Column: Two years after finishing the rebuild with the Nikola Vučević trade, are the Chicago Bulls working in his place?

With the trade deadline of February 9 just around the corner, Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas has some big decisions to make.

Should the Bulls stay the course and hope the team shows the kind of urgency that coach Billy Donovan has been calling for for the past month, or should Karnišovas shake things up with a deal or two like he did two years ago?

Whatever Karnišovas does could be a turning point for the future of the Bulls, who aren’t much better in terms of record in 2023 than when they unofficially wrapped up the rebuild with a pair of deadline-date deals that brought in five new players, including the actual. Bulls Nikola Vučević and Javonte Green.

At the time of the 2021 deadline, the Bulls were 19-24 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, in line for a play-in spot. They ended up missing the postseason and added DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in the offseason in an attempt to change the narrative.

Coming off Tuesday’s 108-103 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers at the United Center, the Bulls are 23-27 and tied for 10th place in the East. In a recurring theme, they blew a 19-point lead in a span of five minutes in the second quarter.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before. The Bulls were sailing with a 46-27 lead five minutes into the second quarter, only to see the Clippers go on a 23-4 run and tie it at 50 on a Kahwi Leonard dunk following a Zach turnover. LaVine.

The Clippers took a one-point lead in the fourth quarter and held on. The Bulls committed 20 turnovers, including eight by DeRozan and six by LaVine.

Down by two with 1:03 to play, LaVine was fouled on a 3-point attempt, but missed his first two free throws. Norman Powell’s two free throws with 10 seconds left turned it into a three-point lead, and LaVine’s turnover at the other end sealed the collapse.

DeRozan is back to playing at the All-Star level, but the chance of ball missing the whole season is realand the Bulls lack a true point guard to fill the void other than backup Goran Dragić.

So while the Bulls have more talent than they did in 2021, the record speaks for itself.

When asked before Tuesday’s game if the Bulls’ goals had changed, Donovan pointed to the number of teams competing for the playoffs in both conferences.

“I don’t think anything has necessarily changed,” he said. “Obviously there is a lot of basketball to play, there are a lot of condensed teams. Our consistency has been a challenge this year. But as I said at the start of the year, some of the things that happened to us last year, we were on the side of good fortune in a lot of situations.”

Donovan pointed to last year’s win over the Clippers at the United Center as an example of a game they pulled off their sleeve.

“Some of those games worked for us,” he said. “This year they have not. I understand the results orientation of this business. Either you win or you lose. I get it. But also, even last year on a lot of those wins, he was like, ‘Put the brakes on,’ on some win streaks, just based on what he was seeing.

“There have been times when we have played the ball well and we haven’t won. And that happens. You want to continually put yourself in a position to win games. But I also think one improvement from last year to this year is that we’ve played much, much better against the elite teams in both the West and the East. That has been a positive sign.”

That bodes well if the Bulls make the playoffs, knowing they’re 7-3 against the top four teams in the East: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets. The other side of the coin is that the Bulls have played worse against teams under .500, including Thursday’s devastating collapse against the Charlotte Hornets, who came in with the second-worst record in the East.

An unrestricted free agent after the season, Vučević will be coveted by many teams this summer for his rebounding and ability to be a go-to guy on most offenses. If the Bulls can’t re-sign him, they need to consider what they can get now.

He was having a career year in Orlando in 2020-21, averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists on 48% shooting from the field and 40.6% from 3-point range, when Karnišovas made the big move to bring him to Chicago.

The most important part of the deal was keeping Vučević in check for two more seasons, giving the Bulls a top-line center to complement LaVine. Forward Al-Farouq Aminu also came to the Bulls, who waived 2017 lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr., a contract that expired on Otto Porter Jr., and his first-round picks in 2021 and 2023, with protection among the first four in 2023. .

Vučević has had to sacrifice quite a bit on his game in Chicago and has done so without complaint, knowing that LaVine and DeRozan would be the main goalscoring options the past two seasons. His contributions are often overlooked because he rarely gets a chance to shoot in the dying seconds of close games.

Donovan noted Tuesday that he has sometimes wobbled Vučević with the second unit, as he traditionally has with DeRozan and LaVine. That shows the confidence he has in Vučević, but he may also say something about the lack of offense the Bulls have received from backup Andre Drummond.

“I have a lot of confidence in the group because of the character of the group and how good they are as guys and the relationships they have,” Donovan said. “And I see a group that really, really wants to win.”

But any NBA coach can say that about his team. The Bulls certainly are a good group and have the talent to win consistently, as they have shown against some of the elite teams. But they haven’t shown enough, and the clock is ticking down to the trade deadline.

Karnišovas is in the spotlight now, and we’ll soon see if she’ll roll the dice in this group.


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