The Chicago Bulls, as often noted around the league, is in a weird spot coming into this season.
Spearheaded by Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vučević, the Bulls don’t have enough top-tier star power to compete for a championship, and they don’t posses enough quality young talent to pivot into a youth movement.
For their part, Bulls management wants to field a competitive product, underlined by the signings of Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig, which admittedly are quality role players to add to the rotation.
As such, we need to gauge the Bulls as a win-now team, even if several questions still linger over the entire organization.
How can the Bulls elevate themselves?
Let’s remove the unlikely scenarios, such as Patrick Williams or Coby White turning into a superstar, and instead attack that question through a scope of realism, and established knowledge of the team’s players.
With the Bulls still in need of playmaking, a year and a half after Lonzo Ball went down with a knee injury, all eyes should pivot to DeRozan.
A strong argument exists for DeRozan being the best passer on the team, Ball notwithstanding. The 6’6 forward essentially functioned as a point guard when he played in San Antonio, setting up teammates first, and looking for his shot later.
In Chicago, he’s reversed those roles. Since arriving in 2021, DeRozan has been primarily a scorer, averaging 26.2 points over the course of two seasons, almost five points higher than what he produced with the Spurs.
With LaVine and Vučević around, however, the Bulls could afford to see DeRozan scale back slightly on his shot volume, and ask him to bring more balance to the floor as a playmaker.
LaVine, who statistically has been one of the best off-ball scorers in the NBA for the past three years, would greatly benefit from being set up more, especially in catch-and-shoot situations.
Converting a small handful of DeRozan shot attempts into passes that lead to LaVine three-point attempts, would strongly help the offense, which ranked dead-last in both makes and attempts from long range.
Now, this isn’t to suggest DeRozan should actively minimize himself as a scorer, and float around in the mid-teens scoring wise. He remains one of the most deadly mid-range players in all of basketball, and the ball should go through him in the late stages of close games.
If anything, the ask of DeRozan is having him take care of even more of the offense as a decision-maker, without reaching the levels of Houston James Harden, of course.
But in order to justify a larger usage rate, as DeRozan is now 34, it likely means he would have to sacrifice some shots to maintain energy over the course of a full game.
Remember, we’re dealing with realistic scenarios here. Expecting a 34-year-old to maintain a scoring average of around 25 points, while also functioning as a de facto point guard, is basically asking DeRozan to become LeBron James. It’s an unfair ask, and logic dictates he won’t be able to carry both responsibilities.
LaVine, on the other hand, is 28 and in the absolute prime of his career. He’s one of the most efficient and explosive scorers in the league. Over the past two years, he’s done a remarkable job of letting DeRozan operate, waiting patiently for gaps to open up in the defense, which he’s then exploited.
So to return to the question hand – How can the Bulls elevate themselves? – LaVine is the second part of that answer.
2023-2024 must be the season in which head coach Billy Donovan and his coaching staff unleashes LaVine to a higher extent.
The Bulls have even more intel than the general public at their disposal, so they too should see the potential of creating elaborate play designs to free up LaVine as a cutter, and shooter.
This season must mark the end of “your turn, my turn” isolation offense, and it starts by using LaVine more. Draw up plays to have him attempt over 10 three-pointers per game. Design off-ball movement patterns that will allow him to catch the ball on the fly, and finish at the basket.
And, most importantly, combine those sets with DeRozan, so the two best players on the team are involved in the same play action.
These adjustments aren’t impossible. They aren’t unrealistic. They are, in fact, entirely feasible. But mostly, they’re necessary.
They might not take the Bulls to the NBA Finals, but they make them better, and for a team trying to win, that’s all they can ask for.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds courtesy of FanDuel Sportsbook.