Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas knew changes had to be made when he took over for John Paxson in 2020. While Karnisovas initially showed patience by barely making any changes in his first offseason, he got to work with big moves before the 2021 trade deadline and then executed a big offseason featuring the notable additions of Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso.
In just a year, Karnisovas and his sidekick, general manager Marc Eversley, overhauled the roster to better fit the vision for their team. They paid a hefty price to do it, sending out two first-round draft picks in the Nikola Vucevic trade, giving Ball $80 million over four years and giving DeRozan nearly $82 million over three years. In addition to that big price tag for DeRozan, it cost a first-round pick and more in the sign-and-trade.
There has been some criticism aimed at the Bulls for the price they’ve paid for a roster that doesn’t project as a championship contender this season, but these acquisitions were made to get the team from bad to good, with the hope that future moves will get them to great and legitimate contender status. They were also an investment in Zach LaVine’s status as the long-term face of this franchise as he gets set to hit free agency in 2022.
While it’s foolish to overreact to one preseason game, Chicago’s vision for this roster was on full display in the opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls executed at a high level on both ends of court in a 131-95 destruction, playing a fun brand of basketball that finally has fans in Chicago excited again.
The Bulls have harped on playing faster, with the acquisition of Ball as a major point guard upgrade playing a key role in that. Adding two other high-IQ players who can handle the ball in DeRozan and Caruso will only help in this regard, and we saw how dangerous this team can be when they’re pushing tempo and playing unselfishly. Chicago got up 109 shots and tallying up 36 assists in the win over Cleveland. Caruso (10), Ball (5) and DeRozan (4) combined for over half of those in a combined 71 minutes.
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LaVine scored 25 easy points on 9-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes, doing a lot of damage off the ball. The Bulls have relied too much on LaVine trying to get offense for himself during his tenure, but now he has much more help to score and get him easy looks. This should especially help when games are tight in crunch time.
On the other end of the court, there are concerns about the defense, but Chicago showed it might not be that bad. The Bulls were swarming everywhere against Cleveland, getting in passing lanes and racking up deflections, steals and blocks. Again, it was only the Cavaliers, but the way Chicago was playing can be effective against better competition. Ball and Caruso were disruptive on the perimeter, and even Javonte Green made a major impact with his hustle in place of the injured Patrick Williams. They did a lot of switching and have the roster to play a lot of versatile, switchy lineups, even with Vucevic as the starting center. Chicago’s defense probably won’t be good, but it can be good enough given the offensive potential.
The Bulls still have to show they can play consistently well over the course of a full season, and like everybody else, they need to hope injuries don’t derail them. If they stay relatively healthy, though, Tuesday’s game showed how this team can overwhelm lesser teams with talent and effort while competing with the better teams. It should be a fun season in Chicago, and that in itself would be a big step up from past years.
The Bulls are thinking bigger, of course, and they’re hoping these big investments cash in.