How to make the Chicago Bulls Title Contenders
It was a year of unexpected growth for the Chicago Bulls. After making massive moves this past off-season, including acquiring former Pelicans and Lakers guard Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade, signing Alex Caruso away from Lakers and stealing Demar Derozan from the Lakers in a sign-and-trade with the Spurs, the Bulls shot up to first place in the Eastern Conference standings heading into the All-Star break with a record of 38-21.
However, due to a slew of injuries to Ball, Caruso, 2nd year forward Patrick Williams and Zach Lavine’s nagging knee issue and under-performance, the Bulls fell all the way down to the sixth seed after going just 8-15 to finish out the regular season. Due to some tiebreakers at the end of the season, the Bulls were rewarded with playing the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. After a competitive two games in Milwaukee, including a 41-point masterclass from Derozan, the series sat tied at 1-1 heading back to Chicago. With the Bucks losing all-star guard Khris Middleton to a sprained MCL, there was optimism in Chicago. Unfortunately, the optimism in Chicago and amongst Bulls Twitter would not last as public enemy number one Grayson Allen stole the show in the Windy City. Allen shot a combined 11-14 (79%) from deep as the Bucks took both games in Chicago by an average of 27.5 points per game. By that point the series was over, but to officially put the nail in the coffin, Lavine was put into health and safety protocols before game five. The Bulls would lose in five games to the Bucks, and two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated this first round match-up averaging 28.6 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game.
The Bulls are a good team, their play in the regular season showed that, but there are a lot of questions heading into the third off-season for Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. What is the health of Lonzo Ball? How do you fix a bench that only gave you 18.6 points per game in the playoffs and finished second to last in the NBA during the regular season? Do you give up on the Coby White experiment? Do you trade Nikola Vucevic or hope he has a bounce back season? What can you add to contend with Boston, Miami and Milwaukee? And most importantly, will Lavine still be playing 41 games a year at the United Center?
With all of those questions in mind, take a journey with me as I look to see what a potentially realistic off-season could look like in order to put the Bulls from playoff contender to championship contender.
NBA DRAFT – June 23:
The Bulls will have the 18th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, after last year’s first was conveyed to the Orlando Magic, which turned into Franz Wagner. After sifting through some of the many (many) mock drafts out there, there are two prospects who I think deserve some real attention from the front office:
1. Malaki Branham – 6’ 5” – SG/SF – Ohio State University
Branham could help the Bulls on both sides of the ball. Starting on the offensive side of the ball, Branham is a multi-level scorer, shooting 53% on two pointers including 70% at the rim, 42% from beyond the arc and 83% from the free-throw line. Beyond that, according to Draftnet.com, Branham, “possesses an elite mid-range jumper and can stop on a dime off the dribble at his spots to knock down these jumpers.”
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, the Ringers Kevin O’Connor described Branham as an, “Impactful defender with a sturdy frame and long arms, which he can use to defend both guard positions and some wings. He brings great effort.”
However, what could make an excellent fit with Chicago is his ability to catch and shoot from beyond the arc. With so many ball handlers on the roster (Ball, Derozan, Lavine (if he stays), Caruso, Dosunmu, White) the Bulls need players who can not only space the floor but do so without needing to dribble the ball.
As good as he is, there are some downsides, as Draftnet notes, “(He) struggles to stay balanced and with his man going around screens on the defensive end,” and “but looks less in rhythm shooting off the dribble from the perimeter with a slower motion.” Those are things that can be worked on with NBA training and coaching, plus his young age (19) gives him a lot of upside down the road.
2. Walker Kessler – 7’ 1” – C – Auburn University
One of the other major struggles for the Bulls defense was interior defense and rebounding, with Vucevic not being a rim protector, and the other back up bigs Tristan Thompson and Tony Bradley not being very good in any regard.
That’s were Kessler comes in. Kessler, who just won SEC Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 8.2 rebounds, 4.6 blocks, and 1.1 steals a night, while dropping in around 11 points as well. Kessler’s offensive game is very limited, getting most of his points through lobs, put backs and the occasional pick and pop for three. It will take some time for his offensive game to develop but for Eric Yearian of Draftnet.com, his defensive play is at an elite level already.
“He is an elite level shot blocker and shot disruptor inside, routinely blocking 4 or more shots in a game (currently averaging 4.7 per game) … Has nimble feet for a footer … Moves well, is not a statue in the paint, and has shown an ability to step out and defend in pick and roll situations while still being able to recover to his man.”
While I love both of these prospects and their fits with the Bulls, I think with what I have in store later, I think Branham is the way to go. The Bulls need better guard/wing defenders and someone who can space the floor on the roster and score reliably off the bench.
NBA FREE AGENCY – AUGUST 2-6
If the Bulls really want to ascend to that Championship contender status, free agency is going to be the way to go and there are some real moves to be made that could really shake up this Bulls roster:
Move #1: Max Zach Lavine
This is priority number one for the Bulls front office heading into this off-season and they are making every effort to make sure they re-sign him.
There have been rumors swirling around the league that Lavine could go to the Hawks, the Trail Blazers, the Mavericks and (most hilariously) the Lakers. As a side note I find it hilarious that Lakers fans think they can get any star player and that teams actually want Russell Westbrook in return. Anyway, in this mock off-season the Bulls re-sign Zach Lavine to the full-max offer of 5 years and over 200 million dollars.
Move #2: Trade away Nikola Vucevic
I was excited as anybody in Bulls nation when AK traded for Vucevic back at the 2020-2021 NBA trade deadline, and I thank him in his recruitment of former USC teammate in Derozan. With that being said, it’s time for the front office to admit that he really doesn’t fit with this current core of players. When two of your three best players are already not the best defenders, having an immobile center who has to play in drop coverage does not help. With one year left on his contract it is the perfect time to ship off the Montenegro native.
Chicago Bulls trade: Nikola Vucevic, Coby White, 2023 First Round Pick Top-10 Protected via Portland to Suns
Phoenix Suns trade: Deandre Ayton via sign-and-trade and Torrey Craig to Bulls, Dario Saric and 2024 First Round Pick Lottery Protected to Pistons
Detroit Pistons Trade: Nothing
This would be almost a dream move for the Bulls this off-season, but one that I can see happening. Ayton is clearly frustrated with the Suns not extending the former first overall pick.
Sending him to Chicago would give him an opportunity to flourish his full talents as the third scoring option, while bringing solid rim protection. Torrey Craig works as a replacement for Derrick Jones Jr at the 3 or the 4 spot and also salary filler to make the trade work for the Suns. Meanwhile, the Suns get a solid replacement in Vucevic, a young guard to build depth behind Chris Paul and Cam Payne and a first-round pick to potentially trade away to continue to load up. Lastly, the Pistons get a first-round pick and an expiring contract in Saric to potentially move on to get more picks/assets.
Move #3: Sign Andre Drummond to a 1-yr 2.3-million-dollar deal
The back up center position was certainly not a strong suit of the Bulls last season, going through Thompson and last year’s off-season signing of Bradley. Drummond brings size and strong rebounding at another minimum contract; he would be a good get for Chi-Town.
Move #4: Sign Nicolas Batum to a 1-yr 2.3-million-dollar deal
While aging, Batum still offers real value for the Bulls. The 33-year-old French forward shot 40% from the three-point line on 4.5 attempts a night and is still a plus defender at the power forward spot.
What the Roster looks like Now:
After all these moves here is what the depth chart looks like for the 2022/23 Chicago Bulls:
PG: Lonzo Ball
SG: Zach Lavine
SF: Demar Derozan
PF: Patrick Williams
C: Deandre Ayton
Sixth Man: Alex Caruso
Bench: Ayo Dosunmu, Malaki Branham, Torrey Craig, Javonte Green, Nicolas Batum, Andre Drummond
With the added rim-protection and rebounding in Ayton and Drummond, three-point shooting in Craig, Batum, and Branham, I think this sets up Chicago for a strong season in 2022/23. While taking over top teams in the Eastern Conference will be difficult, a few moves could make the Chicago Bulls a real contender in 2023.