Bulls’ outlook for 2023-24: ‘This is the year where we have to prove it’

Bulls’ outlook for 2023-24: ‘This is the year where we have to prove it’
  • PublishedOctober 9, 2023


NASHVILLE, TENN. — THROUGHOUT his first nine seasons with the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan got used to his team traveling to a location outside of Toronto for the season’s first week of practice — a tradition many NBA teams follow in an effort to build chemistry. So after completing his first season with the Chicago Bulls in 2022, DeRozan began asking what the Bulls’ plans were for their next training camp.

DeRozan was surprised to hear the answer: Chicago, again.

The Bulls had not held an out-of-state training camp since 1985 when they were hosted by Beloit College in Wisconsin. Yet, DeRozan remembered fondly how a road training camp brought on a camaraderie with his teammates.

“Sometimes you’ve got to get outside your house and do something adventurous,” DeRozan told ESPN. “Find anything to bring y’all closer.”

Chicago’s management took DeRozan’s suggestion and ran with it, getting buy-in from the entire organization. The result? The Bulls hosted training camp at Belmont University in Nashville, the team’s first out-of-state training camp since Michael Jordan’s second year in the NBA.

The players played Top Golf together; went to team dinners, pranking 19-year-old rookie Julian Phillips with a $13,000 dinner bill — “I didn’t even know food could cost that much,” he wrote on his Instagram — and toured the Tennessee Titans’ facility, where DeRozan showed off some uncanny quarterbacking skills.

It was Chicago’s way of trying to give its team a fresh start, even though its roster is nearly the same as it was one year ago when it lost in the play-in tournament to the Miami Heat and missed the postseason.

“We got to get back to the postseason,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine told ESPN. “Obviously we did that our first year and didn’t have a good first-round result. … Everybody has their own personal expectations and expectations as a team. For us, it’s consistency and [making] sure we’re playing after the 82nd game.”

The Bulls are entering their third season with a team built around the core of DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. But while the top teams in the Eastern Conference shook up their rosters this offseason, the Bulls doubled down on continuity, believing the ceiling on their team is higher than their record so far has shown.

After a fast start to their first season together fueled by stellar point guard play from Lonzo Ball, the Bulls made the 2022 playoffs, before being dispatched by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. This year’s roster is nearly identical to that team. The Bulls are bringing back their top seven players by minutes played from the 2022-23 season, each of whom were also on the 2021-22 squad. Aside from a few tweaks — signing Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig in free agency — this team is virtually the same with both coming off disappointing finishes. But the plan isn’t just to run it back, as the preseason trip to Nashville showed.

“One of the things we talked about, you’re bringing back the same group, we have to do something different,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “You can’t just do the same exact thing and expect different results.”

NO TRIO IN the NBA played more minutes together (1,642) last season than DeRozan, Vucevic and LaVine. Yet, the Bulls were outscored during those minutes by 13 points.

Chicago found its groove as a team following the All-Star break, going 14-9 and upsetting Toronto during the play-in tournament. But even during that stretch, the team was outscored by nine points in 492 minutes after that break when its top three players shared the floor.

The tricky part for Chicago is that all three players played well individually throughout the season.

DeRozan continued to be a master in the midrange, making a league-best 317 midrange shots last season (134 more than any other player) while ranking second in clutch points, trailing only De’Aaron Fox, the NBA’s inaugural Clutch Player of the Year. Vucevic, who received a three-year contract extension during the offseason, played in every game last season and finished with a 57% effective field goal percentage and shot 59% on 2-pointers, both of which were career-bests. After being slowed at the start of the season coming off offseason surgery, LaVine averaged 27.2 points and shot 52% from the field over the final two months.

“We’ve all had really good seasons, but we haven’t put it together as a team,” LaVine said. “This is the year where we have to prove it. You have to put pen to paper. Three years is a lot of time to show what you have.”

When the Bulls assembled this trio, they envisioned Ball as the point guard who could serve as the connector for their offense, which ranked 24th in the NBA last season despite having three dynamic scorers.

The Bulls were 27-13 and in first place in the Eastern Conference when Ball played his last game in January 2022. Since then, they have gone 47-57 in his absence. It’s why Ball called the Bulls one of the NBA’s big what-ifs during an appearance of Trae Young‘s podcast this summer, saying he believes they had built the “perfect team around him.”

“That’s part of the reason why this team is still together,” Ball told ESPN. “I actually think we’re still trying to play the same way as if I was still here. It’s not like we’re getting away from the core values that I had on the court. We’re trying to keep it fast pace, go, get out and play defense. Everything is kind of in tune for me to come back, whenever that is.”

Ball has already been ruled out for the 2023-24 season after undergoing cartilage transplant surgery in March, his third knee surgery since his last appearance in an NBA game.

“Guys have been accustomed to him not playing,” Donovan told ESPN. “It’s been two years now.”

Knowing Ball won’t be available has helped the team manage expectations going into this season, compared to last year when they continually held out hope that a Ball comeback would save them.

“I think last year we were thinking, ‘When Lonzo comes back it’ll be different,’ ” Vucevic said on media day. “I think this year we have a clear picture that he’s not going to be back. We have to find other ways to run our offense without putting so much pressure on Zach and DeMar handling the ball and scoring, doing everything.”

Part of that involves modernizing an offense that averaged 28.9 3-point attempts per game a season ago, the fewest in the NBA. Bulls executive vice president Arturus Karnisovas said on media day that the team was looking to play faster, but DeRozan explained that might not look like what fans are expecting.

“People get so caught up in the word fast like it’s a million miles per hour up and down the court,” he said. “Showtime Lakers. Trying to put up 140 points.

“The fast aspect of it is just faster decision making. Quicker decision making. Not necessarily just up-and-down, up-and-down. Shot. Shot. But understanding how to be more effective by making faster and quicker decisions on the go. We do have the personnel to be able to do that”

While Ball remains hopeful he’ll return to the Bulls in 2024-25, it remains to be seen which teammates he’ll be rejoining.

Rival teams have checked in with the Bulls about LaVine’s availability, team and league sources told ESPN, but no team has been willing to meet Chicago’s reportedly large asking price. LaVine, 28, is owed $129 million over the next three seasons and owns a $48.9 million dollar player option in 2026-27.

LaVine says being the subject of trade speculation has not bothered him.

“My camp isn’t putting them out,” LaVine said. “I committed to the Bulls when I signed my five-year deal. So until I’m not, I’m committed to the Bulls. I’ve always brought professionalism and consistent play and that’s what I’ll continue to do.

“I love Chicago, I’ve always wanted to be in a place that wanted me and Chicago showed me that. But obviously trade rumors are part of the business. Are they wanted? No. But I’m a grown man, I’ve been traded before. I know how to deal with them. You have to take it that way, it’s a business, so I don’t get too upset.”

Meanwhile, DeRozan, 34, is entering the final season of his contract and is set to earn $28.6 million. The Bulls have expressed interest in re-signing DeRozan to a long-term deal and the two sides have had preliminary talks negotiating an extension, sources told ESPN.

“We have to make sure this is the right group,” Karnisovas said at media day. “I believe in them, I have faith in them and going into the season we’ll see how the season is going to play out.”

Despite the team’s struggles, DeRozan remains committed to winning in Chicago. The team and city accepted him after he spent three seasons in San Antonio feeling like he was in NBA obscurity. Now DeRozan wants to finish his story by bringing the Bulls postseason success the franchise has been starved for since their last title in 1998.

“I told a couple guys last year, ‘I want to see you win. I want y’all to witness what it feels like to win and what comes with winning and being appreciated and called a winner,'” DeRozan said. “That’s just my optimistic mindset when it comes to this. I put my all into it.

“As much as it’s sucked losing, there’s always a beauty in the journey. … Everything can’t go fine and dandy, but with that how do you accept the challenge that comes with it. That’s my mindset when I look at it, this is a hell of a journey, let’s make this journey worth it.”


Source link