Zach LaVine is a star waiting to pop, and the Bulls have done their best to give him a chance to win

In a vacuum, you could argue the Chicago Bulls overpaid for DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, and they gave up too much for Nikola Vucevic. But what choice did they have? Zach LaVine’s contract is up next summer and they have to show some forward progress as a team with legitimate playoff promise. If this doesn’t work, they’re going to be choked out from a salary standpoint with hardly any avenues to start a rebuild other than trading LaVine at the deadline. 

But it could work. 

What does “work” mean? We’re speaking in relative terms, of course. Chicago probably isn’t going to be a top-four seed, but seeing what the Hawks did last season after looking like a .500 team for a good chunk of the season, it’s not out of the question for the Bulls to finish middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference and perhaps win a 4-5 playoff series.

It’s also not out of the question that they find themselves hanging around near the play-in line with the Charlottes and Indianas and Torontos of the conference. The Bulls are going to score plenty. For my money, LaVine is a Bradley Beal-level offensive player who, for whatever reason, isn’t a trade target the whole league is looking for ways to make a run at. 

The easy answer as to why he’s not seen in the same light as Beal is his defense (not that Beal is some kind of stopper), but LaVine showed real chops on the defensive end last season and was clearly committed during the Olympics. Mostly, LaVine is just viewed, lazily, as a good-stats-bad-team guy. We once said the same thing about Devin Booker. Trae Young was heading down that path of perception as well. 

LaVine is a stud waiting to pop the perception bubble as Booker did, and he has some horses around him now. Vucevic is an All-Star, and DeRozan was a victim of perception himself in San Antonio. We’ve all just labeled DeRozan a plus-minus drag who doesn’t shoot 3s, but he remains one of the deadliest mid-range scorers in the league. He’s terrific running pick and roll and is a legit facilitator. That two-way threat coming off high ball screens, with Ball and Patrick Williams occupying opposite wings/corners, Vucevic popping to the 3-point line and LaVine spotting up for 3s and/or secondary actions is a potentially nasty combination. 

Flip LaVine and DeRozan as handlers and the whole thing runs the same. LaVine getting out on the break with a guy like Ball, who pushes tempo as well as any player in the league and is always looking for hit-ahead passes, is going to produce a lot of buckets. Chicago has a trade exception (probably around $10 million) from the Daniel Theis sign-and-trade to Houston, and still has a move to make for Lauri Markkanen that could bring back more help. If Markkanen stays, that’s another floor-spacer that gives Chicago a lot of lineup versatility. 

The problem with Markkanen, and this team overall in a lot of people’s eyes, is the defense. It’s not going to be a top-10 unit. But it could be better than you think. Williams will get the toughest one-on-one assignments, and he’s already an upper-class defender on the ball. Ball is a terrific off-ball defender. Alex Caruso is a dog as well. 

Billy Donovan can find ways to get those three guys on the floor together, with LaVine, who, again, has defensive potential if he is willing to commit, which he should be now that he has a team that can honestly win and he shouldn’t have quite as much offensive responsibility. Vucevic is pretty firmly a drop big man, but we’ve seen that can be a reliable tactic with good perimeter support in the regular season. Throw in a little shooting luck that swings Chicago’s way, and there’s a world in which they get enough stops to let that offense fly. 

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Where does it all land them? That’s the tough question. Assuming health (which is a big assumption), Brooklyn and Milwaukee are clearly at the top of the conference. Who knows what happens with the Sixers, but whether they keep Ben Simmons or get a big package in a trade, they should be in the top four again. 

To me, the No. 4 seed is the highest Chicago can even halfway reasonably hope for. Everyone is penciling in Miami as a top-four team and legit conference-title contender, but we’ll see. Kyle Lowry is old and Jimmy Butler can’t shoot. There are variables with Miami that could go the other way. 

Boston and Atlanta are two other teams with wide variances. Boston lost Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, and really only has Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to lean on, and the Hawks were a .500 team through a decent chunk of last season. I’m super pumped about Atlanta, don’t get me wrong, but just assuming their playoff run is going to seamlessly carry over to next season is a gamble. 

I’d put the Bulls with the Knicks. There’s a world in which they land a 4-5 seed and there’s a world where it all goes to hell and they have to scrap to make the play-in, if not start thinking about a midseason trade for LaVine, which would be the worst-case scenario with all the money they have tied up in veterans on a win-now mission. Most teams don’t have such a wide range of possible regular-season outcomes. The Bulls do. And it makes them one of the more interesting teams in the league. 

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