add older, veteran All-Star type players, though the so called second or third tier. But what that did was create an atmosphere of selflessness along with the youthful Ball. Everyone was paid, and Zach comes up this summer with a group of players he loves being with.

No more kids fighting for stats and that first big contract. Guys who haven't ultimately achieved anywhere else with some more motivation. Everyone says it's about winning. But once you've been paid and not been as successful, being part of a fulsome team can be appealing.

And perhaps reminds the rest of the NBA you don't have to intentionally lose games and you don't need only the superstar brands. That good players with a competent coach with a belief system can enable you to dream.

DeMar DeRozan is mobbed by his teammates after hitting a buzzer-beating three in Indiana.

December 31: Bulls take over first place in the Eastern Conference going into 2022.

Happy New Year.