Following another play-in loss, the Bulls seem stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity

ARTURAS KARNISOVAS STOOD on the baseline of the United Center floor, his arms folded as he watched his team warm up for that evening’s game. His 6-foot-8 frame typically towered over the non-players on the floor, but perhaps more so on this day. The Chicago Bulls were at their lowest point of the season on Nov. 30, with a record of 5-14 following a 27-point drubbing by the Boston Celtics.

Aside from the few times the schedule mandates — the beginning and end of the season, and at the trade deadline — Karnisovas, the team’s vice president of basketball operations, rarely makes public comments. But days earlier, Karnisovas had voiced his displeasure during a pregame availability session to a small contingent of local media in Boston.

“We see what everyone is seeing and are just as frustrated. We’re disappointed, but I’m not running from it,” he told the group.

The ensuing blowout loss had only heightened his frustration. Karnisovas had remade the Bulls’ roster in the summer of 2021 and entered this season with optimism Chicago could compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. He had not imagined the Bulls plummeting to the bottom of the standings like this, but he told ESPN before the Nov. 30 game it was time to go into evaluation mode.

Chicago would snap a five-game losing streak with a win in overtime over the Milwaukee Bucks on the 30th, the kind of frisky win that would become routine for them. From that point, the Bulls salvaged their season, going 34-29 (.539).

“After that Boston game, I didn’t even know if we’d have a chance to play after today,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan told reporters in New York before the team’s regular-season finale. “It’s a tribute to what [the players] did.

“I really appreciate what those guys have done because of what we’ve had to endure and what we’ve had to overcome. It’s not where we certainly want to be. But I will say this: It could’ve been a lot worse. And it speaks to the character of those guys in the locker room.”

The turnaround was satisfying enough to Karnisovas. The next time he spoke to the media, following the Feb. 8 trade deadline, he struck a much different tone, proclaiming how proud he was that the Bulls had saved their season. So proud, in fact, that he did not make any moves to alter the roster.

“We would take a step back, which we did not want,” Karnisovas said on a Zoom call that afternoon, explaining the Bulls’ inactivity. “We want to say competitive.”

It was the third consecutive trade deadline in which the Bulls did not make a trade. They are the only team not to make a single trade deadline move over the past three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Bulls won again that night, a 118-110 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, improving their record to 25-27 through 52 games — the same record they had through 52 games in 2022-23.

They would go on to finish 39-43, one game worse than a season ago, and miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year, winning one play-in game and then losing to the Miami Heat in the elimination game in both seasons.

“We also paid the price of those 14, 15 games where we didn’t play good enough basketball,” Donovan said about entering the play-in tournament for a second straight season.

Once again, Chicago’s front office faces a familiar set of questions as the Bulls enter the offseason. Questions about the health and future of Lonzo Ball. Questions about the productivity and fit of center Nikola Vucevic, star guard Zach LaVine and pending free agent DeMar DeRozan. Questions about how Chicago’s braintrust can continue to tout competitiveness when the team has won exactly one playoff game since Karnisovas and Donovan were hired in 2020.

“Since I came here to Chicago, I wanted to have a competitive team,” Karnisovas said. “We came up with a formula in 2021. We had somewhat of a success, took a step back with some injuries. My objective doesn’t change. I’d like to compete, and I’d like to compete with the best teams.”

ZACH LAVINE MOVED past the locker rooms at Arena wearing a walking boot on his right foot as he greeted team staffers he had not seen since having season-ending surgery a month earlier.

It was a few minutes before tip-off for a March 9 game between the Bulls and LA Clippers, close enough to the start of the game that the in-arena announcer was pumping up the crowd, telling them to “MAKE SOME NOISE.”

LaVine had already been ruled out for the season, but he was set to meet with reporters to explain his decision to undergo surgery — the emphasis on “his” because the Bulls made sure to note in a news release that surgery was a route chosen by LaVine and his agent, Rich Paul.

This was LaVine’s seventh season in Chicago, the only player remaining from the trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, a deal from which the organization has never recovered. Butler knocked the Bulls out of the play-in tournament a year ago. Even with him sidelined with a knee injury, his Heat beat Chicago again this season to end the Bulls’ season. Butler has played in 15 playoff series since the trade, including two NBA Finals. In that same span, Chicago has been to the playoffs once, for all of five games in a first-round exit in 2022.

LaVine bore the brunt of that losing. The Bulls went 102-199 (.339) during his first four seasons in Chicago (before the arrivals of Vucevic and DeRozan), yet he served as the team’s spokesperson as he developed into a two-time All-Star. However, LaVine’s relationship with the organization shifted over the offseason and the course of this season, sources told ESPN.

The Bulls engaged in trade conversations about LaVine last summer. When the team got off to a slow start at the beginning of the year, LaVine expressed his frustration with losing. In November, both LaVine’s representation and the Bulls were open to finding LaVine a new home. Chicago could not find a market for LaVine during the season. His decreased production, a history of serious knee and foot injuries and a bloated contract limited interest around the league. But Chicago is expected to explore trade options for LaVine again this offseason, sources told ESPN.

“There’s a lot of things that don’t bug me. My name has been circulating around more than once from the beginning of my career to now,” LaVine told reporters in February. “If I let people’s opinions bug me or influence me, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. So I go out there and keep doing me. Haven’t really talked to anybody [in the front office], but we’ll continue to push forward.”

The Bulls know finding a deal for LaVine will not be easy. He scored 19.5 points and shot 45.2% from the field last season, both season-lows for him since his first season in Chicago in 2017-18 when he was recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee. He played in only 25 games before his decision to have foot surgery in February. And LaVine is still owed $138 million over the next three seasons on the max contract the team gave him before the 2022-23 season. The Bulls were just 10-15 when he played this season, and 29-28 when he was out.

Chicago will be monitoring for a star player who could become available in a trade, such as Atlanta’s Trae Young, whose contract is similar to LaVine’s. The Bulls will also keep a close eye on impending free agency situations such as the Clippers’ Paul George or Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell, sources told ESPN. But both the Bulls and LaVine are also preparing for the possibility that he will start next season in a Bulls uniform.

“It’s not hard to fit back in,” LaVine said in February, before heading toward the tunnel to join the team on the bench. “Especially with the way I play the game and want to go out there and help.”

LAVINE TOOK HIS spot on the bench during the first quarter that afternoon in Los Angeles, picking a seat to the right of another injured guard in the building to support the Bulls while they were in town: Lonzo Ball.

“We had $65 million in payroll sidelined this season,” a team source told ESPN. “How many teams can survive that?”

It was the closest LaVine and Ball had been to playing a game together since Jan. 14, 2022, when Ball played 24 minutes in a 42-point loss to the Warriors. The former No. 3 overall pick hasn’t played in a game since, missing the past two seasons with complications in his left knee.

The updates in his recovery process had been more optimistic this season. He started running, jumping and cutting in March, according to Donovan, all movements that gave Ball discomfort a year ago.

Even with the strides Ball has made, the Bulls do not have clarity on his status for the 2024-25 season. Donovan says he still has not been cleared for 5-on-5 contact.

Despite their projected backcourt sitting on the sideline that day in February, the Bulls were playing some of their best basketball of the season. They had won three consecutive games and at 31-32 they had a chance to pull their record to an even .500 for the first time since starting 2-2.

DeRozan, at age 34, was having another steady season. He’d finish the year averaging 24.0 points and 5.3 assists on 48% shooting while trailing only Stephen Curry for the most clutch points in the NBA. With Ball and LaVine out, a new running mate emerged alongside DeRozan: fifth-year guard Coby White.

After making 74 starts in his first four NBA seasons, White started 78 games for the Bulls this season, developing into a strong contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. He bumped up his scoring average to 19.1 points (the 9.6-point increase is the largest among qualified players) while averaging a career-high in rebounds (4.5) and assists (5.1). He had more 30-point games this year (seven) than he had in his first four seasons combined. In Chicago’s play-in win against the Atlanta Hawks, he joined Michael Jordan as the only Bulls players to finish a game with 40 points, 5 assists and 0 turnovers.

“He’s our silver lining this season,” a team source told ESPN.

DeRozan and White helped carry the Bulls through the last few months of the regular season. They finished first and third, respectively, in total minutes played in the NBA.

DeRozan, who turns 35 in August and will be a free agent this summer, expressed his desire to return to the organization in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago near the end of the season, saying, “This is where I want to be.” Karnisovas made his intentions clear at the deadline that he intends to keep DeRozan.

“We love DeMar,” he said. “I think when the time comes, we have a chance to keep him.”

The signals echo the way Karnisovas handled the free agency of Vucevic last summer, raving about his value to the team before rewarding him with a three-year contract extension. Vucevic, 33, had a down year in the first season of that deal, shooting 29.4% from 3.

Karnisovas’ desire to keep his own players — Patrick Williams will become a restricted free agent this summer and yes, Karnisovas says he wants to bring him back too — has limited the Bulls’ flexibility with the rest of the roster. Re-signing both DeRozan and Williams, along with center Andre Drummond, would set the Bulls up to pay the luxury tax for the second time since 2002-03, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. And although Chicago owns its first-round pick this season, they owe their 2025 first-round pick to San Antonio, which is top-10 protected, as part of the sign-and-trade to acquire DeRozan in the summer of 2021. “What we did in 2021, the summer when we turned our roster around, I think we showed we can be aggressive,” Karnisovas said in February. “I’m always going to look at how to improve the team. For now, what makes us more competitive and for the future.”

The Bulls lost to the Clippers that February afternoon, 112-102, to thwart their efforts to get back to .500. They would chase it for the rest of the season.

But the way the Bulls grew this year gave White confidence in what he believes the team is building.

“It just takes time to build winning, bro,” White told ESPN. “It just doesn’t happen overnight. I feel like a lot of people just think you get this player, you get that player, now we’re going to win. It’s like nah, it takes time to win and build that winning culture.

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