The Chicago Bulls have veered off-course. On Wednesday they lost their fourth game in a row, giving them a 3-8 record since the trade that was supposed to have them racing up the standings. Worse, the loss was at the hands of the Orlando Magic, the team on the other side of that trade. Orlando entered the game on a six-game losing streak, and it had been outscored by a combined 60 points in its previous two games. Against the Milwaukee Bucks last Sunday, no Magic starter scored in double figures, an alarming representation of their lack of firepower. In their 115-106 win in Chicago, four staters scored at least 15 points.
Bulls big man Thaddeus Young told the team that it was "playing lifeless basketball" heading into the fourth quarter. Orlando had outscored the Bulls 39-19 in the third. "At that point, we just rolled out of bed and came to work because we had to come," Young told reporters, and then they "were able to come back and show signs of life." All-Star guard Zach LaVine scored 21 fourth-quarter points and the Bulls cut the lead to six points, the closest they'd get. Coach Billy Donovan lamented that they were "were behind defensively just about on every single play" for most of the game and didn't play with the required intensity until it was too late.
"I think one of the great gifts in life is when you're desperate for something," Donovan said. "We don't have that kind of margin for error to not be a desperate team."
And it gets even worse: LaVine will be out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols for at least the next 10-14 days, per NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson. Whatever margin for error Chicago had is now much smaller.
From a big-picture standpoint, the Bulls are not necessarily in crisis. They traded for Nikola Vucevic because they wanted to improve the roster, not because they thought he'd make them an immediate contender. They've started a 19-year-old forward all year, and the front office will make more moves to build the roster around LaVine and Vucevic in the offseason. If you have a drastically different opinion of the trade than you did three weeks ago, I'm not particularly interested in it.
But as far as the immediate future is concerned, yikes. This season clearly has some value to the organization, and it is possible that Chicago might not even make the play-in now. It has fallen to 22-34 and 10th in the East, just one game ahead of the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, two teams that have been through COVID hell. Leading up to the trade deadline, the Bulls could have moved veterans like Young, Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple, but they chose to be buyers. The longer this slide continues, the more second-guessing there will be.
My take: It isn't easy to make a team cohere after a midseason trade. Unless the player addresses a need, fits the system and takes little off the table for his new team (see: Gordon, Aaron), these things take time. In his autobiography, "Rapture," Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse writes that switching out two or three players in a nine-man rotation after the trade deadline "amounts to massive change" just as teams are approaching the playoffs, pointing out that "no other pro sport experiences such roster chaos so late in the season." In this case, the Bulls made two trades, effectively swapping Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter, Chandler Hutchison, Daniel Gafford and Luke Kornet for Vucevic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Daniel Theis, Troy Brown Jr. and Javonte Green. Chicago has looked weird for normal reasons.
"I think we're just trying to still find our identity," Young told reporters on Wednesday. "Like, who are we going to be as a team? How we're going to play, what we're going to do," Young said. "On the defensive side of the basketball as well, I think we still have a lot of, 'What are we doing out there?' Or, like, 'How are we supposed to do this?' It's a lot of thinking that's still going on, and trying to process how we need to play and what lineups need to be out there and how these lineups all work together."
Young himself is the best case study here. Individually he has been phenomenal in Donovan's offense, and the best part is that he has reliably made his teammates better. That he has thrived as a playmaking center, though, has made managing the rotation tricky now that Vucevic and Theis are in the picture. It was a big deal when Donovan moved Young and Satoransky into the starting lineup in place of Carter and second-year guard Coby White in the middle of March, but Young was back on the bench in the first game after the deadline, with Vucevic starting next to 23-year-old big Lauri Markkanen.
Predictably, that Markkanen-Vucevic combination was a disaster, and Markkanen has come off the bench since, save for a game in Phoenix in which LaVine was out of the lineup and the 7-footer started at small forward, with rookie Patrick Williams sliding down to shooting guard. On Monday in Memphis, though, Young was a spectator in crunch time despite having scored 20 points in 20 minutes on 10-for-15 shooting. With three and a half minutes left and the Bulls down by five, Theis replaced Young so he could match up with Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas, who had been bullying Vucevic inside. This adjustment didn't work, as Memphis proceeded to have Kyle Anderson, Vucevic's man, set a bunch of high ball screens, coming away with a 101-90 victory.
Against the Magic, Donovan busted out a 2-3 zone in the third quarter, but that didn't work, either. At the beginning of the fourth, he dusted off Aminu, who hadn't played in more than two weeks. Young, the team's best defender, logged just 14 minutes and was on the bench for the final 17. On offense, he is still involved, but it's different. He's getting fewer touches, way fewer elbow touches (2.9 per game post-trade, compared to 6.7 pre-trade) and, though he rarely gets to be the nominal center anymore, he is spending more time on the block.
The good news is that Chicago's new starting lineup hasn't been bad. In 116 minutes, the Satoransky-LaVine-Williams-Young-Vucevic unit has a plus-1.3 net rating, surrendering just 108.9 points per 100 possessions, which is essentially the same as the Phoenix Suns' fifth-ranked defense. To the extent that it is a reflection of their spacing issues, it is a bit of a concern that the Bulls' starters have scored a mediocre 110.2 per 100, about the same rate at which the team has scored all season, but I'd bet that this would have improved in the next few weeks if LaVine had remained in the lineup.
The bad news is that all other Chicago lineups have given up 117.9 points per 100 possessions in 412 minutes since the trade. That's slightly worse than the Sacramento Kings' defense has been this season, and the Kings own the worst defensive rating in NBA history. "We can score, but we just don't get any stops," Young said, succinctly summarizing the state of the team. The problem is that there is not just one problem: The Bulls are giving up more 3s than they were at the beginning of the season and more attempts at the rim. Opponents are shooting better from every area on the court. Some of it -- i.e. Magic wings James Ennis and Gary Harris combining to shoot 8-for-10 from deep -- might be bad luck, but a lot of it is a result of failing to contain the ball, late weakside rotations and opposing ballhandlers feeling comfortable against drop coverage.
Donovan said on Wednesday that Chicago might try more zone, but he has hardly had any practice time to go over it. One potential solution is to defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively, but Donovan doesn't think the issue is a schematic one.
"It's hard to be good at anything defensively if there's not a real sense of desperation on every possession," he said. "We're a team that, if we're put in rotation, we have to scramble and we're having to X-cut and do that kind of stuff, that's probably not our team's strength. Our team's strength is using our length and our physicality."
More often than not, the Bulls' starters have been able to make up for Vucevic's limitations defending in space. Things change when White and Markkanen are on the court and when Theis, who spent a significant portion of the season playing next to Tristan Thompson in Boston, is once again trying to make a two-big frontcourt tenable.
Ideally, the addition of Vucevic would have instantly transformed Chicago into an offensive powerhouse and it would have remained average defensively. Instead, the flashes of offensive brilliance it has shown have been obscured by glaring defensive deficiencies. On Friday, with exactly a month left in the regular season, they will host the same Memphis team that outscored them 31-16 in the final frame four days ago. The Grizzlies are eighth in the West with a 27-25 record, but it hasn't been pretty. While their spacing isn't pristine, their shot profile isn't modern and their second-best player has been sidelined all year, they've consistently found ways to win. Months removed from their 4-4 stretch without Ja Morant, I am still not sure how they pulled it off. Without LaVine, Chicago needs that kind of energy. It needs to conjure the desperation that Donovan keeps talking about and get enough stops to survive. Otherwise, a once-promising season could go fully off the rails.