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The Chicago Bulls have not so much been bitten by the injury bug this season, as they’ve been entirely ravaged, leaving behind just the dust off their bones.
Alright, that’s a little dramatic, but nevertheless it isn’t entirely wrong. The Bulls started off the season as one of the better defensive teams in the league, only to lose their four best defenders, Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams, and Javonte Green for long stretches during the season.
(In Williams’ case, it’s all but five games missed on the season so far.)
Better odds next year
The Bulls themselves would hate a defeatist attitude, but there comes a point when too many injuries just take too great a toll.
Zach LaVine is currently playing on a bum knee that has him at 70-80% of where he’s usually at, a significant decrease in an otherwise All-NBA caliber effectiveness. Even as players such as Ball and Williams return, there’s the inevitable ramp-up process that needs to be established after spending months on the sidelines.
As such, it’s fair to wonder if Chicago’s quest for a championship stands greater odds next year when players – presumably – will enter training camp healthy and fit for fight. Plus, players such as Williams and rookie Ayo Dosunmu will be that much more older and likely more polished in their game.
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As for DeMar DeRozan, he’s proved enough this season to suggest any potential drop-off won’t be drastic, seeing as he’s currently averaging a career-high of over 28 points per game. A drop-off might see DeRozan fall back into the mid-20’s in terms of point production, but that’s a win considering the initial expectations of him coming into this season.
If Nikola Vucevic enters next season with a balanced level of play, as opposed to starting the year off struggling for the first two months, that too would have a fairly large impact.
Then there is the pending offseason upgrades. The Bulls proved they’re in a different tier than most pegged them as being. That could lead to increased interest from impactful free agents, looking for a chance to make a deep playoff run, just as it could lead to older veterans signing for less for the same reason.
There’s merit in the notion of seeing the Bulls as a Year 2 team, similarly to how the Phoenix Suns have approached this season after losing in the Finals last year to the Bucks, winning 54 of their first 68 games.
This isn’t to say the Bulls can’t surprise teams this season, given that they’re projected as a Top 6 East team. But the continued flow of injuries, combined with players having to get acclimated to games and teammates, and it’s reasonable to expect some major hurdles.
Heavy financial commitment
The Bulls will also enter the 2022-2023 season with a costly roster, assuming of course they max out Zach LaVine, which by all intents and purposes seem to be the plan – and rightly so. And with a costly roster comes expectations.
This year, Chicago became a sort of twisted Cinderella team. Next year, they’ll have to up the ante, as teams know to take them seriously. Responding like the Atlanta Hawks did this year, where they practically expected to sleepwalk their way to another Eastern Conference Finals appearance, is a non-starter. Fortunately, these Bulls are older and more experienced, thus less likely to fall into that trap.
The list of needs isn’t long, but it is crucial. Coming into next season, the Bulls need more size and additional help on the glass. With Hassan Whiteside having found his role as a backup, that’s one direction the Bulls could try to go in to shore up that front line.
More than likely, the majority of the current roster will be back, with a few exceptions at the end of the bench. Clearing those roster spots for reliable veterans would allow head coach Billy Donovan to lean into depth, and lessen the minutes burden on his primary rotation, potentially affording them to make it through the season healthy.
Alternatively, the Bulls could swing trades and move off some of their younger pieces for veteran players, opting for known commodities like they did when acquiring all of Vucevic, Ball, DeRozan, and Caruso.
Chicago can go in a few different directions, but overall, the mission of next year is the same, just amplified. Winning time is upon them.