The Chicago Bulls’ transformation is nearing completion.
With the signings of Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas, Ethan Thompson, Tyler Cook and Alize Johnson (the latter of which ESPN reported is a two-year, $3.6 million contract), their roster stands at 18 players — plus Devon Dotson’s two-way deal — with training camp three weeks away.
By the end of camp, they’ll need to trim to 15 at most, meaning the 2020-21 roster isn’t cased in concrete just yet. But the shift is staggering nonetheless. In a span of roughly 18 months, Artūras Karnišovas, Marc Eversley and Co. have completely turned over the team they inherited upon their hiring. Only Zach LaVine and Coby White remain from the group that finished the 2019-20 regular season 22-43.
Bulls 2021-22 projected depth chart
PG: Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Devon Dotson*
SG: Zach LaVine, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, Javonte Green, Matt Thomas, Ethan Thompson
SF: DeMar DeRozan, Troy Brown Jr., Derrick Jones Jr., Stanley Johnson
PF: Patrick Williams, Alize Johnson, Tyler Cook
C: Nikola Vučević, Tony Bradley, Marko Simonović
Tyler Cook, Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas and Ethan Thompson's contracts are all non-guaranteed, according to Spotrac's Keith Smith. Alize Johnson has a $250,000 guarantee trigger on Oct. 19 if not waived, according to ESPN's Bobby Marks.
In some ways, it mirrors the overhaul completed by John Paxson when he assumed lead executive duties from Jerry Krause before the 2003-04 season. Paxson fired Bill Cartwright and hired Scott Skiles as head coach amid a 23-59 campaign in his first year, and by the start of the 2004-05 season, flipped the entire roster on its head except for Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler.
But in other ways, what the Bulls’ still-new-seeming front office has pulled off represents a refreshing break from post-dynasty tradition. In the 2021 free agency period, the Bulls inked DeRozan, Ball and Caruso without dipping under the salary cap line. Counting the deal that sent Daniel Theis to Houston, they executed four sign-and-trades in the month of August, netting, in sum: Ball, DeRozan, Jones Jr., a lottery-protected 2022 first-round pick (via Portland), 2023 second-round pick (via Denver) and a $5 million trade exception in exchange for Tomáš Satoranský, Garrett Temple, Thad Young, Lauri Markkanen, Theis, a 2025 first-round pick and second-rounders in 2022 and 2025.
Those moves continued an aggressive approach to talent acquisition by the new regime that old management was often criticized for not employing — not to mention two of the biggest-name free-agent signings in franchise history in DeRozan and Ball.
That doesn’t make this new-look roster a perfect one. Size and frontcourt defense continue to project as problem areas, even after agreeing to terms with a high-energy rebound magnet in Alize Johnson and employing wings in DeRozan and Jones Jr. who should be able to fill time at power forward in small-ball lineups. Williams’ aptitude for heavy minutes at power forward in his second year, for that matter, remains to be seen as well.
But the Bulls also addressed myriad issues that riddled them last season, which they finished short of the play-in tournament. Caruso and Ball will improve the team’s backcourt defense. DeRozan and Ball provide responsible playmaking (the Bulls finished last season 27th in turnover rate) and diverse scoring arsenals (DeRozan from the mid-range and free-throw line, Ball as an outside shooter). The team’s talent and versatility levels are higher than they’ve been since the Derrick Rose era. And their offense, which ground clunkily to a halt after the Vučević acquisition, ranking 25th in pace and 21st in offensive rating after the 2021 trade deadline, should operate with improved efficiency and at a faster tempo after adding healthy doses of length, athleticism and multi-positionality.
Now, the Bulls must generate another parallel with the beginning of the Paxson era: A jump in the win column. The 2004-05 Bulls finished 47-35, fourth in the Eastern Conference, snapping a six-year postseason drought before being bounced in the first round by the Wizards.
The current team, which finished 2020-21 31-41 in a 72-game season, is out to break a four-year playoff dry spell, the third-longest active streak in the league. LaVine’s impending unrestricted free agent status in 2022 adds to the urgency, as the front office bypassed the avenue to extend him this offseason in favor of utilizing every resource at their disposal to improve the team (a strategy with which LaVine has publicly projected satisfaction).
Some time remains before the Bulls see their first action, and offseason work remains to be done. They must slice their roster to at least 15 players by the start of the season, or 14 if they choose to operate with one slot open, which would allow for flexibility in the event of an uneven trade using the Theis exception. They may add another two-way contract alongside Dotson. They also await the results of the league’s investigation into potential tampering violations during their sign-and-trade acquisition of Ball.
Then comes time to prove the front office’s financial and draft asset investments over the last year-and-a-half were worthwhile. These Bulls represent the start of a new era, and, at least on paper, look the part.