The NBA's tanking-contending binary is what created the 2021-22 Chicago Bulls. The majority of the league's front offices subscribe to the theory that contending for a championship means acquiring multiple All-NBA players, and the two simplest ways of doing so are being good enough to attract them or bad enough to draft them. Bulls president Arturas Karnisovas recognized a possibility inefficiency and slid into the middle ground.
He'd watched teams like the Lakers (Anthony Davis), Nets (James Harden) and Clippers (Kawhi Leonard) bankrupt themselves for a single star and instead diversified his portfolio. Instead of giving up five first-round picks for one top-15 player, he gave up three to get two top-50 talents in DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. He took an $80 million swing on a distressed asset in Lonzo Ball, spent half as much to pluck Alex Caruso out of Los Angeles and bet on his incumbent young talent to produce a passable bench. The result was a rarity in the modern NBA. Chicago, like many aspirational big-markets that have come before it, invested meaningful dollars, draft picks and young players into winning immediately, yet came out of the process without a single player ranked in the top 25 of our preseason top-100. Instead, they had four players ranked between No. 28 and No. 66.
It's easy to forget this after their embarrassing first-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but Chicago's bold experiment of just adding a bunch of very good players actually looked like a smashing success as recently as two months ago. Despite entering the season as a projected play-in team and dealing with a smattering of mid-season injuries and COVID diagnoses, the Bulls held the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed as recently as Feb. 25. Their intended closing lineup of Ball, Caruso, DeRozan, Vucevic and Zach LaVine played just 95 minutes together, but blasted opponents by 34 points in that span.
It'd be easier to rely on that sample if it was a bit bigger. As good as the Bulls were at their best, virtually every traditional marker suggested this was a team playing above its head. Their 2-20 regular-season record in games against playoff teams (not including their meaningless finale over Minnesota) has been repeated ad nauseam, but it only scratches the surface. The Bulls ranked between 15th and 22nd in net rating in each of the first three quarters… but squeaked out a number of extra wins by outscoring opponents by 15.3 points per 100 possessions in the clutch. Can they really rely on DeRozan to shoot 53.5 percent in clutch situations every year? A year ago, he was just above 45 percent. Their defense ranked sixth at the end of December… but fell to 26th the rest of the way. Injuries played a part. So, too, did shooting luck. Bulls opponents were 2.3 percent better on wide-open 3's and 2.2 percent better on open 3's once the calendar flipped from November to December.
This might not be so concerning if the best Bulls were a bit younger. DeRozan will turn 33 this offseason and is coming off of a season better than almost any he produced in his 20s. Vucevic turns 32 around opening night and displayed meaningful decline last season. Health isn't the only concern here. The Bulls, at their best, might have been good enough for genuine contention this season. There's just no guarantee that they are going to be that good again, healthy or not, once age and luck are factored in.
That puts the Bulls in a relatively unusual position. They aren't all the way in, like the Clippers and Lakers are. With one foot in the contending circle and one foot out of it, they could feasibly go in either direction. Despite all they gave up to land Ball, DeRozan and Vucevic, there is still plenty of young talent here. Patrick Williams was a No. 4 overall pick 16 months ago. Ayo Dosunmu made a compelling All-Rookie case, and forgotten man Coby White flashed the scoring promise that made him a lottery pick in 2019. Even LaVine (27) and Ball (24) have significant room for growth.
If the Bulls want to bet on their improvement outpacing their veterans' decline, well, that wouldn't be a crazy bet. It might also leave room for a pivot into something better if the right opportunity arises. Ball and Caruso are the only Bulls currently on the books when Chicago-native Anthony Davis can become a free agent in 2024. Even with LaVine presumably re-signing on a max deal, there should be plenty of room for a second if the Bulls need it. If Williams, White and Dosunmu improve as much as the Bulls hope, they might be able to trade for the sort of top-15 talent that has thus far been unavailable to them even earlier. For all we know, Williams is a future All-NBA player himself. Maybe the Bulls just hold everyone and see what happens.
But there's going to be a real temptation here to keep hitting singles and doubles primarily because nobody else seems to want to do it. As the Lakers found firsthand, trading for Davis is a franchise-altering endeavor. As the Bulls found firsthand, trading for DeRozan's and Vucevic's doesn't need to be. Could White, Derrick Jones Jr. and the first-round pick Portland currently owes them get the spare wing they desperately need? There should be a few available. The Clippers have a surplus and could probably spare Marcus Morris. Phoenix might look to offload Jae Crowder's salary with a Cam Johnson extension looming. Harrison Barnes is perpetually available.
Or they could think bigger. With a Jazz breakup looming, might Utah consider Williams as the centerpiece in a Rudy Gobert trade? Chicago's flirtations with Jakob Poeltl at the deadline suggests it knew it needed a rim-protector even before Giannis Antetokounmpo destroyed them in the first round. Turn Vucevic and Williams into Gobert and the Bulls could present some of the more imposing defensive lineups in basketball even with DeRozan on the floor. Gobert has never played with one All-Defense-caliber guard. The Bulls, in Caruso and Ball, have two.
If nothing else, the uncertainty allows the Bulls to operate from a position of strength. Unlike the Clippers, they can't be bled dry over a single player because there's no single player they absolutely need to acquire. They get to decide how far in they want to go this offseason. If they're aggressive enough, they probably could take a run at the 2023 title. If not, there are more patient paths to contention in 2024, 2025 and 2026 available.