10 questions for the Bulls heading into the 21-22 season

Sam Smith has ten questions for the Bulls as the new-look team enters Training Camp this week.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

I'm taking the over.

Which if it doesn't work out perhaps means I can get a gambling commercial like just about everyone else in sports these days but Pete Rose.

The wise guys and also ESPN generally seem to agree the Bulls should be better this season, but not so much that they have to pay that much attention. Most of the Vegas and media projections give the Bulls 40-42 wins this season, which means about .500 and a place in the seven through 10 play-in tournament.

Which is an improvement from last season when the Bulls missed the successful new play-in format with a 31-41 record. In an 82-game season, which the NBA returns to this season, that projects to 35 wins. So is the consensus seven-game improvement, which isn't bad, all that some $200 million buys? I suspect much more.

Forty-eight wins? Sixth? Fifth?

The Bulls likely aren't playing for the NBA championship this season. LeBron can take a breath. But they sure look like they have a roster which can compete with any team in the Eastern Conference.

Management performed the biggest roster makeover and largest offseason spending spree in franchise history in just a few months. Gone is almost the entire core that was to be the Bulls, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison. As well as the "glue guys" who were supposed to both help them grow and give them a taste of meaningful competition, Otto Porter Jr., who instead was ready for the glue factory, Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young.

I did think it might work the summer the Bulls signed Satoransky, an analytics favorite, and Young, a personal favorite. Until Young somehow began training to challenge Steph Curry. (memo to self, breathe deeply, count to 10).

That was then.

From the 17 players on the roster to begin last season—including two G-league two-way players—only remaining are Zach LaVine, Coby White, Patrick Williams (both out injured likely until November) and Devon Dotson. So from 15 players for opening day a year ago, there will be just LaVine (we hope) ready to go for the Oct. 5 preseason opener against the Lauri Markkanen/Denzel Valentine Cavs. The Bulls open the regular season Oct. 20 in Detroit.

There are three presumed new starters, center Nikola Vucevic from the late season Carter trade, free agent point guard Lonzo Ball and free agent shooting guard/small forward DeMar DeRozan (Ball and DeRozan were technically sign-and-trade transactions).

The Bulls also added to the bench with Lakers and LeBron favorite Alex Caruso presumably the defensive counterpart with Coby White. And a myriad of mostly defensive-oriented role players who will compete for regular rotations places, including Javonte Green, Troy Brown Jr., Derrick Jones Jr., Tony Bradley and rookies Ayo Dosunmo and Marko Simonovic. There also are some training camp hopefuls, like veterans Stanley Johnson, Alize Johnson and Matt Thomas.

It's the deepest and most talented Bulls roster since the 2010-2012 seasons when the Bulls led the league in wins in back-to-back years before Derrick Rose's ACL injury in the first game of the 2012 playoffs. Then ensued a mishmash of patchwork seasons as the Bulls with unlikely contributions from the likes of Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin, Aaron Brooks, Pau Gasol and Isaiah Canaan dragged themselves to one grinding 50-win season and a pair of first round playoff wins in four years. Then came the disastrous pairing of Dwayne Wade with Rajon Rondo for the 2016-17 season, a .500 record, a splintered team and a first round sweep after Rondo was injured in Boston with a 2-0 series lead.

Jimmy Butler was traded to Minnesota, his first of three stops in three seasons, for a then recovering LaVine, Markkanen and Kris Dunn. The Bulls went on to miss the playoffs the next four seasons playing for three coaches with 50 rotating new teammates and a new management structure. And then without fans.

They're back.

As for the Bulls?

10 questions heading into the 2021-22 NBA season.

1) Zach LaVine, why can't he be the MVP?

It was a decade ago at the training camp opening media day when Derrick Rose, answering a relatively innocuous question about the next step in his career arc, asked why he couldn't be the MVP that season. After all, Rose reasoned, he worked hard, also. And so it was. Zach isn't going to be the MVP. He's playing with way more talent. After all, it was in a rare reflective moment then Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau turned to me and said, "Can you believe we won 62 games with Keith Bogans starting every game at shooting guard?" Zach's starting lineup is loaded with offensive All-Stars in their primes in DeRozan and Vucevic and the talented Mr. Ball. And despite those mostly ignorant best player rankings floating around these days—you can't blame them, actually, since who was watching the Bulls the last few seasons?—LaVine just needs those wins this season to be in the all-NBA discussion. The U.S. won the Olympic gold medal thanks to Kevin Durant. There wasn't a close second to him on the team. But LaVine, often called on by coach Gregg Popovich as a defensive stopper and facilitator, was likely the next best player. Damian Lillard was awful, Jayson Tatum was a selfish, bad shot machine. LaVine had the best shooting percentage and was fifth in scoring and third in assists. Everyone's always told Zach he's not as good. He got to see close up he was as good as any. It's what drove Rose back then. He went to the All-Star game his second season and saw them all up close and realized, "Hey, I can do that." Now it's Zach's time.

2) Finally a Big 3?

Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan qualify as the most prolific offensive trio in Bulls franchise history. And if what we're told is true, the basic formula for success in the NBA is having a Big 3 of scorers. The Bulls didn't have it in any of the championship seasons, which perhaps is a warning flare. But it's a different kind of NBA these days with more sturm and less drang. You better have those arms free to spin that scoring slot machine wheel. It was only way back in 1969-70 when the Bulls had three 20-point scorers in one season, Chet Walker, Bob Love and Clem Haskins. Other than Walker, they weren't as accomplished since each of the Bulls Big 3 has been a recent All-Star. The Bulls were close in Jordan's early career with he, Orlando Woolridge and Quentin Dailey, though the latter two with personal issues weren't always at games. Finally, the Bulls can put out a lineup that would require an opponent to have six defenders to successfully double team. It may be the most accomplished offensive trio in franchise history. It just needs to become one of the most successful.

3) But can they defend?

That's the big ask surrounding the Bulls new roster additions. Yeah, they can score. But who's going to stop anyone? Who cares! At least until the playoffs. It's often said the playoffs are a different season. And they are; they're the defensive season. The regular season, especially in recent years because of the vagaries of virus-relate short seasons and increasing load managements, is the offensive season. It's about three-point shooting and scoring and many managed days off. Not that it was the Bulls plan, but they did get a lot of rest after last season. They should be more ready than most. What teams in this era have to do is match scoring. With switching defenses, games off and pacing ones self for the playoffs, the regular season becomes about outscoring. That's why it's said the playoffs are slower and more physical. Because then defense gets played. No one sits out, there's days off between games, less travel, the same opponent with equalized travel and off days. None of which exists in the regular season. The regular season is fun, Rucker's in the summer. The playoffs are work. So let the Bulls worry about that if and when they get there for the first time in five years. Until then, they've got a shot.

4) Free Zach LaVine?

There always has to be some controversy and a lingering question, so this season it will be for Zach LaVine about his pending unrestricted free agency. He's already mentioned all the generalities about liking things here but expecting to be compensated fairly. He'll be asked regularly, and nice young man that he is will answer patiently and honestly. And not a thing he says matters since every player who has been through it basically makes up his mind right before he has to. But the Bulls have a lot going for them. They can pay LaVine more than any other team, probably by at least $30 million. LaVine is desperate and anxious for team success. But for a team to clear enough salary cap room to sign him they can't have much surrounding talent, the Pistons and Thunder with the most for now. And just about all the big name guys are signing long term deals with other top players, leaving few to join who have two other All-Stars like, you know, the Bulls. Though there should be at least eight LaVine free agent headlines this season. And we know there'll be an anonymous report he's interested in the Knicks. Like, you know, the last 14 free agents who didn't sign there.

5) Is it a Bench Mob?

Though Rose got the acclaim with those 2011 and 2012 teams, the reserves were as responsible for the team's success. In failing to land LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, John Paxson and Gar Forman did an Executive of the Year job in putting together the league's best reserve unit with Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas, Taj Gibson, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik. It was the group in 2012 that was ready to…Oh, well. Now Coby White when ready presumably becomes the bench scoring yin to Alex Caruso's bench defensive yang. With sizable defenders like Tony Bradley, the high flying Derrick Jones and reservoir dog defenders like Mr. Brown and Mr. Green. So a nickname: The Justice League? The Ooh Bang Clan? The Furious Five? Plenty in Reserve? Five Angry Guys? New Kids on the Court? Splinters? The Five Stages of Grief? Hi Five? The Senses? The Prime Elements? The Spicy Guys? Bullievers? There's time.

6) Finally a point guard?

Magic Johnson said only last season Lonzo Ball is the smartest point guard in the NBA. So Ball proved that this summer by deciding to sign with the Bulls? The donut hole the Bulls have been lamenting over since Rose's injuries and eventual trade certainly required dough. And this time the Bulls got their guy. Ball apparently was the target of the new management team pretty much since they arrived and saw Coby White dribble (actually, White's injury may be something of that blessing in disguise since with shoulder surgery he has only been able to practice dribbling and supposedly is much improved). Ball is ideal in transition, which is something every coach talks about in training camp and then rarely does in the regular season. So Bulls coach Billy Donovan will have some adjusting of Ball's style to throw ahead with Vucevic and DeRozan preferring some pick and roll in the paint. Johnson was running the Lakers when he drafted Ball and said he'd be the new face of the franchise. Until the franchise (LeBron) wanted to see the face of Anthony Davis. Initially questioned about his shot and the tendency of his father to shoot his mouth, Ball seems to have worked effectively on both. Ball defends with size and runs the court, which hasn't been much done with the ball for the Bulls since Scottie Pippen.

7) He doesn't play golf, but is Patrick Williams yelling Four?

The former rookie who still is younger than most of this year's rookies presumably moves to the power, inside position, which probably fits his continuing growth spurt. Everyone winced when he refused to shoot last season. It's OK now because the Bulls have DeRozan, Ball and Vucevic with LaVine. Because then Williams not getting the ball much, anyway. So he can relax and play the way he's comfortable. Which is defending, rebounding and taking the occasional three. The starting lineup is a bit defensively challenged, which at least doesn't worry me much. Though Donovan will mix and match lineups and rotations once those first five minutes are past. The Bulls in Summer League force fed Williams point forward. He's not that. He's going to be an ideal stretch four in the NBA where he's perfect for the evolving position. Though limping into the season with a sprained ankle suffered recently during informal workouts and scrimmages among the players. He should return with White early in the regular season in November.

8) So how are the Bulls going to play? Can it be together?

There was immediate concern that LaVine and DeRozan will have trouble playing together because, well, they both like to shoot. Yeah, unlike say Kyrie and KD, Tatum and Brown? Embiid and Simmons? In Philly, one doesn't and that seems to be the problem. DeRozan probably said it best when he heard the doubts and said, "You're all idiots." Actually, he didn't exactly say that, though I believe Westbrook says it often. DeRozan said they'll figure it out, which is what veterans do. There's all sorts of strategy and planning and analytic-izing. And then players get on the floor and make plays. You know, "No, no, no…good shot." Which is why the last teams standing always are the ones with the veterans. Because they listen carefully to the coach and staff, and then adapt to what they see. It's simpler in baseball and football because they are so structured. Basketball flows like dance with improvised movements. In Zach and DeMar we trust.

9) Will the rookies play?

Not much. Imagine that. The Bulls now have too much talent. Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu has some veteran in him the way he plays with a controlled pace and doesn't seem to get rattled. Though it seems difficult to figure where without injuries he'd find backcourt room with LaVine, Ball, Caruso, White, and guys like DeRozan, Green and Brown, who are sort of guards. Bulls fans being more rational, there's no need to throw a quarterback like Dosunmu out there as a rookie. The Windy City Bulls are back after a year away and they've actually got a new Portillos out there. No need to hot dog yet. As for 2020 second rounder Marko Simonovic, he probably should be ordering extra helping of the mac and cheese. They don't eat so many salads in the NBA like they apparently do where he was.

10) Will this be a fun season?

Yes. And away we go with your cavalcade of stars.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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