It's safe to open your eyes and be bullish on the Bulls again.
In a matter of a few days of NBA free agency, the Bulls may have gone from a sub-.500 Eastern Conference hopeful to a veteran, All-Star laden team that should compete with most of the elite in the conference, perhaps not unlike the 2010 free agency makeover that vaulted the Bulls from a playoff hopeful to the winningest record in the NBA.
The Bulls now will start three All-Star players in their primes, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic from the trade with Orlando in March and DeMar DeRozan, the four-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player who comes to the Bulls via free agency in a sign-and-trade maneuver.
The Bulls in the frenzied free agency week also established the franchise with a new brand in acquiring restricted free agent point guard Lonzo Ball, the former No. 2 overall Lakers draft pick, from the New Orleans Pelicans and dynamic guard Alex Caruso from the 2020 Lakers champions.
The cost spread around to the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans Pelicans and Houston Rockets included a future first round draft pick, three second round picks, Thad Young, Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, Al-Farouq Aminu and Daniel Theis. Ryan Arcidiacono's team option was not picked up. Cristiano Felicio signed overseas and the Bulls gave up their Bird rights with Denzel Valentine. Lauri Markkanen still remains on course to play next season on a one-year qualifying offer.
Several of the departing players were valuable contributors for what became a disappointing Bulls season in 2020-21.
It thus leaves the Bulls with just four players, LaVine, Coby White, Markkanen and Patrick Williams, among the 15 who were on the opening day roster last December. It's one of the most complete and remarkable transformations in franchise history and gives the Bulls their strongest lineup since that free agency remodeling in 2010.
Coming off a .500 season in 2009-10, the Bulls anchored by Derrick Rose remade the roster with the additions of Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik, Kyle Korver and Keith Bogans. It was an initial disappointment because of the failed recruitment of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
But that scrappy overhauled Bulls team with scoring and depth won the most games in the NBA, a 21-game improvement from 2009-10 and appeared on the verge of an NBA title the following season when Rose suffered a serious knee injury in the first game of the 2012 playoffs and was lost for a year. Still, the Bulls persevered and in 2014-15 knitted together their last star driven team that resembles this group assembled by Vice-president of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas and his staff. That 2014-15 Bulls teams with three All-Star level players with Rose, Pau Gasol and an emerging Jimmy Butler won 50 games, knocked out Milwaukee and young star Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round of the playoffs and then held a 2-1 lead against Cleveland in the conference semifinals. But in a bizarre close, James made a winning Game 4 shot to match Rose's from earlier and the Cavaliers won in six games. The Bulls came apart the next season and missed the playoffs, trading Rose in 2016 and then Butler in 2017 to begin the rebuild.
Under the leadership of Arturas Karnisovas, the Bulls have been completely rebuilt in a short period of time.
But after three inept season and two coaches, the Bulls hired Karnisovas to reconstruct the organization. He hired coach Billy Donovan and then in March traded two first round draft choices and Wendell Carter Jr. for Orlando All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. The team was unable to regain its footing when LaVine had an extended absence because of Covid-19. But the Vucevic addition was just the appetizer.
Karnisovas dug in for the main course once free agency began last week.
First, he addressed the yawning omission of a high level point guard to buttress the scoring of LaVine and Vucevic. Karnisovas put together a sign-and-trade package that enabled the Bulls to acquire 23-year-old Lonzo Ball, the swift 6-6 fourth-year point guard who last season for New Orleans averaged 14.6 points and 5.7 rebounds. Ball fixed his awkward jump shot enough to shoot 38 percent on threes and raise his free throw shooting percentage to 78 percent from below 50 percent his first two NBA seasons.
Ball, who also is a recorded rap singer, is an excellent transition offensive player who could recreate the former Clippers hip hop Lob City game with the high flying LaVine. Ball is excellent against pressure defense, which confounded the Bulls last season, and a top defender against the opponent's point of attack.
Lonzo Ball, formerly with the Pelicans, defends a driving Zach LaVine.
Though the surprise coup was the addition of the 6-6 DeRozan, who was sought by several teams and rumored to be joining the Lakers at the request of James. But Karnisovas put together a package for the Spurs and an appealing contract that effectively enabled the Bulls to acquire two of the top 10 free agents from this class in Ball and DeRozan.
DeRozan, 32 earlier this month, is one of the game's elite scorers, having averaged more than 20 points per game in his last eight seasons as as much as 27. He joins LaVine as a player who has scored at least 50 points in an NBA game while Vucevic has scored more than 40 points several times. With that Big Three trio, the Bulls are capable of being one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA to match any in an era when scoring is so much emphasized.
DeRozan also gives the Bulls an alternative with his mid range game that is regarded among the best in the NBA, and also being a player like LaVine who is adept at taking big, closing game shots.
LaVine and Vucevic can stretch the floor with their excellent three-point shooting, both around 40 percent last season, while Ball can provide change-of-pace play with his fast break offense and passing.
With second year phenom Patrick Williams likely at power forward and showing offensive prowess in Summer League, the Bulls can boast high level offense and defense from Ball and Williams.
Not to balance too heavily to the offensive side, Karnisovas dragged the popular 27-year-old Caruso away from the Lakers. The 6-4 point guard fond of head bands was not only a fan favorite but a favorite of LeBron James for Caruso's unrelenting play on defense. Though primarily a reserve, the Lakers relied on Caruso to start and play more than 30 minutes in their championship winning Game 6 in 2020. Both Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson had sub-par scoring games amid Caruso's defensive harassment. Caruso isn't a prolific scorer, but he shot 40 percent on threes last season.
With the loss of the popular Theis to the Houston Rockets as a free agent, the Bulls remain in the market for a big man and have several possibilities idling. Plus, the primary new additions are coming off their best or near best seasons.
Ball had his highest scoring and shooting season in 2020-21, DeRozan still averaging 21.6 points had a career high 6.9 assists as he continued to develop his game as a point forward type who can both score and create for others. Now with Ball, LaVine, Vucevic and DeRozan, the Bulls have four players with high level passing abilities. Vucevic ranked fourth among centers in assists behind only MVP Nikola Jokic, Bam Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns.
The team still has to live up to its new expectations. They come at it with eyes wide open. Ours, too, once again.