The Chicago Bulls begin their 57th regular season Wednesday in Detroit against the Pistons. Their offseason moves and strong preseason created expectations and a buzz for the first time in ages.
Given high caliber, veteran players they’ve acquired like Nikola Vučević and DeMar DeRozan, which cost draft capital and money, not making the playoffs would be a failure. Where they will finish has created wide-ranging discussions.
That’s why it’s time for four bold predictions.
The Bulls will finish in the top six of the Eastern Conference
A truly bold prediction would say top-four and homecourt advantage in the Eastern Conference. But this franchise has underwhelmed for years and that feels like too big a jump.
The Eastern Conference is strong. And perhaps this prediction is drinking a bit too much Kool-Aid from the preseason punch bowl. But the offensive explosiveness and defensive versatility should lend itself to at least regular-season success.
The size concerns make any guarantees for playoff performance difficult. But think about it: With at least two sniper scorers on the court at all times — and three come closing and crunch time in Vučević, DeRozan and Zach LaVine — the Bulls will outscore a lot of teams. They’ll take advantage of “schedule victories,” capable of beating even good teams on nights the schedule breaks right.
They finished second in net rating during the preseason and assist-to-turnover ratio. Their style of play — plenty of small-ball lineups trying to create havoc and transition opportunities defensively and an unselfish offensive system — feels like it will translate. Lonzo Ball is on the ascent and is a fantastic connecting piece.
Who knows what will happen with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Ben Simmons drama? Same with Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets, who still remain heavily stocked regardless. Could the New York Knicks or Atlanta Hawks take a step back? The Bulls will earn their first playoff berth since 2017. It’s just a matter of where they finish.
Zach LaVine will make third-team All-NBA
When the Bulls acquired DeRozan, it immediately felt like the chance for LaVine to duplicate or surpass last season’s impressive offensive efficiency went out the window. LaVine averaged 27.4 points on shooting splits of 50.7/41.9/84.9.
Too many scorers. Too much unselfishness. Too much sacrifice.
But the preseason showcased an electric and efficient LaVine again. Thanks to playing alongside other shot creators, LaVine played off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations and didn’t have to carry as heavy an offensive burden. He didn’t face as many double-teams. And he averaged 22.5 points per game (27.9 per 36 minutes) on 51.7/52.4/89.5 shooting splits.
Even if he doesn’t match last season’s numbers, which is no longer a certain no, he will impact winning more. Plus, the aforementioned drama of Simmons and Irving raises questions about a guard field that typically fills up very, very quickly.
In 2020-21, Stephen Curry and Luka Dončić made first-team All-NBA, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul made second-team and Bradley Beal and Irving made third-team. It’s not out of the question for Paul and Beal to fall off those rosters this season.
LaVine is a man on a mission. Making the playoffs, and one of these teams, is a publicly-stated goal. Here’s saying he becomes supermax eligible and makes the third team.
The Bulls will finish top-three in deflections
This may seem a little less bold and a little less exciting. But it’s no less important.
The Bulls finished 26th last season with 12.9 deflections per game. They finished top-five during the preseason with a defense that also ranked fourth in steals and tied the Phoenix Suns with a 91.3 rating.
Ball has been a revelation, anticipating passes and sets with length and athleticism. Alex Caruso has been as advertised, impacting the point of attack and playing with a toughness that translates.
Head coach Billy Donovan has owned that the Bulls will be undersized. But as an architect of four top-10 defenses during his five seasons in Oklahoma City, and even the 12th-ranked defense in the Bulls’ disjointed 2020-21 season, he gets teams to guard.
The Bulls will do so with an aggressive, athletic scheme that will produce plenty of deflections.
Artūras Karnišovas will draw plenty of Executive of the Year votes
It's a well-worn phrase in sports. When team success happens, individual recognition follows.
This award is voted on by peers, executives paying respect to other executives' work.
If the above predictions prove true — is now the time to mention the caveat that this author is terrible at sports predictions? — it will be impossible to ignore the impact that Bulls management had during their aggressive offseason. Karnišovas will get the love for work by him and his staff of Marc Eversley, Pat Connelly and JJ Polk.
Let the games begin.