I know I’m not the only one who felt almost no reassurance from the Bulls recent string of wins against pretty good teams. Beating Boston for a second time this season and then Milwaukee in their building, followed by a win against the Jazz in Salt Lake City on Monday night, should have gotten the “ok, we’re back!” juices flowing.
But, it didn’t. I felt no better about the Bulls on Tuesday morning, after their first win in Utah since 2016, than I did when they were on a four-game skid the week before — a skid, lest we forget, that culminated in an embarrassing loss to the putrid Orlando Magic at home.
I think I feel this way because what I knew to be true when the current iteration of this Bulls core was assembled in August of 2021 is rearing its ugly head. This team isn’t good enough to win a title: period, point blank.
I knew that a year and a half ago. You knew that a year and a half ago. But as Bulls fans licking their wounds from the GarPax era, we were happy to embrace being relevant in the NBA discussion again after Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley came to town. The new front office duo fired Jim Boylen into the sun and brought in a head coach with a winning pedigree and an excellent reputation with the players in Billy Donovan.
They looked like the smart, outside the box thinking duo that we craved when they drafted the high-upside Patrick Williams at No. 4 overall in their first draft. Then came the Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan signings, and all of the sudden, even though we knew deep down that wasn’t enough, the Bulls were the talk of the league again.
For the first time in years, they weren’t a walking meme, a punching bag, an Eastern Conference cellar-dweller destined to pick seventh in the draft every year and get nothing for it.
That era of Bulls basketball sucked so bad that we all convinced ourselves that this version of the team had an outside shot if everything went according to plan.
This should have been red flag No. 1 because there is no more signature of a calling card for a Jerry Reinsdorf-owned team than one that relies entirely on everything going exactly to plan. Save for the Jordan era — that Reinsdorf lucked into and ran out of town as quickly as he could after he got rich off it — this has always been how Jerry operates. You know this exceptionally well if you’re a White Sox fan.
To the Bulls credit, they made it easy for us to buy into the latest veiled attempt at building a championship contender by a Reinsdorf team. DeMar DeRozan, dubbed washed up and the worst free agent signing of the offseason, came out looking to prove everyone and their mother wrong. Honestly, he hasn’t stopped to this point.
A healthy Lonzo Ball was the conductor of one of the league’s most exciting transition offenses. He is a selfless player, always looking to feed his co-stars and packing an energetic punch on the defensive end with his endless hustle and effort.
Zach LaVine had been coming into his own for years in Chicago and now had the talent around him and the carrot of a super-max extension dangling in front of him to finally make him one of the game’s elite back court talents.
Sprinkle in the energizer bunny and gritty defensive wizard Alex Caruso, the former All-Star big man Nikola Vučević — whom the Bulls paid a premium for — and the youngster’s Ayo Dosunmu, Pat Williams and Coby White, and energy guys like Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr., and it looked like the arrow was pointing firmly in the up direction for the Bulls.
But like all perfectly laid Reinsdorf plans, the wheels came off when the injuries began to mount. Lonzo Ball’s season ended on January 14 with what was diagnosed as a bone bruise and has now turned into two knee surgeries and will almost certainly be over a calendar year missed before he returns to action. Billy Donovan’s latest update (which wasn’t much of one) doesn’t provide much optimism.
A week later, the Bulls lost Alex Caruso to a fractured right wrist suffered when Grayson Allen delivered a cheap body slam to Caruso in Milwaukee.
The answer to losing two critical players to lengthy injuries? A heavy dose of the rookie Ayo Dosunmu (who played well enough) and chaos. Tyler Cook, Malcolm Hill, Devon Dotson, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Matt Thomas all played anywhere from 11 to 40 games for the Bulls last season. That’s not a championship roster.
After watching their team that once led the Eastern Conference to start the season stumble to a 25-26 record down the stretch, and their trade deadline solutions were Tristan Thompson after a buyout from Indiana, the Bulls did precisely nothing to address the glaring core issues with their roster this offseason.
We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well.
This team is dead. The luster of being relevant again has worn off, and realizing what we knew to be true from the start is staring us in the face.
The fans aren’t blinded by the enamor of simply being out of the NBA Twitter meme factory anymore. DeMar DeRozan (albeit still putting up big numbers) is another year older. Zach LaVine’s knee issues have him looking like a shell of himself, and who knows when (or if) he’ll bounce back. Who knows what Lonzo Ball — a player whose most significant skill was his endless energy and hustle on both ends of the floor — will look like whenever he finally returns.
The Bulls are a team at a crossroads right now, whether they want to be or not. This team isn’t winning a championship as presently constructed. The real question is, what will they do about it? Will it be the same old song and dance from the Bulls with different actors than before? Or will Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley figure out how to change course before this ship crashes into another full-blown rebuilding effort that we’ve become accustomed to in Chicago?