The Chicago Bulls made no moves at the 2024 trade deadline, seemingly content to sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls are 2.5 games up on the No. 10 and final play-in tournament spot, and are 3.5 games back of the sixth and final automatic playoff spot. Chicago did have some assets to deal but ultimately decided to stick with the current group for the remainder of the season. Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas explained the team’s inactivity at the deadline with the following quotes.
Before we get to each comment (and trust me, we will get to each one), there’s something that needs to be understood about the city of Chicago, Chicago sports fans and where the Bulls fit into that structure.
What basketball means to Chicago sports fans
Chicago is a sports town, and more importantly, it is a basketball town. The city and surrounding area has one of the best, if not the best, talent hotbeds for hoops. Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Jalen Brunson, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade and Isiah Thomas all came from this area, among others. This city is all about basketball. And because the Chicago college basketball scene is relatively barren due to the lack of success from DePaul, UIC and Northwestern, the focus of hoops fans turns to the Bulls.
The Bulls saw tremendous success during the Michael Jordan era, which is obvious to anybody who was alive during the 1990s. The franchise has been through ebbs and flows since then, appearing to find the same level of competitiveness early in the Rose era before injuries and age took over. The Bulls have never quite gotten back to that level of contention, or that level of hope for contention.
Chicago sports fans will accept hope. They will show up to support their teams no matter how bad they are. The Cubs, dubbed the “Lovable Losers”, have sold out their games for what feels like an eternity. The Bulls continue to draw big attendance numbers despite having only made the playoffs once since the 2016-17 season.
I’m not going to claim basketball holds the same place in Chicago as it does in the state of Indiana, but that’s the level of play this population is used to watching. These basketball fans will keep going to games and supporting the team because that’s what they’ve learned to do. It doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s going on or that they are accepting of the product on the court.
Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams
I promised we’d get to the quotes but it was important to provide some perspective on the Chicago basketball scene. Let’s start with White, who is clearly becoming a prized possession for this organization. He’s on pace for what will easily be his best season and he’s under contract for two more seasons at a bargain price. However, the word “emergence” is not exactly appropriate in this situation. Here’s a look at White’s numbers in the first 19 games of the season, where the Bulls went 5-14, in comparison to his numbers ahead of Thursday’s game against the Grizzlies.
Coby White first 19 games: 32.2 minutes per game, 13.7 points per game, 4 assists per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 42/38/83 shooting splits
Coby White from 11/29 (after 19th game) to 2/7: 38.5 mpg, 22.8 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.8 rpg, 48/40/81 shooting spilts
There’s a big improvement in White’s numbers but this isn’t just about the extended playing time; it’s about the change in role. White’s production started to improve when Zach LaVine exited the lineup due to an injury. It’s hard to predict what will happen when a player gets more opportunities but isn’t that the job of the coaching staff and front office? Karnisovas is acting like White blossomed out of nowhere and if that really is the case, it’s a sign of the Bulls player development arm being completely out of sync. Head coach Billy Donovan isn’t totally exempt from this either, as he should’ve been willing to give White more usage. This conveniently brings us to Karnisovas’ comment about the Bulls being a better team with LaVine on the roster.
Chicago was 5-14 with LaVine in the mix, averaging 21 points, 3.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. The guard decided to take time off to recover from a foot injury, and the Bulls went 10-7 during that stretch as White took over. LaVine did return for eight games before dealing with ankle and foot problems, which will ultimately sideline him for the rest of the season. The Bulls went 5-3 during LaVine’s return, bringing them to 10-17 with him in the lineup.
When we look at the on/off data for LaVine for the 2023-24 season, the Bulls are 3.7 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him off the floor per basketball-reference.com. They are 1.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively as well, leading to an overall advantage of 5.6 points per 100 possessions. So how in the world is this team better with LaVine on the floor, especially if White’s emergence is a sign of hope? Both things cannot be true, but Karnisovas and management believe the fans won’t see that.
Dosunmu’s per 36 numbers have largely stayed the same across his career, with a slight improvement in points per game this year so far. His offensive rating has improved since his rookie season but his defensive rating has somewhat declined as well. He’s a favorable contract and is worth keeping around, but it’s hard to definitely say he has improved.
Williams, the fourth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, has clearly plateaued. His per 36 numbers are essentially the same across the board over his four seasons, and his defensive rating is set to be the worst of his career. His offensive rating is about the same as it was last year. This is coming from a player who was taken ahead of the likes of Devin Vassell, Tyrese Haliburton, Tyrese Maxey and Desmond Bane in his class. Those players have either signed max extensions or about to sign them. There’s also rotation players like Immanuel Quickley and Jaden McDaniels who have turned into competent pieces on good teams. Where is the improvement?
DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and saying a lot without really saying anything at all
Closing status? Double-double machine? Those don’t actually mean anything at all, especially when the two-man lineup of DeRozan and Vucevic is a -45 in 1,151 minutes per NBA.com. Say whatever you want about analytics but the numbers are what they are. If DeRozan and Vucevic were good, the data would reflect that. The Bulls extended Vucevic last summer and are, predictably, thinking of extending DeRozan this summer.
Caruso and Drummond
Let’s make something clear; if these two players are making or breaking your team from being competitive, you don’t have a competitive team. The Bulls reportedly did explore trades for Caruso, but Chicago’s asking price was too much and other teams balked. There were minimal reports on a deal for Drummond despite the big man’s play per his own EVP.
These two players could’ve given the Bulls some much-needed assets to stock the war chest. Chicago does have some future draft picks in the pipeline but these two players weren’t going to be the difference in a the chase for a playoff spot in any circumstance. Why not deal them?
Parity in the East, competing for the playoffs and taking steps into the abyss
This is largely about the second and fourth tweets in the image above, and this is where the team’s management and ownership has insulted the fans. Parity is relative, and parity in the East is also relative.
The Bulls are 14.5 games back of the No. 1 seed in the East. The No. 2 seed in the conference is 4.5 games back of the No. 1 seed. The Bulls are 4.5 games up on the No. 11 seed Nets, who dealt away fringe pieces as they realized they were likely to bottom out. There’s 3.5 games separating the Bulls from the sixth and final automatic playoff spot. In what world are the Bulls in title contention?
Chicago is 24-27, which is miraculous after a 5-14 start. But that 5-14 start occurred with LaVine holding a prominent role in the roster and White being subdued as a result. Karnisovas suggested the team was better with LaVine and White emerging was a positive sign.
At 24-27, the Bulls are sitting in the play-in tournament. They may hold the ninth-best record in the East but are 20th overall in the NBA. That’s a more realistic view of where this roster is.
Competing for the playoffs also doesn’t mean anything if you’re going to get bounced in the first round. The Bulls haven’t won a playoff series since 2014-15, and they’ve only won one playoff game under the Karnisovas regime. That’s no basis for success for a franchise that saw Jordan win six championships. And yet, the team wants to bring back DeRozan after re-signing both Vucevic and LaVine. How can any fan be expected to accept that as a sign of improvement? It feels like Karnisovas is content to let this group ride things out, and that means a first-round exit in the playoffs at best.
The cloud of ownership
The fourth quote above mentions the thoughts of ownership regarding a rebuild, but Karnisovas pushing against that and wanting to be competitive. That statement contains two insults to fans, who as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, know what successful basketball in the city of Chicago looks like. “Being competitive” might mean a play-in berth and a potential playoff series in the minds of Karnisovas and his front office minions but to every other franchise, it means championships. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers also stayed put at the trade deadline, much to the chagrin of both fanbases. The difference between those teams and the Bulls is obvious. You can ask for patience and understanding if you’ve climbed to the top of the mountain. You can’t ask for it if your best performance is a gentleman’s sweep.
As for ownership signing off a rebuild, I don’t even know that ownership cares. Jerry Reinsdorf has banked the profits of the Jordan years and rarely looked back. The Chicago White Sox, Reinsdorf’s other team and allegedly his preferred one, are one of three teams in MLB to never sign a player to a $100 million contract. The other two are the small-market Kansas City Royals and the notoriously penny-pinching Oakland Athletics, who are set to relocate. If Reinsdorf doesn’t want to invest in a winning team, he should give up his ownership stake. Take the big paycheck and enjoy mediocre baseball.
Karnisovas is complicit in this thinking as well. If ownership was signing off on a rebuild, he should be on board in making that happen. It’s one thing to bring LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic and Lonzo Ball together in an attempt to create something special. That’s not what Bulls fans are upset about.
Allowing that core group to continue together despite repeated failures, mortgaging the books with their extensions and sacrificing the chance to re-stock the draft cupboard, is malpractice of the highest order in basketball. That’s what the fans are upset about. Doing nothing at this trade deadline was a sign ownership and the front office is accepting of the status quo, which is a first-round playoff exit.
The path forward
Chicago fans are passionate about their teams, and they only ask the owners and managers to be just as passionate. That doesn’t appear to be the case with the Bulls, who have basically been reduced to being Reinsdorf’s cash cow who doles out checks to everyone regardless of performance. Fans allow for mistakes and they allow for efforts gone wrong, bu they don’t allow for continued inaction and incompetence. And they hate being lied to.
I’m not naive enough to believe the United Center will suddenly stop filling up for Bulls games, so the change has to come from one of the core players wanting out. At the moment, that player is most likely to be DeRozan.
He’s a free agent at the end of this season who has reportedly wanted to stay in Chicago for the rest of his career. He’s also 34 years old and will be 35 before next season, meaning he doesn’t have much time to realistically compete for a championship. If DeRozan leaves on his own, the Bulls might actually abandon this core and start fresh. It’s a slim hope but it’s hope nonetheless. That’s something the Bulls haven’t given their fans for the greater part of two seasons.