On the heels of an active offseason, the Bulls’ highly-anticipated 2021-22 campaign begins in earnest on Monday, Sept. 27 when players, coaches and executives convene in Chicago for Media Day.
The next day, training camp tips off. Then, after a four-game preseason slate, the true games begin.
There will be a plethora of pressing storylines to monitor as the team begins its quest to snap a four-season playoff drought. Here are eight to follow closely, from NBC Sports Chicago Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson and reporter Rob Schaefer:
When will the Lonzo Ball investigation conclude?
Possibly by the time you’re reading this? It’s fluid. There’s no deadline, per se. And at this point, which has been reported all along, there is no chance either the Ball or the Kyle Lowry cases conclude with the new team having to return the player to his former employer. If there is guilt, expect fines and or draft pick penalties.
These investigations take time and are lawyered-up. No t is left uncrossed or i left undotted. Plenty of interviews occur. I was told some people were still being interviewed as of mid-September.
When the league performed its investigation into the Bucks’ sign-and-trade acquisition of Bogdan Bogdanović, it took just over a month for officials to find Milwaukee guilty and dock the franchise a 2022 second-round pick. But that conclusion came on the eve of the regular season, not training camp. So stay tuned. — K.C. Johnson
Zach LaVine addressing the Bulls’ offseason moves
Make no mistake: As much as this season is about the Bulls’ spirited effort to return to relevance — and the playoffs — it’s about proving that this organization’s direction is desirable enough to keep Zach LaVine enticed long-term. He’s the team’s best player, a top-flight offensive talent coming off a historically prolific age-26 season, and is due for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2022.
LaVine has said nothing to indicate his commitment to Chicago is wavering — or even that it could. In fact, he has been steadfast in his devotion to the franchise at every turn. But a lot can change in the next nine months, particularly if the Bulls underwhelm and established, deep-pocketed suitors arise. Especially for a player in LaVine whose focus is squarely on winning.
The front office made a calculated gamble this offseason by shelling out cash and draft capital to externally improve the roster instead of sacrificing depth to carve out cap space and renegotiate-and-extend LaVine’s contract at a higher number. No doubt LaVine was consulted on their dealings, and no doubt his preseason outlook will be rosy. But it’s a dynamic that adds to the pressurized nature of this season. — Rob Schaefer
When will Coby White be ready?
The Bulls haven’t provided an official update on the third-year guard’s status since issuing a statement on June 10 stating he would be re-evaluated in four months following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. That’s mid-October. So, of course, questions about his rehabilitation progress will surface early in training camp.
According to a team source, White has been dribbling with his left hand and is progressing well in what is indeed a fluid recovery. The source estimated a mid-November return. If that holds — and, again, all rehabilitation processes take their own route — White will miss roughly 10 to 12 regular-season games.
When he returns, he likely will do so in a role he played more his rookie season than last season — scoring sparkplug. In a formality, the Bulls picked up the fourth-year option on White’s rookie contract. They also included him as one of seven “core” players while touting their new Twitter header. But with long-term money committed to Ball and Caruso, White needs to prove he can flourish in this role. Either that or he could find his name in trade rumors given his affordable contract and past production. — K.C. Johnson
How will Lonzo Ball be used?
The Bulls’ need for a playmaking point guard has been a cloud hanging over the franchise for a half-decade. In Lonzo Ball, the specter of a solution exists. But to what extent?
Ball is a brilliant playmaker. But for the Pelicans in 2020-21, even as he averaged nearly six assists per game, he was largely confined to what he called a “3-and-D” role while Zion Williamson — in rather fruitful fashion — evolved into the team’s de facto point guard.
“It was different,” Ball said during his introductory press conference with the Bulls. “It was the first time I (have) really done that.”
Because of his IQ, two-way versatility and improved outside shot, Ball was pretty good in that role, averaging 14.6 points, 5.7 dimes and 1.5 steals while shooting 37.8 percent from 3-point range on a high volume of attempts (8.3 per game). But clearly his aspirations are higher.
“Whatever coach asks me, that’s what I’m going to do,” Ball said. “I’m a basketball player at the end of the day. I can do a lot of things on the court. So I don’t want to be, you know, just caged in. I want to do whatever I can to help. And whatever they think that is, that’s what I go out and try to do.”
Diplomatically said. But point taken.
The Bulls have a wealth of playmaking acumen on the roster, a departure from recent years. Will Ball depart from last season’s role in New Orleans and seize more primary ball-handling duties? Will his entrance successfully facilitate the Bulls’ desire to play at a faster tempo, as it projects to on paper, given their plodding pace after the Nikola Vučević trade last season? His answers to role-related questions — and, eventually, observations from preseason action — will be fascinating to follow. — Rob Schaefer
Patrick Williams’ development
Before the Bulls’ bevy of offseason moves, Patrick Williams projected as the team’s most important player heading into 2021-22. The need for a consistent third scoring option behind Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević loomed, as did the question of whether the fourth overall pick in 2020 could adopt an aggressive offensive mentality on a nightly basis.
With DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in tow, the pressure on Williams won’t be so intense on the offensive end. But, as the team’s presumed starting power forward (a position at which he should fit well, but spent less than half his minutes as a rookie), he remains an X-Factor. The Bulls will need him to act assertively off catches, whether it be to shoot, drive or play-make for others. And they’ll need him to serve as a stop-gap defensively — on-the-ball, and as a helper on the perimeter and interior.
Williams has the tools to be the two-way Swiss Army Knife the Bulls need him to be. He flashed some encouraging signs at Summer League. But, at age 20 and adjusting to a new position, is he ready? How big of a jump is reasonable to expect from Year 1 to 2? Training camp and preseason action will offer the first glimpse at answers. — Rob Schaefer
Who will win the final roster spots?
Five players — Stanley Johnson, Alize Johnson, Matt Thomas, Tyler Cook, Ethan Thompson — are coming to training camp on non-guaranteed contracts. Who will stick?
The safe guess is the Johnsons will. That’s more a reflection of a crowded backcourt picture and questions about frontcourt depth and rim protection than anything else. But we know that Artūras Karnišovas values shooting. Thomas is accomplished in that department.
Don’t forget the Bulls also have an open two-way contract. So it’s likely one of these five players who doesn’t stick with the NBA club will hang around in that fashion.
Stanley Johnson never has lived up to expectations that followed his eighth overall selection by the Pistons in the 2015 NBA draft. But he’s still only 25 and oozes athleticism.
Alize Johnson has perhaps the best chance to stick. Though raw, his energy and rebounding ability could shore up an area of need. It doesn’t hurt when you have Kevin Durant raving about you on your resume. — K.C. Johnson
Which fringe acquisitions will make an impact?
On paper, the top end of the Bulls’ roster boasts a level of talent unseen since the Derrick Rose era, at least. But in addition to interior defense, depth projects as a question mark.
The Bulls didn’t leave that question mark unaddressed, taking a few interesting fliers this offseason in Tony Bradley, Derrick Jones Jr. (via the Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade) and their two most recent second-round picks in Ayo Dosunmu and Marko Simonović. Whoever sticks from the non-guaranteed contract crew qualifies as well.
Health willing, we know Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams and Nikola Vučević comprise the Bulls’ optimal starting lineup. Alex Caruso and Coby White — when healthy — figure to be prominent backcourt reserves. So does Troy Brown Jr. on the wing.
But who among the above crop will look most equipped throughout camp and the preseason to take on a meaningful rotation role? Time will tell, and needless to say, the frontcourt names (Bradley, Simonović, Alize Johnson and even Jones Jr. if he can run some power forward) will be the most pressing to watch, given the team’s lack of surefire size and rim protection. — Rob Schaefer
How will all the new pieces fit together?
Paging Billy Donovan and his $6 million annual salary. The coach and his assistants have plenty of shiny new toys to utilize. There is possibility and flexibility, with the potential to play fast or slow, big or small — but mostly small.
As mentioned throughout, rim protection stands as a preseason concern. How Donovan and his staff figure out the frontcourt rotation will be especially intriguing. According to Basketball Reference, DeMar DeRozan logged 69 percent of his minutes at power forward for the Spurs last season. The presumptive starter, Patrick Williams, also is undersized for the position. Is Tony Bradley ready for a larger role after averaging just 12.6 minutes over his first 112 NBA games?
Offensively, there is less concern, at least on paper. Lonzo Ball should improve the team’s pace and decision-making. DeRozan has averaged 6.4 free-throw attempts over his career, including a five-season stretch in which he averaged at least 7 per game. Alex Caruso figures to please Donovan’s desire to improve point-of-attack defense.
At his introductory news conference in August, DeRozan scoffed at a question about fit.
“Lot of people I see criticizing, talking about ‘fit this, fit that’ have probably never even played basketball,” DeRozan said then. “For me, if everybody (is) on the same page mentality and wants to win, it don't matter about a ‘fit,’ because it's all gonna come together how it needs to come together and make it work. Because at the end of the day the common denominator is winning.”
That’s the goal. — K.C. Johnson