Excellent moves for Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan have altered the Bulls’ championship odds. But did they revamp the roster enough — particularly on defense — to compete for a championship?
The amazing acquisitions of DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball have increased expectations for the Chicago Bulls this upcoming NBA season. Zach Lavine, one of the NBA’s best scorers, can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. But the Bulls highlighted that they are adamant about winning now, and this upgraded roster has the potential to be one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
Lavine became an effective 27 point-per-game scorer last season on a play style fueled by explosive at-the-rim baskets and deep, long-range 3s, yet he will now share the backcourt with DeMar DeRozan, whose midrange game is a staple of a lost era of basketball. However, DeRozan’s shot selection and playmaking subtlety improved in his three seasons with the Spurs. Since 2018, DeRozan ranks third in isolation scoring efficiency among all 104 players to take at least 200 attempts. Stephen Curry and James Harden are ahead of him, and Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are directly behind him.
This statistic is certainly surprising, considering many have labeled DeRozan as an inefficient player. But even on the Spurs, a team lacking virtually any 3-point shooting, DeRozan was able to catch fire, whether it be getting to the basket or pulling up from the midrange.
That increase in scoring efficiency is a result of DeRozan’s playmaking development. He takes smarter shots and looks to pass more often. He uses the threat of his midrange game, slithering his way towards the basket and utilizing jab steps or pump fakes to draw defenders out of position and open up passing lanes. He plays with a fire that he lacked earlier in his career, when he was actually making All-Star teams.
DeRozan is the perfect mentor for Zach Lavine, who faces similar questions about his passing ability. But more importantly, DeRozan will provide balance as a shot creator worthy of taking the pressure off Lavine’s shoulders. DeRozan can create opportunities for Lavine, or be the primary scorer on nights he’s hot. This why the Bulls signed him to a three-year, $85 million deal, after sending Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu, a protected first-round draft pick, and two future second-rounders to the Spurs to get him.
Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan became known for three-guard lineups during his concluding season with the Thunder. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder formed one of the most amazing offensive lineups in the NBA during the 2019–20 regular season. Fans should expect Donovan to do the same by throwing out lineups with Lavine, DeRozan, and Ball.
The new Bulls trio has complementary skills and play styles. Lavine drives to the basket and takes a plethora of 3’s. DeRozan is the midrange expert. And Ball has become a knockdown spot-up shooter who plays great within the flow of the offense by cutting to the basket and facilitating the offense.
It’s worth mentioning that Lonzo Ball’s improvement as a shooter came once he connected with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, who has become a shooting guru over the past few seasons. Ball made an incredible 39.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3’s the past two seasons with the Pelicans. Continuing his success without Vinson’s guidance will certainly be difficult. But his process — and success — is encouraging.
With DeRozan and Ball able to facilitate the offense, Lavine won’t need to carry such an incredible offensive load. He could play more off-ball, using his effective shooting and playing close to the basket as a cutting threat. With Nikola Vucevic’s ability to command respect from the elbows and the post, as well score inside or from deep, Chicago’s offense has the ability to play different ways and get baskets from a lot of different players.
Defense will be a concern, though. Ball is a decent-at-best defensive playmaker off-ball who has the ability to rotate into the paint to defer would-be driving scorers, dive into passing lanes for interceptions, and close out onto shooters with passion as well as fundamentals. But as a man-to-man defender, he isn’t a lockdown defender. Neither is Lavine. DeRozan seemed to hate playing defense in San Antonio. And Vucevic, an average rim protector, behind them doesn’t create a ton of optimism for the Bulls to have a good defense, let alone an average one.
The Bulls created a roster that will certainly be competitive. Defenses will have a difficult time stopping them from putting the ball in the basket. Fans will want to see them play. This is progress. It’s better than anything Bulls fans have experienced since before the Fred Hoiberg era. However, going from a solid team that competes in the playoffs to a contender will require Patrick Williams to develop and take a step forward.
After getting drafted fourth overall in 2020, Williams showed flashes as a rookie, displaying versatility on defense and the ability to create his own shots. Williams takes a lot of midrange jump shots at this stage of his career but exudes the shooting touch to potentially become a more effective dribble-jumper from three-point range.
The Bulls could also be positioned to make a splash for free agents or trade assets. If the abundance of sign-and-trade moves have shown anything, it’s that having cap space is overrated. Chicago splurged this summer but all of the players the team acquired have highly-tradable contracts. After years and years of losing, it became easy to forget that the Bulls are a big-market organization with one of the most recognizable brands worldwide. Being competitive on the court could be incredibly appealing for the next star that becomes available.
However, there’s massive risk in Chicago’s plan. Getting Vucevic from the Magic required giving up first-round picks in 2021 and in 2023 or 2024. The draft pick the Bulls traded for DeRozan will go to the Spurs in either 2025 or 2026, which means they can’t trade another first-round pick until 2027. Therefore, with that being said, a lack of draft picks will make it difficult to make larger moves through trade.
Of course, the next move is having Zach Lavine commit beyond this season. If the Bulls are a competitive playoff contender, he’ll have all the more reason to sign a supermax contract extension next summer. If not, an entire league of teams will be interested in adding him to their roster. Lavine has options, and the pressure is on the Bulls to start winning. And when you’re under pressure, there’s always something to lose.