Midseason Mark Sees Bulls Underperforming Amid Locker Room Drama

The Chicago Bulls face a tough task ahead of them after injuries and sluggish defense have led to a slow start to the season.

By Austin Zeglis

The NBA season is just about halfway done, and at this point the league has itself more or less figured out. We know who our playoff contenders are—the Boston Celtics, the Memphis Grizzlies, et cetera—and we know who should tank and focus on getting a high pick in next year’s draft. I’m looking at you, Houston and Charlotte.  

But there are, of course, teams in the middle of those two extremes. Teams with admittedly talented players who have still yet to make a jump into playoff contention. Teams whose fan bases are debating whether their front offices should trade all of their assets for draft capital and young players or whether the team just needs to power through and get on a winning streak that will position them for a playoff spot. 

Do I even need to say it? I’m talking about the Chicago Bulls. They hold a 22-26 record and currently sit at 11th place in the Eastern Conference behind teams like the Indiana Pacers, the Atlanta Hawks, and the New York Knicks, all of which they were ahead of last year. While there’s no single or easy fix to the Bulls’ mediocrity, there are still some concrete reasons they’ve disappointed so far. 

 The most obvious answer to why the Bulls haven’t lived up to expectations is Lonzo Ball’s injury. Ball has yet to play a game this season after injuring his knee in January of last year. Despite this, it seems like every week or so, Bulls fans get a new update from the athletic training staff that seems to hint at a potential return to basketball for Ball this season.  

The most recent update came on January 13, when the Bulls released a video of a workout in which Ball was seen running on a treadmill, proving progress has been made since earlier in the season when Ball said he wasn’t able to jump or run at all. Even so, the chances that Ball finds his way back onto the court this season seem to be dwindling.  

And without Ball, arguably one of the Bulls’ best players when healthy, the team has suffered defensively, especially against good three-point shooting teams. Now granted, this isn’t all due to his absence, as the team has other players—Alex Caruso, Javonte Green, Patrick Williams—who are meant to be solid defenders. But the Bulls have been giving up an average of 114.7 points per game, which is good for 18th in the league. Those are not playoff- worthy numbers. 

Speaking of Williams, the third-year forward out of Florida State has been disappointing fans all across the Windy City; he has not shown off the athleticism or killer instinct that earned him comparisons to Kawhi Leonard when he was drafted. To his credit, Williams is flirting with a double-digit points-per-game average, and he is shooting 42 percent from the three-point line on more than three attempts a night. However, you still have to wonder whether the Bulls would have been better off taking someone else who was also available when the fourth pick in the 2020 draft came up, like Tyrese Haliburton, or Saddiq Bey, or Tyrese Maxey, or Desmond Bane, or Devin Vassell… 

Speaking of missed opportunities, I do want to take a second to remark on another reason this season has been disappointing for Bulls fans. We’ve seen multiple former Bulls blossoming in new locations this year, leaving a bad taste in some fans’ mouths and causing some to question the competence of the front office. Wendell Carter Jr., drafted by Chicago in 2018 and sent to the Orlando Magic in the Nikola Vučević trade, is averaging over 15 points and nine rebounds per game for the Magic as part of one of the best young cores in the NBA.   

And Lauri Markkanen, who was traded away from Chicago in 2021, is a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate for the Utah Jazz. All signs point toward his being named an All-Star later on this year, and his Jazz have a better record than the Bulls.   

Fans and the media aren’t the only ones who understand the gravity of the Bulls’ underperformance; so does the team. On December 20, multiple reports came out that there was a conflict in the locker room between players during halftime of the game against Minnesota a couple nights earlier. NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson tweeted ​​that the players had a “strong exchange…[and] multiple teammates directed frustration at Zach LaVine.” 

Head coach Billy Donovan then went on to confirm these reports a day later, prompting fans all over social media to proclaim that the team just wasn’t working and that big trades needed to happen. One might be inclined to agree, although interestingly, the Bulls have been above .500 since the locker room drama, winning nine of their last 15 games.  

I do admit that I’m presenting a fairly pessimistic view of what’s happened so far this season, and to be fair, there have been bright spots for the Bulls throughout 2022–23. Green has been a spark plug off the bench, providing the team’s bench with athleticism and versatility that has enabled him to play almost every position on the court. Vučević is shooting the ball more efficiently than ever, posting a career-high 58 percent effective field goal percentage (a statistic that adjusts for the differences between three-point and two-point shots). The team is also shooting the ball well as a group, standing at fifth in the league in field goal percentage and sixth in three-point percentage. 

 Another thing that has stood out about this Bulls team is their ability to beat teams at the top of the standings. They are a combined 7–3 against Boston, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, and Golden State, which is a drastic improvement from last year’s performance. If the Bulls do find a way to sneak into the playoffs, either through the play-in tournament or not, the fact that they’ve been able to beat good teams regularly is a good sign for postseason success. 

 But Bulls fans shouldn’t be complacent with the mediocrity they have seen over the past few months. This is a team that was in and out of first place in the Eastern Conference last year. More importantly, this is a franchise with one of the most decorated pasts in the league and one of biggest fan bases in the world. Step it up, Chicago.