Give the Chicago Bulls credit for trying, at least. In an NBA world defined by teams either trading away all of their picks or hoarding everyone else's, they strove for a middle ground. Rather than give up all of their draft equity for a single star, they spread a healthy amount across several players. Two picks for Nikola Vucevic. One for DeMar DeRozan. Some role players for Lonzo Ball. The idea was deceptively simple: if everyone else is going to sell out for two or three great players, we can corner the market and flawed but good ones.
For a moment, it seemed as if they might've found something. Chicago held the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for significant chunks of last season. DeRozan looked like an MVP candidate. The best version of the Bulls presented a viable alternative to the NBA's great binary. They didn't tank for stars and they didn't exactly trade for them either. They traveled to the island of misfit basketball players and returned with a surprisingly coherent team.
We know how the story is going to end because we got a preview of it last season. Superstars create a margin of error that the Bulls simply didn't have. A rash of injuries limited Chicago to 46 wins a season ago. Denver won 48 games without Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. because winning any fewer with Nikola Jokic is essentially impossible. The Bulls have no such player, and their margin of error is therefore razor thin. Knock a few Jenga pieces out of place and the whole tower comes crumbling down.
Ball hasn't played this season. It's not clear when he will. Vucevic was an All-Star in Orlando and is more like a league-average starting center in Chicago. A year after shooting 53.5 percent in the clutch, DeRozan is at roughly 35 percent this season. Chicago went from one of the NBA's best late-game finishers to an 0-7 clutch record thus far this season. Taken individually each of these issues are surmountable. Together they make a rather precarious situation increasingly untenable. The cracks are already beginning to widen.
On Friday, Zach LaVine voiced his displeasure with being benched against the Orlando Magic after starting the game 1-of-14 from the field. "I got to do a better job at the beginning of the game to make my shots, but you play a guy like me down the stretch," LaVine said. "That's what I do. Do I like the decision? No. Do I have to live with it? Yeah." The Bulls are 16 games into a five-year commitment to LaVine at max money. Rarely will a team bench its franchise player so early in a season, especially when the rest of its roster is in a transitional stage. The Bulls may be committed to LaVine, but that's not as true for some of the other major players here.
Vucevic turned 32 in October and is on an expiring contract. DeRozan turned 33 over the summer, and while he is still playing quite well, there's no telling how much longer that will be the case. The window to win with them is right now, yet even though the Bulls managed to acquire them at reasonable prices, they still don't have enough leftover draft capital to meaningfully build around them. They owe one first-round pick to Orlando and another to San Antonio, making another sizable trade towards contention difficult. There's not an obvious path back into the contender's circle, and the status quo grows leakier by the day. That leaves just one viable alternative.
The all-in or all-out nature of the modern NBA creates annual disappointments by default. There's one championship available to the dozen or so teams each year that have pushed their chips in for it, and naturally, one or two of those teams wind up walking away from the table per year. Utah notably did it this offseason when, after years of postseason disappointment, Danny Ainge finally dealt Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert for a haul of picks and young talent. Portland did so on a smaller scale at the deadline by dealing C.J. McCollum, but it did so intending to reboot rather than rebuild.
Both examples are potentially instructive, because both paths are theoretically available here. The obvious way to defuse the time bomb of an aging roster is to give away every player that isn't nailed down. There's an obvious trade partner waiting if the Bulls choose to make LaVine or DeRozan available in the Lakers. Hold your nose through a few months of Russell Westbrook and you've replenished your draft coffers with two of in basketball. You might even inadvertently stumble into a third in the process.
The pick Chicago owes Orlando this season is top-four protected. As of right now, the Bulls are just a game-and-a-half ahead of Orlando in the standings. The Magic currently have the NBA's fourth-worst record. Commit to a tank soon enough and Chicago could sneak its way into the hunt for Victor Wembanyama. They'd surely be happy enough just to keep the pick at No. 4. There will be trade markets for Vucevic, Alex Caruso and perhaps even Ball if the Bulls want to explore them. If Chicago has determined that its middle-ground is more of a half measure and wants to explore something a bit more traditional, the reset button is sitting on the table ready to be pressed.
But the Portland path is available here too. If the Bulls were to trade only DeRozan without taking on long-term money, they could merely let Vucevic's contract expire and potentially enter next offseason with max cap space or something close to it. Chicago could then reconstruct a younger supporting cast on the fly. With players like Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams in place, there's already room for modest improvement. Force-feed them shots and minutes and their upside only increases. LaVine isn't Damian Lillard. He's not so singularly gifted that the Bulls should feel comfortable leaving him on an island as they reconstruct around him. But he's only 27 and committed for five years. His window is wider than this current roster's. He can wait out a year or of two of change.
That change probably needs to come in some form or another, though, because both the literal and figurative stars are failing to align for Chicago in the way that they did a season ago. It turns out, there's a reason so few teams have adopted their approach to roster-building. You need everything to go right when you try to win without multiple megastars, and for Chicago, almost everything is going wrong this season.