The Chicago Bulls are coming off of a disappointing 2022-23 season that saw them finish 10th in the East before ultimately losing to the Heat in the final Play-In game. Despite rumblings that Zach LaVine could be available in trades, the Bulls are set to enter the 2023-24 season with the same core group intact, hoping to recapture the magic of the start of the season two years ago.
However, like last season, the Bulls aren’t expected to have Lonzo Ball for any of this upcoming season, leaving a continued hole at point guard. This summer, they mostly went to work keeping their roster as is with a few additions to bolster their rotation, as their hopes for improvement mostly rest on internal improvement. Here we’ll hand out grades for their offseason work so far in the Draft, free agency and contract extensions, and on the trade market.
The Bulls traded into the top of the second round to take Julian Phillips out of Tennessee at No. 35 overall, adding a long, defensive-minded wing to their bench. The question for Phillips is whether he can refine his jump shot to make himself functional enough offensively to keep him on the court so his defensive abilities and athleticism can shine through, but for a Bulls team needing to try and add some young talent, they took an opportunity on a guy with terrific upside defensively provided he can figure things out on the offensive end.
Free Agency/Contract Extensions: B+
As noted at the top, much of what the Bulls did was taking care of their biggest free agents. They re-signed Nikola Vucevic to a 3-year, $60 million deal that might be a bit steep, but given the lack of other options for replacing him, the Bulls ensuring they brought him back on board made sense. Vucevic averaged 17.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game a year ago, and while he’s not quite been as efficient a scorer as he was when he was an All-Star in Orlando, that’s still pretty strong production. His issues in Chicago have been two-fold, starting with the fact that he’s just not a particularly good defensive center or rim deterrent. That has been magnified by the absence of Ball, who, along with Alex Caruso, gave them constantly strong point of attack defense to mitigate some of Vucevic’s weaknesses on the back end. The other issue is his offensive fit with DeMar DeRozan, as Vucevic is more of a finesse post player (to the frustration of Bulls fans who want him to play with more force near the rim) and, as such, likes to operate in many of the same places as DeRozan when he posts up. That creates a bit of a spacing issue when he’s not outside the three-point line, where he is a good shooter for a center, but has not been able to top 35 percent in his two full seasons with the Bulls. Figuring out how to maximize his abilities alongside DeRozan (and to a lesser extent Zach LaVine) is a question they haven’t found quite the right answer to yet in Chicago. The Bulls also re-signed Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu, keeping their two young guards around for the next three years as well. White was their best bench shooter a year ago, knocking down 37.2 percent of his threes, while Dosunmu gives them a guard who likes to run and can get downhill.
Their biggest new roster addition is Jevon Carter, who I think is their best signing of the offseason. Calling Carter a Lonzo Ball replacement isn’t really fair to him, because he is far from the same player, but he will allow them to once again have 48 minutes of strong point of attack defense every night when he comes in to spell Caruso. That’s been missing in Chicago without Ball, and if Carter can continue to be a very good three-point shooter as he has been recently (he hit over 40 percent from three in Milwaukee last season), he should be a very helpful backup point guard even if he is not necessarily the kind of facilitator this offense could use. The Bulls also signed Torrey Craig, who gives them another 3-and-D wing option and is a nice addition to their rotation as well. Overall, while not exactly an exciting summer of signings, I think Chicago did well to address an area of need with the Carter signing, kept the players they needed to keep if they’re going to stay on this path (and it’s clear they want to), and made their roster a little better than it was last year.
As mentioned earlier, there were the annual rumors about LaVine’s availability, but at this point it seems the Bulls are going to give it one more year (or at least the start of another year) to see if this group can figure it out before they consider making major changes. That’s understandable, but if this is a team in the Play-In range come January with little signs of life, you can bet we’ll hear more rumors about LaVine and DeRozan being part of trade talks. This offseason wasn’t a spot to really hit the reset button for Chicago, simply because they were without a first round draft pick and the league is still in a very weird place when it comes to star trade value after last summer’s bonanza of draft picks exchanging hands. As such, LaVine never came close to drawing the interest the Bulls hoped he would, and if they can’t get the kind of return to fully kickstart a rebuild, there’s no real use in just selling low on him. Still, the clock is ticking for this particularly group in Chicago and if they haven’t shown much improvement by the start of 2024, I would expect a more serious discussion of larger changes ahead of the deadline.