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Bulls’ plan to keep Zach LaVine? Surround him with more talent... but there are flaws

DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine at Chicago Bulls 2021-22 Media Day

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 27: DeMar DeRozan #11, Lonzo Ball #2, and Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls pose for a portrait during NBA Media Day on September 27, 2021 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

As the Bulls tumbled toward the 2020 lottery, Zach LaVine – set to miss the postseason for the sixth straight time to begin his career – expressed his frustration. “It wears on you,” he said. LaVine was scoring 17.7 points per game for his career, a historically high average for someone who’d gone so long without making the playoffs. However, he also had numerous shortcomings that contributed to his lack of team success.

Well, LaVine just put his head down and continued to improve. He sharpened his scoring efficiency from every level. He became more well-rounded. He even became an All-Star for the first time.

Chicago still missed the postseason.

An in-season win-now trade for Nikola Vucevic didn’t lift the Bulls into even the play-in tournament. But they continued this summer with their plan to win soon around LaVine before he hits 2022 unrestricted free agency. Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso lift Chicago’s profile considerably.

LaVine will welcome the additions. Just six players have made an All-Star team but still missed the playoffs their first seven seasons:

  • Zach LaVine
  • DeMarcus Cousins
  • David Lee
  • Shareef Abdur-Rahim
  • Bob Rule
  • Tom Van Arsdale

Unfortunately for the Bulls, they are far from certain to prevent LaVine from making it eight straight years without reaching the playoffs. Heck, Chicago isn’t even absolute lock for the postseason (which includes the play-in tournament) with the Nets, Bucks, 76ers, Heat, Hawks, Knicks, Celtics, Pacers, Wizards, Raptors and Hornets in the East.

Ball, 23, should help in the near- and long-term. He’s a talented secondary/tertiary playmaker, vastly improved 3-point shooter and talented defender. He doesn’t fit neatly into every context, but he’s a darned helpful player if deployed right and young enough to get even better. Getting him in restricted free agency on a four-year, $80 million contract by sending merely Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple to the Pelicans was impressive (unless the Bulls get docked big for tampering).

Caruso is good value for the cost ($36.98 million over four years, partially guaranteed). With his defense, athleticism and shooting, he should make quick contributions.

DeRozan is the thorny acquisition. It was bad enough to pay him $81.9 million over three years. Chicago also surrendered a first-round pick in the sign-and-trade with the Spurs. And a second-round pick. And Thaddeus Young, who was pretty good last season. DeRozan helps as a floor raiser and quasi-point guard, but that’s not really what a team with LaVine and Ball needs. The Bulls certainly don’t need DeRozan’s negative floor spacing and defense.

At least Chicago recouped a first- and second-rounder by sign-and-trading Lauri Markkanen. Derrick Jones Jr., acquired as matching/negative salary, could factor with his athleticism.

The Bulls lack dependable depth after rounding out their roster with Tony Bradley, Javonte Green, Marko Simonovic, Stanley Johnson, Alize Johnson, Matt Thomas and No. 38 pick Ayo Dosunmu.

Dating back to the Vucevic trade, I rate Chicago’s plan unfavorably. It could work, but the path is too narrow to justify trading so many draft picks. The Bulls already conveyed the No. 8 pick to the Magic this year.

But the Vucevic trade is a big reason for my pessimism, and that doesn’t count here. Chicago should be better next season. Maybe not as good as hoped. But better. And Ball brightens the long-term outlook.

Especially if this progress convinces LaVine – who could be the NBA’s best free agent next summer – to stay.

Offseason grade: C+