The Chicago Bulls are in freefall.
This wasn't going to a title-contending season, but it wasn't supposed to be this either. They're 11-18, coming off a 150-124 loss -- yes, really -- to the Minnesota Timberwolves, which followed a 114-91 loss to the New York Knicks. They've allowed 123.5 points per 100 possessions during their four-game losing streak, and they've allowed 117.1 per 100 since Nov. 30, during which time they've gone 2-7, beating only the Dallas Mavericks without Luka Doncic and the Washington Wizards without Bradley Beal.
The Bulls' defense, which fared pretty well earlier in the season, now ranks 17th. Their offense ranks 22nd, despite DeMar DeRozan being even more efficient than he was last year and Zach LaVine's percentages rising in December. And Lonzo Ball is not walking through that door anytime soon.
It's bad in Chicago. It's the type of bad that invites speculation about the big-picture direction of the franchise, and it's the type of bad that tends to precipitate reports of disharmony behind the scenes.
Take it away, Shams Charania of The Athletic:
The Bulls have held multiple team meetings to try to work out their issues, and that has included one-on-one, face-to-face sitdowns between DeRozan and LaVine, according to team and league sources who were granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on team dynamics. DeRozan and LaVine have always had a strong mutual respect for each other. Only 10 months ago, over All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, the stars proclaimed themselves as the NBA's best duo. They maintain a good personal relationship. But their meetings have not led to in-game results so far, with a level of on-court, stylistic tension simply festering throughout the season and being magnified due to the win-loss record.
"I think everybody goes through ups and downs, just like every team does," LaVine told The Athletic on Tuesday when asked about the matter. "Obviously if we're not winning games, not everybody's going to be happy. It's not going to look as good as it was before. It's all glitter and show when you're winning games. But when you're losing games and you're trying to do the same things it's turmoil. Everybody has their right to their own opinion. For me, I keep my head down. I work on my game and try to help my team. I help try to lead the team. That's where I stand. I just try to take it day by day and evaluate how we're doing."
And take it away, Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Sources indicated that there was a blowup between players at halftime of the Timberwolves loss, causing Bulls coaches to go into the locker room while they were talking outside. Source said it was the second time it happened. The other was right after a game.— Joe Cowley (@JCowleyHoops) December 20, 2022
Shortly after that tweet, another detail emerged: Multiple players expressed frustration at LaVine in the locker room, NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson tweeted, and the reported blowup escalated from there.
LaVine told The Athletic that "there's a certain level of frustration in people trying to figure out what we can do to help right the ship," while stressing that the team has to "come together collectively." He also said, "I've been improving each and every day I've been coming off an injury. If you're losing, you don't see that." LaVine injured his knee last January, played through pain for the rest of the season and had arthroscopic knee surgery in late May, after the Milwaukee Bucks eliminated Chicago in the first-round of the playoffs. He signed a five-year contract extension worth more than $215 million in July.
The Athletic also reported tension between LaVine and management and between players and the coaching staff:
Even more, multiple league sources and sources close to the organization say LaVine and the Bulls are not seeing eye-to-eye. Over the past few weeks, there's been a palpable feeling across various parts of the franchise of a disconnect over LaVine's situation in Chicago.
In the third season of Billy Donovan's tenure, there's also been increased skepticism within the locker room about the head coach and the coaching staff. For Donovan, the challenge of optimizing DeRozan and LaVine together through a balance of execution, accountability and cooperation looms large. Donovan's job is currently safe, however, as The Athletic reported that he signed a multiyear contract extension prior to the start of this season.
It was already obvious that the Bulls had issues. "We're not playing for each other," guard Goran Dragic told reporters after the loss in Minnesota. "Simple as that." It's unknown, however, how their current struggles and the resulting drama will inform management's approach when it comes to Donovan's future, the Feb. 9 trade deadline and beyond. In March 2021 -- just 19 months ago! -- their then-new front office, led by Arturas Karnisovas, gave up two first-round picks (one turned into Franz Wagner, the other is top-four-protected this season) and center Wendell Carter Jr. in order to acquire Nikola Vucevic. Chicago acquired DeRozan in a sign-and-trade that August, shortly after signing Alex Caruso and nabbing Ball in another sign-and-trade.
Those moves placed the Bulls squarely in win-now mode, which makes a stretch like this one feel like a full-blown crisis. The entire franchise is under immense pressure to win, now.