After years with no direction, the Chicago Bulls are showing promise, led by Zach LaVine’s All-Star season.
This week, in conjunction with the announcement that Zach LaVine had been named to his first All-Star game, players and colleagues from throughout his career showed their support for his journey, from mentor Jamal Crawford to Thaddeus Young. The Bulls put together a Zoom meeting of his loved ones, the media broke down his historically elite offensive season, and fans seemed to start paying attention to the fact that Chicago is a playoff team this year. Together, these moments felt like an appreciation of something that gets disregarded or often simply attacked by NBA followers.
LaVine, in the video released by the Bulls, promises to his parents and friends that he will keep getting better and making them proud. Work ethic has never been the problem for LaVine. Instead, he has in the past struggled with shot selection, turnovers, and especially defense. At nearly 26 years old, maybe there’s an argument that he’s approaching his ceiling, but why not choose to be optimistic? The determination and consistent growth is emblematic of how Chicago should approach its rebuild.
Last offseason was in large part a reset for Chicago. Ownership finally demoted Gar Forman and fired John Paxson. They hired Arturas Karnisovas, one of the architects of the Nuggets’ rebuild, to replace them, in addition to longtime Sixers executive Marc Eversley. After a couple of lost seasons with Jim Boylen as head coach, they finally ended Bulls’ fans’ misery by putting a capable person in that position, hiring Billy Donovan away from Oklahoma City.
What’s been different for the Chicago Bulls this season?
The roster, however, largely stayed the same. What changed was a more reasonable role for each player and a scheme that utilizes ball movement and conservative defensive principles to simplify the game for younger players and put them in a position to succeed. For instance, LaVine is more often getting the ball off a secondary action, ready to puncture a rotating defense. That, combined with his own improvements finishing through contact and impressive pull-up 3-point shooting, made him an All-Star.
The improvements aren’t limited to the best player, though. Wendell Carter in recent weeks is looking spry on defense and engaged offensively, finally flashing the two-way potential we saw at Duke. Two years in, it’s hard to say what Coby White is, but he remains a good 3-point shooter and has continued to make defense a focus. Most impressively, rookie Patrick Williams, a surprise pick at No. 4, is playing efficiently on offense and showing way more face-up pop and overall creation ability than most expected when he was a sixth man at Florida State.
Since Derrick Rose got hurt, the Bulls have had no direction. They’ve cycled through coaches, draft picks and philosophies, but finally have the weight of “GarPax” off their backs. And they’re basically .500. That’s something to celebrate!
Perhaps it’s a fake romanticism developed out of wanting to enjoy the NBA more while we’re all locked away at home, but the mere act of becoming a stable basketball team is remarkable. If we’re going to stomp all over the Knicks, Kings and Timberwolves, then congratulating Chicago is only right. Believing in a player like LaVine long enough to see him become an elite scorer is a player development accomplishment, and putting coherent pieces and a real program around him could result in some interesting playoff battles in the near future.
The Chicago fan base is one of the most passionate and excitable in the NBA, and the front office ruined the Bulls for them for nearly a decade. That’s over now, and we can go back to analyzing the Bulls in real basketball terms.
With that said, of course, LaVine’s defensive limitations will be exposed in the playoffs. White doesn’t look like a starting-caliber player right now, which means they still need to find a piece to complement LaVine in the backcourt. Lauri Markkanen’s numbers look good, but his season could be lost again if he can’t overcome injuries. And neither of Carter or Williams looks like a game-changing star yet.
Which, again, is why Chicago is hovering around .500, not pushing Philadelphia for the top seed. They are building. That’s what NBA teams do. But for a while, Chicago couldn’t even be taken seriously, and one of the NBA’s premier franchises getting out of the mud is a welcome relief amid a tough year.