As Julius Randle took a step toward Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams grabbed the quick feed in the corner. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft saw the open baseline and broke toward the rim. Seven-footer Mitchell Robinson was standing by ready to contest, but Williams didn’t care an ounce.
Exploding upward, Williams looked like he was going for the vicious slam. Finally, he was showing the offensive aggressiveness everyone wanted to see. Finally, he was showing the athleticism everyone knew he had. Finally, he was – THUD. Whistle. Woj bomb.
A hard flagrant foul saw Robinson smack Williams in the face. The second-year forward began to flip like a plump pancake in the air, slowing turning and sending 215lbs on the wrist he used to brace his fall. One day later we knew Williams had dislocated his wrist and was officially at risk of missing the entire regular season. What we didn’t know is that moment would symbolize the entirety of the Chicago Bulls’ season.
While Williams went on to return with 12 regular-season games remaining, the Bulls watched player after player miss valuable time throughout the season. Alex Caruso played 41 games due to a number of bumps and bruises, including his own wrist injury that forced him to miss 22-straight games. Zach LaVine suffered a small ligament tear in his thumb at the end of October, which notably hindered his ball-handling as he tried to play through it. Then, fast forward to January 14, and he clocked roughly 3 minutes against the Golden State Warriors due to knee soreness that would pose a problem for the remainder of the season.
January 14 also marked Lonzo Ball’s last game of the year. The franchise’s new lead guard suffered a torn meniscus that would require surgery. Ball told reporters at his exit-interview press conference that he still doesn’t feel right.
Derrick Jones Jr. suffered a fractured finger while rehabbing a knee injury, forcing him to miss roughly a month of action before deciding to play banged up. Javonte Green missed roughly three weeks in the middle of the season thanks to a groin injury. Coby White couldn’t play until mid-November thanks to offseason shoulder surgery. Oh, and let’s not forget almost everyone spent time in health and safety protocols at some point this season.
No one is going to feel bad for the Chicago Bulls. I get that. Not only does every team in the NBA experience injury trouble, but it’s up to every team to handle that injury trouble adequately. In other words, it’s largely the front office’s job to build a roster that can endure extended absences without sacrificing too much production. I have little doubt that will be a point of emphasis this summer as the front office tries to bolster the team’s depth.
With that said, I can’t blame anyone on the Bulls for asking “what if” at the end of this regular season.
“I know maybe no team ever goes through a whole NBA season completely whole, but if you had ever gotten whole what we would have looked like, and that to me is always going to be a little bit disappointing … I think they had built some chemistry coming into August and some of that stuff, and there were probably some missed opportunities,” head coach Billy Donovan said following the Bulls Game 5 loss in Milwaukee.
The Bulls held the 7th-best net rating in the NBA heading into January. They shot with the third-highest effective field goal percentage in the league, and they averaged the 6th-most points off turnover per game, per NBA Stats. They used this consistent two-way play to eventually rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. Then – as Donovan noted – things got disappointing.
Following LaVine and Ball’s injuries against Golden State in mid-January, the Bulls would go on to finish the season with a 21st-ranked net rating. They shot a 54.2 effective field goal percentage that sat an underwhelming 16th in the league. As for points off turnovers, the Bulls averaged the 5th-fewest per game as their defensive rating plummeted into the NBA’s bottom-5.
“We understand our roster and any shortcomings,” Arturas Karnisovas said at his end-of-season press conference. “I think it’s also – again, long season, lots of lineups – it’s very hard to find your identity defensively when the guys are constantly changing. And we had a really hard time, especially in the second half, with that when our defense dropped to the 20s … I think another year under the belt will serve them well.”
The lack of playing time for this fully healthy core only makes life that much harder on Karnisovas and his front office. How do you confidently say what’s wrong? How do confidently attack free agency?
I expect these are questions that will be answered over a countless number of film sessions and meetings. But I also think the difficulty in answering these questions is part of the reason why we saw the Bulls toss around the word “continuity” so much over the last week.
“I think everybody was frustrated,” Lonzo Ball told reporters. “Early on, you could kind of see the potential we had. I don’t think we ever got to reach that full potential, though, because of Covid, injuries, and stuff like that. But, hopefully, this summer does well for everyone and we can regroup and come back strong.”
The Bulls’ opening night starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vucevic played just five total games together this season. What appeared to be the team’s preferred closing lineup that substituted Caruso for Williams appeared in just 16 total games (with a very good net rating of 12.5, might I add).
Again, while every team might suffer from a slew of trouble, it becomes especially problematic for a team as new as the Bulls. The fact their best players spent this little time together can’t help but make you wonder what could have happened if the basketball gods answered a few more prayers.
I think Nikola Vucevic summed up well how difficult this season became as the months dragged on.
“We were all trying to figure it out as the season went on,” Vucevic said. “Playing with one another, getting to know one another, getting that chemistry. And I think we do have a good group of guys that are unselfish and that want to play the right way, and sometimes it takes time. And I think the more we play together, the more we’ll have an understanding of how we can all be ourselves and how to be aggressive and effective within a team game and without it hurting our chemistry.
It’s a process. It takes time. Not to make an excuse or anything, just at times it was hard for us to figure that out because consistently we never really were able to put a good amount of games together to kind of see … so sometimes it was a little tricky.”
Spending time together on the floor is so important for a team built around three All-Star previously accustomed to being labeled the No. 1 option. Each player on this roster was ready to make the right sacrifices to prioritize winning … but learning how to appropriately make those sacrifices takes time.
I really hate that we’ve been left with so much unknown at the end of this season, but I think this is also where we can find some optimism. The fact many believe this group can accomplish so much more should only have us excited about what the future holds. I look forward to seeing what work is done around the margins this summer, and I hope we can see more of what this core can do in 2022-23.