Here’s the thing about the Chicago Bulls consistently thinking---or sometimes even saying---that the sub-.500 team they’re facing is a team they should beat.
Those sub-.500 teams are saying the same thing about the Bulls.
The Charlotte Hornets on Thursday became the latest bottom-feeding team to embarrass the Bulls, who dropped into a tie for 10th in the Eastern Conference with the Washington Wizards. Who, by the way, currently own the tiebreaker with two victories in three tries with one game remaining in the season series because they won one game with Bradley Beal out and the Bulls again thinking they should win.
It’s not a good look.
As Billy Donovan told reporters in Charlotte after the game, the Bulls need to play with more desperation. By this point, it’s fairly obvious how little margin of error this team has if it wants to win; they now have lost to the team with the fewest road victories (Houston Rockets) and fewest home victories (Hornets) at the time of their meeting.
So, blow it up, right? That’s still more a longshot scenario than a realistic one.
For starters, the Bulls aren’t even yet two years removed from this new managerial regime blowing up what it inherited from the previous regime. Only Zach LaVine and Coby White remain.
Artūras Karnišovas watched young prospects like Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen for a half-season and full season, respectively, and concluded he didn’t like the franchise’s direction. So he pushed the Bulls into win-now mode---or at least competitive relevancy---by trading Carter Jr. for Nikola Vucevic in March 2021.
That offseason brought more major moves. The Bulls acquired DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball via sign-and-trade transactions, added Alex Caruso via free agency and traded a disgruntled Markkanen for Derrick Jones Jr. and a lottery-protected future first-round pick.
Ball’s two knee surgeries and long-term absence---he hasn’t played since January 2022 and there is no timeline for his return---has crippled management’s vision for continuity. Much like Derrick Rose’s torn ACL and successive knee injuries crippled the last regime’s attempt to keep open a brief championship window.
Let’s define “blowing it up” as trading two of the Bulls’ “Big Three” of LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic by the Feb. 9 trade deadline. Maybe it’s only trading DeRozan, who would net the largest return.
Of those two scenarios, the first one would certainly surprise several rival executives that NBC Sports Chicago has talked to recently, who are currently under the impression that Karnišovas wants to see the core he used plenty of draft capital to assemble play together. Ball’s stalled return has thwarted that scenario.
It’s unknown if yet another troubling loss and this team’s clear track record of following spurts of progress with maddening regression will sway Karnišovas’ thinking. While trading DeRozan remains a longshot, it certainly would recoup some of the lost draft capital.
The player to watch is Vucevic. While trading him would essentially admit a mistake given the price tag to acquire him, losing him for nothing in unrestricted free agency this offseason would be worse. It’s management’s job to balance short- and long-term planning, and certainly having a read on Vucevic’s offseason intentions has to be a checked box at this point.
To Donovan’s point, the Bulls ease into too many games. They don’t consistently play with the urgency that has defined high-profile victories over the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, among others.
They also lack shooting, as their league-worst 29 3-point attempts per game attests, and legitimate two-way players.
For comparison, their 29 3-point attempts are almost a full two 3-pointers per game lower than the 29th-ranked Atlanta Hawks and ridiculously behind the first-place Golden State Warriors’ 43.3 attempts.
As for two-way players, Ball is the best and he hasn’t played in over a calendar year.
Thursday night featured another blown second-half lead. Donovan has cited turnovers, too much fouling and too many second-chance points allowed as the main culprits when that happens.
Playing harder and with more urgency and mental toughness, along with better execution, is Donovan’s plan to blow up the current woes. Blowing up the roster remains a longshot for now.