Not even the biggest sunshine pumpers could gloss over the gloom and doom surrounding the Chicago Bulls on Saturday.
For the foreseeable future, the fate of the franchise could be bleak.
Zach LaVine is done for the season. The two-time All-Star guard will undergo surgery this week to alleviate lingering discomfort in his right foot. In the second year of a maximum-allowable, five-year, $215 million contract, LaVine will finish with only 25 games played this season.
It’s the latest decision by the Bulls, with the benefit of hindsight, that appears to be a colossal blunder.
LaVine’s loss ensures this will be a lost season. His upcoming surgery slams shut the possibility of trading him anytime soon, a split LaVine and the Bulls have been open to since the fall. Chicago has played well at times without LaVine and could remain competitive. But the Bulls no longer can convince themselves they’ll make a deep postseason run.
More importantly, subsequent decisions — and seasons — are likely to be significantly impacted by LaVine’s injury.
Start with DeMar DeRozan’s future. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Bulls have reached a critical juncture with him. If the plan before LaVine opted for surgery was to re-sign the 34-year-old forward, now more than ever the Bulls must ask themselves why?
Committing major money to DeRozan for multiple seasons doesn’t make sense for a franchise that remains a long way from championship contention. By retaining DeRozan, the Bulls would at best be chasing mediocrity.
If possible, trading him before Thursday’s trade deadline could be a solution. The Bulls could entice a contender to take on DeRozan’s expiring contract and perhaps acquire future draft capital or a promising prospect. However, during this Bulls management’s tenure, there hasn’t been an emphasis placed on acquiring future draft picks — only sending them out.
If the Bulls don’t trade DeRozan by Thursday, they could explore a sign-and-trade this offseason. Worst case scenario, they would let him walk for nothing this summer.
Of course, DeRozan has a say in the matter. Beyond signing with the Bulls for more money than he can receive from any other team, DeRozan seemingly has little incentive to remain in Chicago if his chief goal is winning. A breakup could be best for both sides.
“I’m a terrible planner,” DeRozan said Saturday. “That’s probably my big pet peeve in life. Some people like jotting down in their journal what they got to do for the week. That would drive me nuts. I really live my life day by day.
“If I get caught up in having future thoughts on things, I’m going to drive myself crazy. I’d rather not be that way. I really try to take it day by day and be prepared for whatever happens. That’s just life. That’s my approach for life.”
If this isn’t the end of this era of Bulls basketball, it would be a surprise. The franchise’s grand plans for climbing out of the Eastern Conference’s messy middle through continuity and greater camaraderie have failed. Saturday’s home loss to the Sacramento Kings dropped the Bulls to 23-27, the same record they owned through 50 games last season. They rank 23rd in offense and 14th defensively this season. They were 22nd offensively and 13th defensively at this stage last season.
We knew the Bulls were feeding their fans the same mediocre product at the start of the season. The 50-game mark has only confirmed management’s malpractice. The only question now is how much longer will the front office take before at least attempting to clean the mess they’ve made.
Excluding the sign-and-trade deal that brought DeRozan from San Antonio, the drafting of Ayo Dosunmu and contract extensions for Dosunmu and Coby White, virtually every significant personnel decision management has made since arriving in 2020 looks questionable. Collectively, they warrant more scrutiny given how they’ve handicapped the franchise.
Between LaVine and guard Lonzo Ball, who hasn’t played since Jan. 14, 2022, due to knee surgeries, the Bulls have more than $60 million in player salaries this season sidelined with injuries. Ball still faces a long road to recovery. LaVine’s max contract couples with his latest injury to torpedo his trade value, which was believed to be minimal before Saturday’s news.
If the Bulls were holding out for a sweetheart deal for LaVine, imagine their trade talks now. Rival teams might demand draft capital and other pot-sweeteners from the Bulls to take LaVine, who has three years remaining on his contract for approximately $138 million.
LaVine grew open to changing teams due to frustration with losing and hearing his name in trade talks the past few seasons. When he made that clear in November, LaVine also expressed exasperation with the Bulls’ continuity being ineffective.
“I’m frustrated we’re not winning,” LaVine said. “If you’re not frustrated then that’s a problem. It’s nothing more than that. It’s an upsetting thing when we’ve been trying to do the right thing for the last three, four years and it seems like we’re in the same place.”
The last two trading deadlines passed without the Bulls committing to a deal that would put them on a better path than the current road to nowhere. They could have added talent as buyers or embarked in a different direction as sellers. They chose the status quo.
Surely the Bulls won’t stand in the batter’s box and not take a swing for the third time as the perfect pitch passes. There’s no more reason for the Bulls to be tethered to this team. Artūras Karnišovas, the Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations who assembled this roster, can no longer say he needs time to evaluate. He can’t blame injuries and running it back yet again will not resolve anything either.
Chicago’s roster is inadequate. It merely imploded before Karnišovas could blow it up.
In addition to DeRozan, the Bulls could collect more long-term assets by trading Alex Caruso. The versatile guard is playing on one of the league’s best-value contracts. The final year of his deal next season pays less than $10 million. The Bulls want to keep Caruso. But in the big picture, where would that get them? LaVine’s impending surgery should remind the Bulls of the perils of not selling high.
“Out of my control,” Caruso told reporters Saturday. “Whatever they decide to do is their decision. My job as an employee of this team is to show up and do my duty. And that’s to show up and play basketball every night. And that’s what I’m focused on.”
When the Bulls re-signed Nikola Vučević last summer to a three-year, $60 million contract, the decision was not popular even if most understood the team’s logic. With the team’s record and the way Vučević, 33, has performed, that decision also looks suspect.
Vučević is shooting just 26.9 percent from 3-point range on four attempts per game. His passing and defensive rebounding continue to be skills the Bulls rely on, but things get wonky when comparing value. Backup center Andre Drummond scored 24 points with 25 rebounds the night after Christmas. At $3.3 million, Drummond is making a fraction of what Vučević earns. Drummond also still considers himself a starting-caliber center.
Those are the types of decisions Karnišovas must nail moving forward to guide the Bulls out of this mess. But thanks to his track record, Karnišovas no longer enjoys the public trust he had in his honeymoon phase.
Too much has gone wrong for the Bulls during his tenure. Too little has been done to make it right.
(Photo of Zach Lavine: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)