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What the Bulls Need to get Back Into the Playoffs

It’s that time of year Bulls fans.

With the end of NBA media day and the start of training camp, the time has come for Chicago and NBA fans alike to publicize their own overblown championship aspirations, early calls for staff firings and look at every player and staff interview under the finest of microscopes.

After an extremely active offseason in the Windy City, the time has also come for the Bulls to take the next step in their rebuilding process by making the playoffs and solidifying themselves as a winning organization for the first time since 2016.

For the first time in a long time, this team has the potential to go as far as the Eastern Conference finals in as little as a single year. Since the Bulls hit the reset button and traded then-All Star guard Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for an assortment of young players, Chicago has been searching for a direction of its own in hopes of finding their way back into playoff contention with a mix of three head coaches and dozens of different players.

The Bulls paid a hefty price to acquire disgruntled stars from their former teams: Six veteran players, three first-round picks, and three second-round picks were given to add All Star center Nikola Vučević, four-time All Star guard DeMar DeRozan and up-and-coming point guard Lonzo Ball to the roster. While Chicago has compensated for the losses by trading forward Lauri Markkanen for Derrick Jones Jr. and two picks and signing promising veteran players to the bench, Bulls fans will still have to consider if the price Chicago paid this season was worth its talented core.

With training camp starting on Tuesday, and the preseason looming in the upcoming weeks, Chicago will have to improve on these five areas as quickly as they can if they are to jump their competitors early and prove themselves a worthy contender in a rising Eastern conference.

Improve team defense

As the decades-old saying goes, “Offense sells tickets, but Defense wins championships.”

On paper, the Bulls have a team who can score 120 points or more with ease. With three reliable scorers who could grab 20 points or more on any night alongside a high-IQ player in Ball and competent scorers coming off the bench, Chicago’s core will have no issues scoring the basketball this season.

While Chicago has plenty of high-flying talent to potentially keep fans from ever seeing boredom, concerns have risen over whether the Bulls will give up as many points as they can score. DeRozan and LaVine have improved their defensive ability as time went on, with LaVine showing noticeable improvements on reaction times and perimeter defense in his time as an Olympian. Effort and hard work can take players a long way in improving a skill, but it will take until opening night to see just how far their efforts have taken them.

Chicago did quietly become one of the better defensive teams in the NBA last season. They finished 11th in the NBA in defensive rating (112.87) while ranking ninth in defensive rebounds (35.3), according to Basketball Reference. While they did have their issues with interior defense, starting off the season with the likes of Wendell Carter Jr. and Thaddeus Young as their main rim protectors, the Bulls played well enough on the perimeter and on the boards to keep opposing offenses at bay for the first half of the season.

Their team defense, however, took a major hit once the trade deadline came and went. The Bulls lacked a reliable answer on defense outside of Williams and guard Troy Brown, while their overall cohesion struggled to take shape with the multitude of new players on the roster and the lack of formal practices.

With over six new additions in this offseason alone, the Bulls could face a similar situation on defense if they don’t take every opportunity they can in training camp and the preseason to learn the new addition’s strengths on defense and how to play off of them.

Tighten the team’s chemistry

With the departure of center Cristiano Felicio, only three players remain from the original 2020-21 roster: Sophomore forward Patrick Willaims, All Star guard Zach Lavine and the former No. 7 overall pick in Coby White. 

Executive VP of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas said he prefers high-paced teams who can move the ball, meaning building team chemistry and ensuring their players know how to work off each other will be of utmost importance for the Chicago Bulls’ success.

The question of whether these players are willing to work together was answered through several positive remarks on media day. Ball said he came to Chicago to work with their players, head coach Billy Donovan and Karnisovas, while LaVine said he was extremely excited about the Bulls’ several offseason editions.

“(Chicago has) a great group of guys,” DeRozan said in a Monday conference. “They have great human beings. The vibe and everything is definitely positive, and I love that.”

While the team looks more talented on paper this year than it did last, getting to know every player’s strengths and weaknesses and how to optimize each one of their performances will be the difference between being a playoff contender or a playoff pretender. The IQ, unselfishness and giant chip on the shoulders of a multitude of Chicago’s starters will certainly help with their ability to build the chemistry needed to get the Bulls to the playoffs in the near future: Ball said he was ready to sacrifice personal stats for a chance at consistently winning with his teammates at media day. 

“We have to do what it takes to win,” Ball told the Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry. “For me, sacrificing is all about winning. We have a lot of different guys who can do a lot of different things, but every night is going to be different. 

“For me, (winning) means staying focused on the task at hand, whether it’s shooting or not shooting, playing hard every night and picking up the slack on defense. Whatever it takes to win, that’s what sacrifice is to me.”

Keep injuries to a minimum

In recent memory, what hasn’t killed the Bulls has only made them stronger.

Between the “Three Alphas” phase and the locker room issues that came with it, winning as little as 22 games in 2018 and an almost-mutiny before a practice in Jim Boylen’s first year, the Bulls and their fans have been through the wringer since their playoff exit in 2015.

Fortunately for them, the once-memeable front office became one of the most aggressive and calculating in the league, the players of the “younger-and-more-athletic” phase became All-Star calibre pieces through several trades and the coaching queries of old have turned into a solidified NBA-level coach in Billy Donovan.

Save for chemistry issues, the only thing that can really take Chicago out of playoff contention this year is injuries.

The players on the squad are smart enough to know what it takes to win. The starting lineup features several multiple-time All Stars or young players with the talent to become them. In their second year of operation, the Bulls’ coaching staff is already attracting star players to the Windy City while providing the schemes to make up for defensive shortcomings and stay in the top half of the league.

The Bulls and their core can and will win if they can just stay healthy. The pressure now falls on the strength and conditioning staff to keep them on the court.

While the recent injuries of young stars in Williams and White have certainly set the Bulls back, most of the team is still ready to play and mesh together in training camp. In the worst-case scenario, the Bulls will have to go small by either moving DeRozan to the power forward, a spot he played at for a majority of his Spurs career, or moving Jones Jr. to the starting lineup.

Williams was still able to play in 71 of 72 games last year for Chicago, while White managed to play in 69. While LaVine spent a large portion of the season out due to COVID-19 protocols, Vučević played 70 games, 26 for Chicago.

Foster the growth of Patrick Williams and Coby White

This team’s present success will depend almost entirely on the four All-Star calibre players the Bulls have in their starting lineup.

The team’s future will only go as far as the growth of Williams and White.

Chicago exercised the young player’s rookie-scale extensions in just their second and third year respectively for a reason: At just 19 years old, Williams was tasked and trusted with guarding legitimate NBA superstars since the first time he stepped on an NBA court. 

Without a Summer League or training camp to get acclimated, and with limited preseason experience, Williams entered his first NBA season with the responsibility of guarding Giannis Antentokounmpo, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard among others. It was a feat no Bull has ever been able to take on before, a performance James hailed in an early January conference.

“I think he is going to be an exceptional talent,” James said. “He just stayed sharp on the game plan, and I think he is going to continue to get better and better. I think Chicago has a good one.”

The last of the three No. 7 picks the Bulls acquired in the first three years of their rebuild, White saw his role drastically change in just two years in Chicago. Once a bench scorer for the Bulls in his rookie year, White was tasked with running a halfcourt offense along with LaVine, taking away from the guard’s speed and potential for shooting and scoring ability.

His playmaking load managed to decrease with the addition of Vučević, and could decrease further now that Ball is on the roster. Look for White to potentially be a lightning-quick off-ball scorer off the bench, going back to his style of old in an offense that could potentially foster more fast-break scoring and off-ball movement than last year.

Tap into the potential of the rotational players

Even with the loss of Williams, the Bulls still seem to spot one of the best starting lineups on paper with three former or current All Stars in LaVine, 

They may not be the guaranteed 20 ppg scorers Chicago has in their starting spots, but they still pair well with 

Luckily for them, every one of the Bulls’ projected second string players, save for forward Alize Johnson, played at least 18 minutes or more per game last year for their respective teams. As the Bulls’ almost de facto starting point guard last year, guard Coby White averaged 31.2 minutes per game and 54 starts in 69 games, becoming one of the most consistent scoring options Chicago could rely on.

The Bulls could potentially tap into the ultra-athletic Jones Jr., a scrappy guard in Alex Caruso, a solid rim protector in center Tony Bradley and a glass-cleaning-extraordinaire in Johnson to make up for some of the starting lineup’s shortcomings should the team start to sputter out. If these players can play an effective 20 minutes per game, enough for the starters to catch a breather before going out on the floor for closing stretches, the Bulls will have a much easier time getting to the playoffs and potentially attracting more stars in the future.

After months of anticipation, the Bulls will put their newly-assembled roster to the test for the first time against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.

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