The Chicago Bulls Tried to Fast-Track Their Rebuild. It Failed.

Injuries and offensive underperformance led the Bulls to a subpar record and a disappointing end to the season. Where do they go from here?

By Austin Zeglis

There are no two ways about it—the Chicago Bulls’ 2022–23 season was not good. 

From the devastating news in March about the seriousness of Lonzo Ball’s injury to a mediocre 40–42 finish to a loss against the Miami Heat in the play-in tournament, this year for Bulls fans felt like disappointment after disappointment all the way to the end. How did this come to be? 

The year is 2021. Bulls fans across the world had been suffering ever since the Derrick Rose trade. But then a new front office took over, and instead of growing the team through the development of young talent, they took quick action and gave fans some hope in the form of instant gratification. Chicago signed Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, who, along with the newly acquired Nikola Vučević and fan-favorite Zach LaVine, made up a Bulls squad that looked like it could be of the Eastern Conference’s better teams. 

But since then, the team has underperformed heavily for reasons both inside and outside of their control. 

Lonzo Ball injured his knee and missed half of the 2021–22 season and all of the 2022–23 season, and he is set to miss most, if not all, of the 2023–24 season according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry. LaVine and DeRozan have been fun to watch at times but have never been able to string together enough wins to make the team competitive. And Nikola Vučević has been a rollercoaster throughout his entire tenure in Chicago. 

What Happened?

Put simply, the Bulls were at the bottom of the league on the offensive side of the ball throughout the season: Their offensive rating of 112.8 was the sixth-worst in the league.  

Some of this disparity can be chalked up to a lack of good passing and on-ball playmaking, as Chicago averaged 24.5 assists per game as a team, the 10th-worst such mark in the NBA. But Lonzo Ball’s eventual yet ever-distant return won’t automatically fix these offensive woes that this team experienced all year. 

Despite the disappointing season, I do want to give credit where credit is due—team defense was a bright spot throughout the whole year. The Bulls’ defensive rating of 111.5 was fifth-best in the NBA, only behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston Celtics, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Milwaukee Bucks, all of whom made the playoffs as top four seeds in their respective conferences. 

But a good defense won’t get you anywhere with one of the worst offenses in the league. The Bulls failed to close out close games throughout the season, and they played mediocre basketball that didn’t deserve the league-best home attendance that the Chicago faithful provided them. 

Offseason Outlook

This offseason should be a busy one for General Manager Marc Eversly and Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas, as starting center Nikola Vučević will become an unrestricted free agent when the offseason officially starts on July 6.  

A polarizing player, Vučević played all 82 games this season and shot a career-high 52 percent from the field. Multiple other players—Goran Dragic, Javonte Green, Ayo Dosunmu, and Patrick Beverly, among others—will also become unrestricted free agents. 

Coby White, a key member of Chicago’s bench unit, will become a restricted free agent and is expected to be highly sought after across the league. And two other bench players, Andre Drummond and Derrick Jones Jr., have player options and can choose whether or not they wish to renew their contracts for another year. 

The Bulls traded their 2023 draft pick to the Orlando Magic in the Nikola Vučević/Wendell Carter Jr. trade. Chicago will retain the pick if it jumps into the top four during May 16’s draft lottery, which has an 8.5 percent chance of happening, but otherwise the team will be left without a first-round pick.  

Chicago’s second round pick was revoked by the league as a penalty for rules violations during the Lonzo Ball signing a few offseasons ago, meaning the team was caught contacting Ball’s representatives before he officially became a free agent and negotiations were officially allowed to happen. 

So, what can be done?

I would love to see Chicago bring back some of the bench pieces that played well this year, like White, Jones, and Drummond. But it’s time for the “Big Three” of LaVine, DeRozan, and Vučević to be phased out. 

Sure, they have their fun moments, but this isn’t a winning core. I wouldn’t be opposed to keeping Zach LaVine around, as he’s become synonymous with Chicago basketball over the past six years and I think fans might set the United Center on fire if the front office ships him out. But the others have to go. 

Regarding Vučević’s expiring contract, the Bulls should try to sign-and-trade him to a team in need of a competent big man. The Atlanta Hawks come to mind—a deal involving forward John Collins would certainly be enticing for Atlanta to pair Clint Capela with another big man down low in Vučević. The Los Angeles Clippers could also be in the running, as they could exchange Ivica Zubac and some draft capital for Vučević to bolster their center rotation. 

As for DeRozan, he’s still a great player, and my desire to get him off the team has no bearing on my belief that he could have a positive impact on another team, especially one trying to contend for a playoff spot. 

Next year is the last year of DeRozan’s contract, and at 33 years old, he’s certainly not getting any younger—or, for that matter, better. So, for a team that’s contending for a playoff spot, DeRozan could be a positive asset next year. But for a team like the Bulls that are nowhere near contention, having the aging DeRozan under contract for his 33rd and 34th year does nothing towards the goals the Bulls should have—namely, roster turnover and youth development. 

Perhaps a deal to send DeRozan to the New York Knicks for Obi Toppin or even RJ Barrett? They could also dump him off to Miami for some combination of Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, and draft picks. 

But with or without the completion of any major trades, my number one wish for the Bulls is that they give some of the young, underdeveloped players on their roster some real playing time next year. 

Dalen Terry, the 18th overall pick last year, averaged a whopping 2.2 points on 5.6 minutes per game last year. Play the man! And while we’re at it, let’s get Marko Simonović and Carlik Jones and Terry Taylor and whomever the Bulls select with Denver’s second round pick this year some more playing time—as long as the team isn’t actively contending for a playoff spot, what’s the harm? 

Either way, the Bulls need to go into next season with a new identity. If October rolls around and the Bulls just have the same old rotation and coaching staff that failed to make the playoffs this year, there’s no reason why the team won’t continue to disappoint. Change needs to happen.