Those Who Fear The Deal Zone Risk The Consequences
9:00 AM EST on February 10, 2023
The Chicago Bulls were one of just two teams in the NBA that made zero in-season trades ahead of Thursday's trade deadline. This is the second season in a row under head honcho Arturas Karnisovas that the Bulls have declined to enter the Deal Zone. Last season this made a lot of sense: The squad Karnisovas assembled during the summer of 2021 kicked ass during the first half of the regular season, and Bulls decision-makers had every reason to hope that better health in the second half—and in particular an end to the league's worst COVID-19 outbreak—would fix what ailed the team through the late-winter doldrums.
Things didn't quite go as planned. The Bulls won five straight after last season's deadline, to go a season-high 18 games over .500, but Lonzo Ball's hurt knee never (and I mean never) healed, the Bulls never got fully healthy, their mojo dried up after the All-Star break, and they went 7–15 to close out the regular season, dropping from first in the East to sixth and eventually getting bounced unceremoniously from the opening round of the playoffs. It was a disappointing end to the season, but along the way a lot of the moving and shaking that Karnisovas did to build that squad was ultimately vindicated, from dealing two valuable draft picks for Orlando big man Nikola Vucevic to bold sign-and-trade deals for Ball and DeMar DeRozan. The Bulls appeared to be headed generally in the right direction, and their reluctance to enter the Deal Zone reflected a position of confidence and strength.
This has been a very different season, so far. For one thing, Ball hasn't played a minute, and it turns out for all his on-court weirdness he might be the person who knits together all the idiosyncratic styles of Chicago's big rotation players. This Bulls team, even with largely the same roster, is nowhere near the top of the Eastern Conference. At no point this season have the Bulls risen higher than one game above .500. Despite efficient seasons from leading scorers DeRozan, Vucevic, and Zach LaVine, the Bulls are a worrying 22nd in offensive efficiency, per Cleaning The Glass. It took some squinting even in the best of times to accept an offense built around two high-use, midrange-happy isolation scorers and the pride of the Orlando Magic, but the point is that it worked. Now it is not working, certainly not to any great effect. The Bulls could use some shooting, they could use a point guard who can do a reasonable Lonzo Ball impression, and they could use some reinforcements for a bench that ranks 24th in points per game, behind a starting lineup that has played the second-most minutes of any five-man lineup in the league.
Unfortunately, for the second year running Karnisovas did not feel that the price was right for Deal Zone upgrades. "We tried to improve our team, but at what cost," Karnisovas explained to ESPN, after the close of Thursday's trade deadline. "That price was not OK with us." But that doesn't mean the Bulls don't have an opportunity. The way Karnisovas sees it, all the dealing around the league has softened up certain of Chicago's competitors, leaving them primed for picking off. "I think the trade deadline shifted some quality more towards the West, so there's a chance to compete in the Eastern Conference."
The Brooklyn Nets, who entered Thursday night four spots ahead of Chicago in the standings, were the most obvious source of this westward exodus of big-time talent. The Nets were gutted of their superstar core over the past week, shipping a disgruntled and "disrespected" Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks and a disgruntled Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns and bringing to a humiliating close a superteam project that for various reasons never really got off the ground. Brooklyn brought back a handful of perfectly respectable rotation-grade players in these transactions, but with so much shuffling and with just 28 games left in the regular season it wouldn't be much of a surprise if the Nets slid far down the standings over the next two months. Perhaps this represents the "chance to compete" that supported Chicago's decision to stand pat with this underperforming roster. "Now that the trade deadline has passed, this is the group that we're sticking with," declared Karnisovas. "Now they can go out there, play, put their foot on the gas and go on a run."
It was fitting, then, that Chicago's first post-deadline test came Thursday night against those same scrambled Brooklyn Nets. The basketball played on the night of a busy trade deadline is often puke, usually because the very active organizations wind up cobbling together Summer League-quality rotations while a third of the league's players zip around the country to meet up with their new teams. The Nets would be adding Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith to their rotation for the first time since the trade, while the two players acquired from the Suns were still in street clothes. The Bulls, meanwhile, rolled out that same heavy-use starting lineup, the one that Karnisovas believes is ready to stomp on the gas and charge its way up the standings.
True to form, Thursday night the Bulls were listless, disorganized, and underpowered. They fell behind early, their starters were roundly outplayed by a Nets starting lineup cobbled together at the last minute, and even with tinderbox volume scorer Cam Thomas having his worst offensive game since filling the Kyrie Irving-shaped hole in Brooklyn's lineup, the Nets smoothly accelerated away from the Bulls in the second half for a strikingly comfortable victory. At no point did the Bulls seem all that concerned about the state of affairs. Brooklyn didn't get any out-of-character individual performances—hilariously, they didn't even elevate Ben Simmons into the starting lineup, and he played just six minutes of the second half. The plucky Nets, thrown together in the chaos of deadline dealing, just went out and cruised around and had fun, and walked away with an 11-point win.
There's still time for the Bulls to get their act together, and of course the buyout market will present opportunities to upgrade the roster without shipping out anything or anyone of value, but time is now a factor. "Every single day that goes by we have less opportunity to take on this challenge," warned DeRozan, after posting a lousy 14 points in the loss. "The room for error is getting slimmer and slimmer. It’s on us to realize it."
The Bulls, as currently constructed, just aren't very good. Before the advent of the play-in, teams in Chicago's shape typically became deadline buyers or sellers, either setting their sights on a bold climb up the standings or positioning themselves to cannonball into the garbage, in pursuit of draft lottery gold. But ninth place in the East isn't what it used to be: The Bulls can continue to mope around unimpressively and still back their way into a playoff series, if just a few things break their way between now and April 15. Looked at from one way, it's nice to see Karnisovas so confident in his squad—a GM who believes in his fellas is superior to one who only sees them as depreciating assets—but confidence expressed without material investment doesn't really move the needle. It's a bummer to watch a team that as recently as last season showed such promise slump into a condition of dead-eyed mediocrity.
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