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All It Took For The Bulls To Get Good Was Zach LaVine’s Injury

MIAMI, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 14: DeMar DeRozan #11 of the Chicago Bulls looks on during the second quarter of the game against the Miami Heat at Kaseya Center on December 14, 2023 in Miami, Florida. 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. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Megan Briggs/Getty Images

On their first possession of the third quarter against the Lakers last night, the Bulls did something that would have felt totally foreign had it occurred last season or during the first 20 games of this season: They ran a normal offensive set. Coby White set a pindown screen for DeMar DeRozan, who received a dribble handoff from Nikola Vucevic on the wing. Vucevic rolled, White popped, DeRozan read the defense, and after LeBron James took an extra half-step to help out in the key, DeRozan took the obvious play and kicked it to Patrick Williams for a three. All five players touched the ball. There's nothing crazy here, except the name on the front of the jersey, which for so long has been synonymous with gross anti-basketball.

This Bulls campaign began with the setting of an ignominious land-speed record of sorts, when the team kicked coach Billy Donovan out of the locker room to have a "heated" players-only meeting after losing their season-opener by 20 to the Thunder. Their bizarre, pass-free, midrange-only offense did not improve in the wake of that meeting, though Zach LaVine did notch a 51-point, zero-assist night in a 16-point loss to the Pistons. After a purgatorial 2022-23 season, the news that Lonzo Ball's knees are more or less made of Legos now, and a deeply apathetic 4-7 start to this season, LaVine finally got fed up enough to demand out and the organization seemed to finally accept its fate. Shams Charania reported via runic scroll on Nov. 14 that "there is increased openness from both sides about exploring a trade."

A few teams sniffed around, though the market for a guy who, on offense, is either standing perfectly stationary or actively shooting and is only ever standing perfectly stationary on defense was evidently not all that hot. Things only cooled further when LaVine hurt his foot in a 27-point loss to the Celtics that dropped the Bulls to 5-14. Rudderless, unable to either play or trade their supposed best player, the Bulls seemed cooked—but since that Boston loss they've been a team transformed. Chicago is 7-3 over its last 10, with wins in Philly, Milwaukee, and Miami. White has been cooking, DeRozan is averaging seven assists per game, and somehow the Bulls of all teams are leading the league in passes per game in this stretch. I can't remember an addition-by-subtraction move working out this well this instantly, especially when that sudden improvement comes in the form of a switch to 2023 offense from 2003 offense.

The team is shooting perhaps unsustainably well from deep in its post-LaVine renaissance, though this all feels real enough. White in particular has been spectacular. He operates with impressive pace in the half-court, opening up spaces for his teammates by getting the defense to scramble, and there's a refreshing decisiveness to his game, instantly punishing those scrambles with the simple pass into space. It's not all that complicated, just fairly straightforward right-place-right-time shit. He's shooting nine threes a game and canning half of them, which makes defenses play up on him and open themselves to his drive-and-kick game.

Both he and DeRozan are operating efficiently with the ball in their hands, and when the team uses Vucevic as a Domantas Sabonis-style high-post passing hub (this setup is gaining popularity around the league, as it gives you so many angles to cut from or pop into) they're hard to stop. Williams and Ayo Dosunmu are nailing their threes, Alex Caruso is still effectively fighting people, and the whole thing just makes a sort of sense it never did when four guys had to spend a third of Bulls possessions watching LaVine dribble a lot.

The vibes are also really lovely, exemplified by White and DeRozan sharing a sweet little moment on the court last night, talking each other up to DeRozan's postgame interviewer. To LaVine's credit, he's not sulking or anything; in fact he's often first up off the bench cheering his teammates on.

Again, this is all happening against a hard schedule, with an even distribution of road and home games, against geared-up opponents who two weeks ago probably had Bulls games circled as simple wins. This is the part of the blog post where I am supposed to urge caution and note that the three-point shooting could regress, but I don't see anything here that isn't sustainable. Threes tend to fall at a higher clip when they're open, and the Bulls' shot-creation factory is humming. Dosunmu and Williams (a total killer on the wing) give them a rugged defensive corps to paper over Vucevic's weakness as a rim-protector, and Caruso is still a dawg. They also have the league's third-easiest remaining schedule, with more games against the poo-poo tier left than any of their fellow play-in strivers. Whether or not they trade LaVine, there's something here. Maybe the greatest threat to this momentum is his return.

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