Explaining How Zach Lavine and the Chicago Bulls Became 1 of the NBA’s Biggest Surprises

People in the know had a feeling the Chicago Bulls were a better team entering 2021–22 than they had been last season. After a buying frenzy at the trade deadline last March went sideways, Chicago missed the postseason for the fourth straight year. But it did improve markedly in its first season under coach Billy Donovan. A splashy offseason to add pieces around Zach LaVine fed into optimism that the streak could end in 2022.

But few could have seen what was coming. The Bulls have steamrolled their way to the top of the Eastern Conference with a 25–10 record. They had to fight through a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that forced two postponements. But with the halfway point rapidly approaching and Chicago two games clear of the Brooklyn Nets, the question is straightforward.

How did the turnaround happen so fast?

Zach LaVine anchors the Chicago Bulls

The offseason additions dominated the headlines last summer. But Artūras Karnišovas, the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Chicago Bulls, already identified the centerpiece of the franchise’s rebuilding effort.

Hired in April 2020, Karnišovas used the pandemic shutdown to evaluate what he had in Chicago. His first move was firing coach Jim Boylen. The bombastic coach alienated the locker room and lost a lot; the Bulls were 39–84 under his tight-fisted reign.

A little more than a month later, former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan hit the market, and Karnišovas wasted little time making the hire.

The Bulls had a budding superstar in Zach LaVine, who made a giant leap in 2018–19 and progressed in the pandemic-shortened 2019–20 campaign. Donovan asked LaVine for more and got it. Last season was his seventh NBA campaign, and LaVine punctuated it with his first All-Star selection.

After a stint with the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo, LaVine’s role has changed slightly this season with more weapons around him. But he’s still getting 26.3 points a night and shooting a career-high 42.0% from 3-point range.

Last season, Chicago was in the playoff hunt as the trade deadline approached. Karnišovas went all-in. Even though the immediate results didn’t pay off, the success of the Bulls this season is rooted in the deadline dealing.

Nikola Vučević provides stability in the middle for the Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls surrounded Zach LaVine with lots of weapons and the result has lifted them to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
The Chicago Bulls surrounded Zach LaVine with lots of weapons and the result has lifted them to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. | Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls were 19–24, 10th in the East, when day broke on the March 25 trade deadline last season. Karnišovas opted to buy rather than sell, bringing in All-Star center Nikola Vučević from the Orlando Magic, surrendering 2018 lottery pick Wendell Carter Jr. and first-round picks in 2021 and 2023 to get him.

Chicago went 12–17 the rest of the way. The Washington Wizards flew by them in the standings, and the Charlotte Hornets’ collapse wasn’t enough to get the Bulls into the play-in tournament.

But Vučević gave Chicago something it hadn’t had in a while. The 31-year-old is a walking double-double and provides extra value with a career-high 1.2 blocks per game. He’s a willing passer and a pick-and-pop threat, and he forces defenses to account for him at the 3-point line. That opens space for Zach LaVine to drive while also freeing up the mid-range area for one of Karnišovas’ new additions to go to work.

Vučević isn’t having a great year by his standards. Averaging just 15.9 points per game, he’s shooting 46.6% inside the arc (the lowest mark since his rookie year) and is hitting only 35.3% from deep on five attempts a game.

But he’s heating up after a slow start. Vučević has averaged 17.5 points a game since Dec. 1 and hit 36.8% from 3-point land.

But the most significant changes on the Chicagoland scene arrived over the summer.

DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball are the perfect running mates for Zach LaVine

NBA general managers voted the Chicago Bulls the most improved team over the offseason. The Bulls picked up point guard Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade deal from the New Orleans Pelicans and signed valuable reserve wing Alex Caruso from the Los Angeles Lakers.

A more controversial addition was DeMar DeRozan. After three seasons with the declining San Antonio Spurs, the former Toronto Raptors star signed a three-year, $82 million contract. An ESPN survey of executives and scouts rated the DeRozan signing as the worst movie of the offseason. Not for the Bulls. No, it was the worst transaction in the NBA, they said.

DeRozan is playing primarily as a small-ball 4 in Chicago and is thriving. He’s averaging 26.9 points per game and is the leading fourth-quarter scorer in the NBA. He recently became the first player in NBA history to knock down buzzer-beating game-winners on consecutive days, closing out 2021 with a dagger 3 at Indiana and opening the New Year with another clutch 3 to beat the Wizards in DC.

Ball runs the offense and spaces the floor with his 3-point shooting. DeRozan’s presence means defenses can’t key on Zach LaVine without paying a heavy price. The Bulls are the only team in the NBA with two players in the top 10 in scoring, with DeRozan fifth and LaVine sixth.

The result? Chicago is fifth in the NBA in offensive rating, scoring 111.8 points per 100 possessions. But despite Ball being the only player with a solid defensive reputation, the Bulls are also 11th at the other end of the court, allowing 107.9 points per 100 possessions.

Karnišovas wanted to surround Zach LaVine with more talent. Through half the season, the new-look Chicago Bulls are thriving. And critics of the DeRozan addition are quiet now.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com. Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.

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