The Chicago Bulls missed the play-in last year, a fate they seem determined not to repeat in 2021-22. After making a win-now move at the trade deadline by dealing for Nikola Vucevic (and trading what became the No. 8 pick in this year’s Draft to Orlando), Chicago entered this offseason with a plan in place to not just shuffle the deck, but buy an entirely new set of cards.
That started with a sign-and-trade for Lonzo Ball, a point guard they long coveted as a counterweight to their superstar two-guard in Zach LaVine, at a price tag of $85 million over four years. To get Ball, they had to ship out Tomas Satoransky, leaving a hole at backup point guard they quickly filled with the defensive-minded Alex Caruso, who was pried out of L.A. on a 4-year, $37 million deal. At that point, it would have been reasonable to assume the Bulls would be done with major moves, but rumblings lingered about their continued interest in DeMar DeRozan via a sign-and-trade as his market seemed to be drying up due to cap space evaporating around the league.
The result was a sign-and-trade in which Chicago sent a 2025 first-round pick to San Antonio along with Thaddeus Young and Al-Farouq Aminu for the right to give DeRozan a 3-year, $85 million contract and build out a core that immediately vaults them into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
There will be ample debates to be had in the coming months about where exactly these deals place Chicago in the hierarchy of the East, but the likely answer is somewhere in the second tier with the Hawks, Heat, and Celtics, all vying for the non-play in spots behind the trio of expected favorites in the Nets, Bucks, and Sixers.
That, of course, begs the question: What is the value of going all-in for what figures to be a mid-seed?
The Bulls have certainly paid the price to get here, but once they made the Vucevic move at the deadline, their bed was made. There were no half measures to be taken once you’ve shuttled off picks and youngsters. It was full steam ahead and, considering the circumstances, they’ve done admirably to build the best possible roster available to them. Risk aversion seemed to be the preferred path for the Bulls in the GarPax era, because you can never lose it all if you hold something back. Arturas Karnisovas seems ready to show Bulls fans that won’t be the case anymore, swinging for the fences in his first full offseason in charge where he had some money to spend.
Chicago will not be the favorites, but there is so much more joy in building something worthy of at least an inkling of hope compared to a resignation to fate. This Bulls team will get buzz as a dark horse capable of a run, a team poised to pounce on an opportunity if it presents itself, even in the face of an apparent juggernaut in Brooklyn and the reigning champs running it back in Milwaukee.
It’s easy to point to the Nets and Bucks and kick the can down the road, promising to give it a go once the current super teams age out, but the secret is, there’s always a new one to fill the void. For years, it was, “Well, when LeBron leaves, that’s when the East will be gettable.” Within two years, the East had new overlords in the form of a two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a dormant superteam in Brooklyn, just waiting for health to arrive. Now, those teams seem fully formed and the Bulls still were willing to push chips in, because their own opportunity to do so had a finite window.
The Bulls have an emerging young superstar in LaVine, set to hit free agency next summer and needing the Bulls to prove why he should stay in Chicago, which meant giving him a roster to believe in. They have at least shown the effort this offseason in doing so and for the first time since the Thibs era, there seems to be real belief from the Chicago faithful that the Bulls may just be back.
Far too often the conversation about basketball shifts to the financial costs, as we’ve been conditioned to show concern for the bottom line of ownership by celebrating savvy cap moves to skirt the luxury tax or discussing how much an addition would “actually cost” once in the tax. In reality, the only people who should be concerned about that should be the owners and the people they pay to worry about that, while fans should be concerned with whether their team is putting together a product they can enjoy. The Bulls have done that this summer and there is something welcome about that, seeing a team say enough is enough and put together something new and exciting, fully understanding that there are no guarantees it works.
There are some odd fits and questions to be resolved with rotations and backcourt/wing combinations, but Billy Donovan gets paid handsomely to find those answers. For now, they are a team with ample talent and an opportunity to vault into the conversation in the East, something Chicago’s been waiting for over the past five-plus seasons.
Ultimately, what the Bulls have done this summer will be judged by the results of this season, but in the moment they have captured the attention of the NBA in a way no team outside of Miami and L.A. has done during this offseason, and there’s something to be lauded about that effort.