With two 2022 All-Stars in Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan and former All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls had hoped to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference and build upon their No. 6 seed finish from last season. But as this season has gone on, with the Bulls now sitting at a disappointing 11-18, and while playing without their star point guard Lonzo Ball due to a lingering knee injury, serious questions have arisen within the locker room about whether their two stars wings can click together at a high level on the court this season and beyond.
The Bulls have held multiple team meetings to try to work out their issues, and that has included one-on-one, face-to-face sitdowns between DeRozan and LaVine, according to team and league sources who were granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on team dynamics. DeRozan and LaVine have always had a strong mutual respect for each other. Only 10 months ago, over All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, the stars proclaimed themselves as the NBA’s best duo. They maintain a good personal relationship. But their meetings have not led to in-game results so far, with a level of on-court, stylistic tension simply festering throughout the season and being magnified due to the win-loss record.
“I think everybody goes through ups and downs, just like every team does,” LaVine told The Athletic on Tuesday when asked about the matter. “Obviously if we’re not winning games, not everybody’s going to be happy. It’s not going to look as good as it was before. It’s all glitter and show when you’re winning games. But when you’re losing games and you’re trying to do the same things it’s turmoil. Everyone has their right to their own opinion. For me, I keep my head down. I work on my game and try to help my team. I help try to lead the team. That’s where I stand. I just try to take it day by day and evaluate how we’re doing.”
Even more, multiple league sources and sources close to the organization say LaVine and the Bulls are not seeing eye-to-eye. Over the past few weeks, there’s been a palpable feeling across various parts of the franchise of a disconnect over LaVine’s situation in Chicago. All of this has been happening while LaVine is in the first season of a five-year, $215 million maximum deal that was signed this summer.
“There’s a certain level of frustration in people trying to figure out what we can do to help right the ship,” LaVine told The Athletic. “I think with the players that we have, we try to put it on each other to right the ship. We have those type of guys, those type of mentalities where each of us have been number one options on a team before and then we all come together collectively. It’s not going to take one person. It’s going to take all of us as a unit. I think that’s what guys are trying to figure out how to help the group.”
As the saying goes, winning cures all. A year ago, DeRozan, LaVine and these Bulls were clicking on all cylinders while Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics were struggling to find their way. The roles appear reversed a year later, and it jumps out when you look at the standings.
In the third season of Billy Donovan’s tenure, there’s also been increased skepticism within the locker room about the head coach and the coaching staff. For Donovan, the challenge of optimizing DeRozan and LaVine together through a balance of execution, accountability and cooperation looms large. Donovan’s job is currently safe, however, as The Athletic reported that he signed a multiyear contract extension prior to the start of this season.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan sets tone for next season: ‘We have even more to prove’
The Bulls’ season began with optimism. They returned 12 players from last season’s roster, and the hope was for continuity equating to increased chemistry and better results. The Bulls are a much more complete and dynamic team with Ball healthy, of course, as his ability to push the pace and set the table for DeRozan and LaVine were necessary to last season’s team.
But even with Ball’s status up in the air in terms of when he might return, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnišovas set this season’s expectations at the team’s media day in September.
“What we want to see is obviously improvement,” he said. “Once you get to the playoffs and have healthy bodies, I think a lot of things can happen. So I think we have to do better than last year. When you get to the playoffs, as always, things happen. A certain team is missing one or two key players and you can get by a round. So those are the expectations.”
From the start, however, the Bulls faced a bumpy road.
LaVine unexpectedly sat out of the team’s first two contests this season, with the team saying his occasional absence would be part of scheduled maintenance centered on managing offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. LaVine fought through a nagging knee issue through the second half of last season, showing tremendous resilience and fortitude to stay on the floor for the first postseason appearance of his career. LaVine could have undergone knee surgery during the season but elected to wait until after the Bulls’ playoff run to ensure his availability for the team.
DeRozan arrived to the Bulls in the 2021 offseason intending to be the second option on most nights behind LaVine and providing LaVine with the support to win more games. In that role, he emerged as one of the league’s best performers, however, with clutch moments, multiple game winners and consistent leadership.
“Now is the time to understand how we can make this work for the whole group. I haven’t played with a talent at that wing position like Zach. He’s one of a kind. I want to put everything I’ve been through in my career, share that with him and win together,” DeRozan said last October.
The duo had a successful first season, leading the Bulls to a 46-36 record and their first playoff berth in four years, having the best record in the East for parts of the first half of the year due to a 27-11 start and appearing to truly enjoy each other’s presence. It’s clear that Ball is an engine for these Bulls: The team went 22-13 with him in the lineup and 24-23 without him. DeRozan and LaVine had seemed to establish a foundation for their partnership last season — except it’s all come into question across the organization this season.
For Karnišovas, the best move of his tenure was acquiring DeRozan, who made the All-NBA second team and received an MVP vote a season ago. DeRozan has played brilliant basketball since joining the Bulls. He averaged 27.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 88.1 percent on almost eight free throws per game. As a fourth-quarter performer, he ranks among the best in the NBA.
DeRozan joined the Bulls on a three-year, $85 million deal in 2021 and will be eligible for an extension this summer worth a maximum of four years and $153.7 million. Do the Bulls view DeRozan as a centerpiece for years to come?
LaVine rebuked the notion that the weight of expectations from his maximum allowable contract has impacted him.
“It hasn’t weighed (on) anything for me. I don’t understand how that gets put into context,” LaVine told The Athletic. “Just because you sign a deal, it’s supposed to be added weight to it? I think there’s added weight every time you step on the court if you don’t perform or you don’t play the right way. But everybody’s open to their own opinion.
“I’ve been improving each and every day I’ve been coming off an injury. If you’re losing, you don’t see that. Obviously, it’s frustrating when you’re losing and they’re all these other narratives coming out. It’s not coming from us. It’s coming from outside sources. It’s just what you’ve got to deal with. It comes with the territory. I understand that. I think the team understands that. It doesn’t bug me. I think it’s something that just comes with it.”
In addition, Vucevic is eligible for an extension worth up to four years and $118.2 million but is currently expected to enter free agency in the offseason.
The Bulls’ direction moving forward is clouded over the fact that they still owe the Orlando Magic a top-four protected first-round pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. By potentially pivoting from competing for a playoff and Play-In Tournament spot into a full rebuild, the Bulls’ front office would risk still being out of the top four and thus giving Orlando its pick.
And yet should these Bulls continue down this path anyway even with all of this talent, it could leave the organization no choice.
Goran Dragić, the team’s oldest and most experienced player, didn’t sugarcoat the team’s problem following a 150-126 loss at Minnesota on Sunday.
“We’re not playing for each other,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The veteran point guard’s comments followed Donovan’s from an equally candid postgame interview. Donovan has publicly challenged his star trio through the media, but he was more direct than ever Sunday.
“We’ve got to get out of the mindset of worrying about scoring and how it’s going offensively and realize the ball scores,” Donovan said. “And if the ball’s moved and passed whoever scores, scores.”
Donovan echoed Dragić’s sentiments that the Bulls are playing too individualistically and the results won’t start to change until the team does.
“When we get that mentality, ‘I feel like I’m doing it for him. And I’m going to do it for him, and I’m going to do it for him. And I’m not letting the guy I’m out there with down,’” Donovan said.
(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)