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The Bulls’ big market vision is coming into focus

The Bulls are done thinking small about team building.

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The Chicago Bulls spent the 20+ years following the end of their Michael Jordan-led dynasty as the biggest small market team in the NBA. With John Paxson as the long-tenured leader of the front office under owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls built their teams with a conservative approach that prioritized stability, flexibility, and profitability. When they got some good luck on their side, it worked out pretty well.

Paxson hit on a string of draft picks in the ‘00s that laid the foundation for a playoff-caliber team without a superstar. That changed when the Bulls cashed in a 1.8 percent chance to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft and rights to Derrick Rose. Chicago leveled up again two years later when it hired Tom Thibodeau, a revolutionary defensive mind who earned his shot at the right time to take advantage of the league’s changing rules. He took the Bulls from a No. 8 seed to a No. 1 seed in his first year as Rose became the youngest MVP in league history.

Those Bulls teams were built through two methods: taking high-character college veterans in the draft, and signing role players to mid-sized contracts on the free agent market. When Chicago took its big swings at a superstar, it routinely came up whiffing. It couldn’t land Kobe Bryant after a highly publicized trade request, it struck out on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010, and it missed once more on Carmelo Anthony in an attempt to salvage the last vestiges of that era. Carlos Boozer and Ben Wallace were as good as it would get.

When bad luck came for the Bulls in the form of Rose’s injury issues, the front office couldn’t find any way out. Instead, Chicago management reverted back to its worst tendencies with decidedly different results. Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine, and Tony Snell were a far cry from Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Taj Gibson. They threw foolish amounts of money at hometown players like Wade and Jabari Parker in an attempt to sell some tickets and capture the lost local magic of Rose. They fired Thibodeau to hire another buzzy name on the coaching carrousel — Fred Hoiberg — only to see he couldn’t live up to the hype.

The Bulls lucked their way into a superstar anyway when Jimmy Butler scratched and clawed his way into one as a former No. 30 overall draft pick. When it came time to pay him his value, Chicago balked. The Bulls traded Butler two years before his contract expired for a package of young players and one pick swap to start a long descent into the NBA abyss.

Over the next four years, the Bulls would win the fewest games in the NBA. Head coach Jim Boylen was an embarrassment to the team and the city on and off the court, with a high school gym teacher routine that didn’t play well with seasoned pros. As the losses piled up, fans started to take matters into their own hands calling for an overdue change in the front office. ‘Fire GarPax’ billboards and grassroots protests popped up around the city. Things reached another level when Chicago hosted the 2020 All-Star Game and the locals loudly chanted ‘Fire GarPax’ during an interview with aspiring All-Star Zach LaVine. Reinsdorf still wouldn’t fire Paxson, but Paxson eventually took the fans advice and stepped aside.

Somewhere along the line, the Bulls lost focus of what they should be. They had a global brand born out of Jordan’s greatness, but they acted more like the Indiana Pacers or the Orlando Magic. They crossed their fingers for lottery luck every year, but were lost when they didn’t get it. Even with ‘90s nostalgia hitting its peak, the Bulls had never seemed further away from the glamour franchise they once were.

Every team in the NBA can lose and pray the draft leads them to a star. Only a few can have star players want to join them. With the hiring of Arturas Karnisovas as the franchise’s new lead basketball decision-maker, the goal was get to the Bulls back to their rightful place in the league’s hierarchy.

If it hasn’t happened yet, it finally appears that the Bulls are on their way.

San Antonio Spurs v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

One year ago today, the Bulls felt lost and directionless. The franchise had pegged its hopes and dreams to Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Coby White as top-10 draft picks with little progress to show for it. LaVine was ascending, but there remained a debate over how much he really impacted winning. Boylen was still the head coach.

GarPax had left the cupboard incredibly bare after whiffing on at least eight consecutive first round draft picks following the selection of Butler (White would be No. 9 if he doesn’t pan out). None of the Bulls’ own players were were worth much in trades. Karnisovas had two options: trade LaVine amid his first All-Star season and rebuild again on his own terms, or get desperate and start trying to win now.

He made his decision on day of the 2021 trade deadline with the Bulls still sitting far out of playoff contention. Chicago traded two first round picks and Carter to the Magic for Nikola Vucevic, a 30-year-old two-time All-Star who had become one of the best post scorers in the NBA and was now shooting threes at a 40 percent clip. The move for Vucevic came completely out of left field, as did the next deal the Bulls made that day by sending out three more players, headlined by Daniel Gafford, and receive Daniel Theis and Troy Brown Jr. in the return.

It was easy to see the move for Vucevic as a shortsighted overpay, but it was the aggression and creativity the Bulls’ new front office showed that was really promising. The short-term returns on the deal were putrid: LaVine was placed in Health and Safety Protocol shortly after the deadline, and the Bulls failed to even make the play-in tournament. They surrendered the No. 8 overall pick to the Magic and still owe one more in 2023.

Karnisovas was adamant he wasn’t done, and knew he had major work to do entering the offseason. The Bulls had some avenues to cap space, but they chose to operate as an over-the-cap team. That meant Chicago’s long-rumored affection for restricted free agent Lonzo Ball would require the New Orleans Pelicans to cooperate. It happened in the first minute of free agency, with the Bulls working out a sign-and-trade and inking Ball to a four-year, $85 million deal.

Hours later, the Bulls struck again by signing Alex Caruso for the mid-level exception of $37 million over four years. Chicago had improved the team considerably, but the picture still felt incomplete with a gaping hole on the wing. That’s when Karnisovas made his most audacious move yet, acquiring DeMar DeRozan in a sign-and-trade that sent out Thad Young and another first round pick (this one in 2025). DeRozan signed a three-year, $85 million deal.

While the Ball move was met with universal acclaim and the reaction to the Caruso signing was also positive (unless you were a Lakers fan), the Bulls were bashed for their DeRozan deal. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton gave the Bulls a D- grade for the move. John Hollinger of The Athletic also panned it, writing “Chicago set itself up to chase a .500 record and a low-end playoff berth this year … and likely kneecapped its ability to do anything beyond that for the next half decade or so.”

In a vacuum, it certainly feels like the Bulls overpaid for DeRozan both in terms of his contract and the trade assets going back to San Antonio. The move shouldn’t be judged in a vacuum, though. The Bulls had a clear hole on the wing around Ball, LaVine, Vucevic, and last year’s No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams. Their trade assets were limited. LaVine is on the last year of his contract, and Vucevic is another year older. Chicago was desperate to make a push up the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and this was the best way to do it.

The Bulls didn’t care about ‘losing the deal’ when they signed DeRozan — they only cared about winning games. Given where they were a year ago, it certainly feels like they built the best team possible out of the assets at their disposal.

Chicago Bulls v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The Bulls now have a five-man lineup that fits together exceedingly well on the offensive end. There are four three-point threats in the starting lineup. They have two dynamic on-ball creators in the halfcourt. They have a big man equally comfortable scoring in the post or popping out behind the arc to hit threes. They have an ideal linking guard who can connect their backcourt star and frontcourt star together while igniting their transition attack.

LaVine and DeRozan were both excellent as pick-and-roll handlers last season. LaVine spent 43.5 percent of his possessions on those play types, per Synergy Sports, and scored exactly one point per possession, which graded out in the 82nd percentile of the league. DeRozan took 84 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll handler, and scored 1.02 points per possession. While LaVine has been used almost exclusively on the ball since coming to Chicago because the team has lacked competent playmaking, DeRozan’s late career leap as a facilitator could finally unlock his off-ball game in the halfcourt.

Even on the brink of his 32nd birthday, DeRozan can still bend defenses with his burst as a ball handler. He has improved his vision and his passing touch year-over-year after breaking the first line of defense, finishing with a 31 percent assist rate last season that ranked in the 100th percentile among forwards, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s easy to envision LaVine whipping around screens to look for an advantage as DeRozan directs the offense against a set defense and works to find his spots in a reliable mid-range game.

The LaVine-Vucevic pick-and-roll should also still be effective even if DeRozan fails to space the floor off the ball. LaVine is a dangerous pull-up shooter with a lightning-quick first step who can usually blow by his man and put the opposing defense into rotation. His issue has been consistently making the right decision with the ball after that happens, but he showed signs of progress last year by posting his highest assist rate since his rookie year. He just pulled off one of the most difficult tasks in basketball, posting great scoring efficiency numbers (63.4 percent true shooting) with a high (31 percent) usage rate. His job should only get easier with better teammates this upcoming season.

That starts with Vucevic. Vooch has always been something of a high-volume battering ram in the paint since entering the league out of USC. He is still living up to that reputation, posting the sixth highest frequency of post-ups and scoring the third most points per game on those play types, per His inside scoring touch is now complemented by a sweet shooting stroke. Between his time in Orlando and Chicago last season, he hit 40 percent of his threes on 6.3 attempts per game.

A more under-discussed part of Vucevic’s offensive profile is his passing ability. He has been one of the best passing big men in the league over the last five years, finishing in the 93rd percentile or higher in assist rate for centers over that time, per Cleaning the Glass. Vooch’s playmaking will provide an additional path to halfcourt offense, and should become even more effective now that the Bulls have an wonderful connecting piece in Ball.

Ball is one of the oddest players in the NBA. Despite being drafted as a point guard with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, his game hardly resembles a traditional floor general. He struggles to break down opposing defenses off the dribble and is allergic to both attempting shots at the rim and the foul line. Instead, Ball thrives as a quick ball mover, a reliable high-volume floor spacer (around 38 percent from three each of the last two years), and a transition spark plug. His feel for the game is his defining quality, and it should pop even more within a team contexts that tailored to suit his strengths. To add a soon-to-be 24-year-old of this caliber is a major addition in every way.

The wildcard is Williams. As the youngest full-time player in the NBA last season, Williams made 71 starts and drew the defensive assignment on the league’s biggest stars. He hit 39.1 percent of his threes, but was still a reluctant catch-and-shoot threat who often got in his own head after a couple misses. As the Bulls wait for him to become more confident as a shooter, Williams can also make an impact as a cutter and on the offensive glass. His defensive role will be far more important than his offensive role on this team. Williams has flashed impressive rim protection instincts, and has the frame to absorb contact at the rim. His development represents the organization’s cleanest path towards an even bigger climb up the standings, but it’s worth wondering if such a low-usage offensive role is what’s best for his long-term growth.

The Bulls’ offense ranked No. 21 in the league last year and could be due for a climb in or around the top-10. The defense is a different story, but it was surprisingly competent in Donovan’s first season, ending the year No. 12. Ball will help on the defensive end as an opportunistic playmaker who can force turnovers, while Caruso provides elite point of attack defense for a team that badly needs it.

Chicago still needs a backup center who can offer some rim protection (update: they signed Tony Bradley). They could use a more versatile forward with superior defensive capability on the bench than what Markkanen can offer. The wing depth could still be a problem. Even at their best, the defense may very well be an adventure.

With these caveats aside, the most important thing is the Bulls now have a five-man lineup that fits well and makes sense. The scope of the rebuild over the last five months as been remarkable. Given how aggressive Karnisovas was in getting to this point, there’s no reason to think he’ll start settling now.

It’s easy to think the Bulls overpaid for what’s likely to be a low-end playoff team in the East. The Bucks and Nets are still way, way ahead of the rest of the conference, and breaking into the second tier of the East — alongside the 76ers, the Heat, and the Hawks — would be a huge accomplishment. The third tier — led by the Knicks and Celtics — won’t be easy to surpass, either.

For the Bulls, cashing in their future draft picks and giving up a huge contract to DeRozan was simply the price of doing business. Whatever the reward is at the end of the season is also only a small piece of the big picture. For once, the Bulls are acting like a big market team and may just be establishing themselves as a destination for top-end talent down the line. Given the way superstar transactions work in the NBA — with the player often picking his destination rather than the team trading him to the highest bidder — it would be foolish to think they’re locked in to this current group. The Bulls only need one true A-list player to like what they’re building and see his future in Chicago.

Fans and media have a way of romanticizing building from the ground up through drafting and development. It’s incredibly satisfying when it works out, but teams also run the risk of wasting year after year if they don’t get the proper lottery pick or make the wrong pick. The end of the GarPax era is proof of that. The Bulls were going nowhere fast without some dramatic moves, and Karnisovas had the guile to pull them off with the help of GM Marc Eversley (who had a close relationship with DeRozan) and cap expect J.J. Polk (who figured out how to add all these pieces without cap space).

The Bulls would like to view these moves as a first step, not a final one. Their draft pick ammunition is depleted for the next few years, but they suddenly have a lot of tradeable pieces. The way the new front office has reworked the team in such a short timespan should be encouraging for future transactions.

Chicago’s new front office seems to be operating under one guiding principle: improve the team at all costs, and figure out how to do it again later. Regardless of how it plays out, it’s clear the Bulls are done thinking small. It’s about time.