The Bulls Have a Massive Patrick Williams Problem

The Chicago Bulls have overcome adversity through the first 61 games of their season, shaking off injuries and other setbacks thanks to their brilliant backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, the unheralded play of Nikola Vucevic, and the emergence of rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu. They expect Lonzo Ball (knee) and Alex Caruso (wrist) to return from their respective injuries and provide a big lift, especially in the defensive backcourt.

Still, there’s a sense in the NBA community that Chicago belongs in the second tier of contenders in the Eastern Conference. Questions remain about the defensive upside even when the team returns to full strength. Moreover, roster considerations loom large.

The Bulls initially believed second-year forward Patrick Williams was done for the season when he suffered torn ligaments in his wrist in October. Optimism now exists that Williams can return before the season is out. However, his timeline could conflict with the team’s playoff preparations and provoke rotation questions for head coach Billy Donovan.

The Bulls remain hopeful that Patrick Williams can return this season

The Bulls bought into Williams’ projectability as a future two-way star when they selected the Florida State product with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. They remain steadfast in that belief.

Chicago had an opportunity to include the injured Williams in trade talks before the Feb. 10 deadline. It refrained, both because of its high regard for the 20-year-old’s talent as well as the potential for his eventual return to the hardwood. Billy Donovan said earlier this month there is a “strong possibility” that Williams returns before the end of the season.

As a lengthy, athletic forward capable of defending multiple positions and spurring off-ball actions, Williams’s upside could make him a key piece in Chicago’s playoff run. However, he could use a more extended ramp-up period after so many months off.

It doesn’t appear that Donovan and the Bulls will have much time to reintegrate the young forward.

The timeline brings about complications

Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams looks on during an NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies in October 2021
Patrick Williams looks on during a preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies on Oct. 15, 2021 | Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Patrick Williams has yet to participate in contact drills as he tries to strengthen the repaired ligaments in his wrist. Until he takes some bumps, little clarity exists as to just when he can return to the rotation.

That’s a bit problematic for the Bulls.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls hope Williams comes back sometime within the next six weeks. But with the regular season concluding on April 10, he might only be available for a couple of games before Chicago marches into the playoffs.

The timeline makes Donovan’s job that much harder. He’ll surely want to give the former Seminoles standout minutes and see where he fits with the rest of the roster, particularly given that Williams played in only five games before sustaining the injury. Donovan himself explained the difficulties.

“It’s much harder to reincorporate a player back into the rotation who’s been out for an extended period of time and doesn’t have a rhythm,” Donovan said, via the Chicago Tribune. “We’re going to have guys moving in different roles, different situations. So there’s going to be another iteration of our team at some point in time where we’re going to have a very, very small number of games to try to be playing really good basketball.”

The Bulls want to avoid feeling jumbled heading into the playoffs. Given the recent addition of Tristan Thompson, Chicago might prefer to bring Williams off the bench and see whether it can deploy him as a two-way wing in the second unit, rather than an undersized 4-man in the starting five.

Regardless, the projected target date for Williams’ return makes things murky in terms of minutes allocation and roster alignment.

How does Williams best suit the Bulls?

A fully healthy Williams bolsters the Bulls’ chances of winning an NBA championship.

Williams shot 39.1% from beyond the arc as a rookie. He can be the athletic stretch-4 type who can space the floor and generate rim pressure by making plays off the dribble. More importantly, he can address Chicago’s issues at the point of attack as a help defender capable of deterring slashers at the rim. Williams also shows excellent anticipation playing the passing lanes.

But again, that’s in a perfect world.

Realistically, Williams needs time to get back into the swing of things. He simply doesn’t have anything to work with. Thus, should the Bulls use him sparingly off the bench?

Williams can spell DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine valuable minutes whenever they need a breather. That could allow Donovan to mix and match different rotations and try to leverage size in the second unit. He could even choose to play Williams and Thompson together in the frontcourt.

Still, the Bulls would probably prefer Williams to be in their closing lineup come playoff time. That necessitates him getting minutes with the first unit.

Chicago has every reason to feel encouraged about Williams’ potential to assist in a deep playoff run. However, the timetable induces some complexities at what figures to be a pivotal stretch for the Bulls.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: Zach LaVine’s All-Star Showing Had Critical Importance Beyond the Box Score