By: Ryan Taylor
The Chicago Bulls have been anything but consistent with what the media and its fans expected this season. They’ve led the Eastern Conference, lost six games in a row, went through a rampage of Covid, had plenty of injuries, and have two MVP candidates.
Yet, the Bulls are going into the all-star break with the lead in the Eastern Conference. During the break, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine will face off against each other as parts of Team LeBron and Team Durant, respectively.
With that in mind, and 23 games left to go in the season, I polled Chicago’s best Bulls bloggers (alliteration semi-intended) to find out what the team’s biggest surprises and disappointments of the season are so far.
Conner Grant, Sports Mockery – “Biggest surprise has to be Ayo Dosunmu’s level of play and minutes. I knew he was good coming out of the draft but he’s playing better than expected.”
If there was a mass survey sent out to self-proclaimed Bulls’ fans around the city asking the same question, they would likely have the same answer.
Ayo Dosunmu is a future superstar in this league. His progression this season is moving astronomically fast and his ceiling seems unlimited. His ability to be a major factor on both ends of the floor is extremely impressive for a 22-year old rookie.
Dosunu’s performance has been so good this season that the Bulls’ front office was reportedly ready to put Coby White on the trade block to take advantage of his value and maximize the depth they have with him.
The Bulls certainly maximized the most possible out of last season’s draft with a second-round pick that went to, guess who, Dosunmu.
Vijay Vemu (@vj_v_), Blog a Bull – “My biggest surprise this season has been the recent resurgence of Nikola Vucevic.”
Another nail on the head. In Vooch’s last 10 games, he is averaging 24.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Further and more impressive, he is shooting 63.9 percent from the field – a stark contrast to his sub-50 percent mark on the season.
Another figure to consider with Vooch’s offensive play is the shift in offensive strategy that head coach Billy Donovan implemented. Last year’s team incorporated plenty of post-up opportunities for Vooch down low, shown by his 5.6 post-up possessions per game, which ranked top-10 in the NBA.
This season, Vooch only sees about 3.3 post-ups per game; however, he receives an NBA-leading 7.1 possessions per game and 6.8 points per game as the pick-and-roll man. Vucevic adapted to his role and has shined again as the Bulls’ premier big man.
More from Vemu: “He looks like a completely different player from the guy who was slumping during December. His efficiency has shot way back up and he’s near-automatic inside the paint. The pick and pop shots are falling as well from the midrange. Vucevic still has his rough moments shooting from three but he has splashed some big makes from downtown in the past two months. With all of the injuries the Bulls are dealing with, they have needed Vucevic since the start of 2022. He’s looking like the player who Chicago traded for last season and it’s refreshing to see given how bleak the start of his 2021-22 campaign began. Let’s hope he can keep this up until and throughout the playoffs. They are certainly going to need his scoring and passing against some of the other elite teams in the East.”
Ross Pinsler, Bulls Content Creator, Owner of Artūras Karnišovas Fan Club Twitter Account (@arturasfanclub) – “Biggest Surprise: Coby White’s development as a ball-handler and defender.”
This could not be more on point. White’s venture on the Bulls has not been an easy one. Early on in his career, he’s been exposed for his inability to do much outside of scoring the basketball. But, if he’s unable to do that every game, what’s he good for?
He jumped through hoops last season after riding the bench for Tomas Satoransky, moving over to shooting guard, and suffering a shoulder injury this past offseason.
Nonetheless, he’s flourished this season. He’s improved his defense dramatically and has become one of the better three-point shooters for the Bulls.
I’ll let Ross take it from here…
“Coby White finished last season with an undefined role. He struggled throughout the season with his newly-appointed lead guard duties, at times getting benched in favor of Tomas Satoransky. White and Nikola Vucevic found some chemistry in the pick and roll towards the end of the season, but many wondered what White’s role would be going into this season with a cast of new starters and nursing an injury to start the season.
Injuries and protocol absences from some of those new starters have given Coby White opportunities to play heavy minutes once again this season, and he has done nothing short of shine during them. White looks decisive with the ball in his hands, attacking close-outs with ease and using crafty dribble moves to create space or finish at the rim.
Not to forget his already proficient ability to shoot the three, White has paired this offensive boost with an increased focus on the defensive end. While he struggles to defend on-ball and fighting through screens, White has routinely come up with clutch steals as he reads and disrupts passing lanes off-ball better than I’ve ever seen from him before.”
Ryan Heckman (@TheRyanHeckman), Da Windy City – “Injury bug. This is an easy answer, but it’s the truth. One can only wonder just how much further ahead the pack of these Bulls would be if they hadn’t had to play so many games without Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams and Alex Caruso.”
As aforementioned about the popularity of the “Ayo Dosunmu” response to the “biggest surprise” question, this answer seems relatively similar in the likelihood of its popularity.
This season, DeRozan has played the most games out of 59 total with 55 (as of this writing), followed by Nikola Vucevic (52). The Bulls’ average games played per starter, not counting Patrick Williams, is 44.6, well below the 59 games played this season by the squad.
The biggest injuries highlighted as of recent – Lonzo Ball (meniscus tear) and Alex Caruso (Greyson Allen) – have created a large absence of defensive presence for the team.
Another injury anecdote includes Zach LaVine, who’s dealt with three separate ones this year. He’s suffered torn ligaments in his thumb, knee soreness, back spasms and even an elbow to the face.
In summation, yes, the Bulls have gone through a plethora of injuries and Covid issues, leading to management’s tough decision to wait for the players to return instead of making a move at the trade deadline. Time will tell if that was the right choice.
Vijay Vemu (@vj_v_), Blog a Bull – “My biggest disappointment has to be a combination of the injuries and probably the end of the bench.”
This is a great point. The Bulls have four players averaging over 30 minutes per game this season and an additional five averaging at least 25 minutes. The Bulls have run short, especially considering the number of injuries they’ve sustained this season.
It’s obvious as well that the Bulls are not about depth outside of Caruso and White coming off of the bench. The Bulls just signed on Tristan Thompson from the buyout market to help with frontcourt troubles, but will that be enough?
Back to Vemu: “Now, these two intertwine with each other as we’ve seen a lot more from the end of the bench guys due to the various starters missing time. It’s forced Billy Donovan to alter his rotation significantly. However, as of late, the Bulls rotation has shrunk. Some of the guys who have been playing regular minutes are barely seeing the court. For example, Alfonzo McKinnie has seen about seven combined minutes since January 26th. Malcolm Hill has gotten DNP-CD’s from time to time while Matt Thomas’s minutes are now here and there. While it is certainly not fair to ask some of these guys to step in and immediately contribute, this does signal an area of improvement for the Bulls. They are now a good enough team to where they can focus on upgrading the backend of their roster with vigor. We’ll see what they do in the buyout market to address this problem. It’s also worth wondering if they could have made a smaller move at the trade deadline to upgrade in that category. Regardless, Chicago has to acquire someone. They can’t keep playing only seven guys heavy minutes as it could lead to burnout before the playoffs start.”
Ross Pinsler, Bulls Content Creator, Owner of Artūras Karnišovas Fan Club Twitter Account (@arturasfanclub) – “Biggest Disappointment: Troy Brown Jr.”
Troy Brown Jr. brought a lot of energy and hustle to the team last season as one of the players acquired before the trade deadline from the Washington Wizards. Brown impressed for a player who isn’t a common name around the league, even to those who follow closely.
His stat sheet was nothing to glamor about, but his hustle, ability to run in transition, and lockdown on defense were impressive. Head coach Billy Donovan even requested a larger emphasis on defense from him last season, and he delivered.
But, in terms of this season… I’ll let Ross take it again.
“When the Bulls traded for Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis at the 2021 NBA Trade Deadline, the team also quietly acquired a G/F by the name of Troy Brown Jr. Brown had shown flashes during the Washington Wizards brief stint in the NBA bubble, but had lately been iced out of the rotation and was looking for a new role. Enter, the Bulls.
Brown joined a squad that was severely lacking perimeter defense and ball-handling and immediately made an impact. At times, he looked like the Bulls’ best defender, fighting through screens on pick and rolls and attacking the boards on both offense and defense. Brown also provided an additional ball-handler when Zach LaVine and Coby White were off the court, as he sees the court well and can attack the rim with his length and speed. At the time, I called him the Bulls ‘most underrated player.‘
Coming into this season, with players like Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball to take on some of that load, I expected more from Troy Brown Jr. off the bench. Brown at times looks disengaged on defense and has been missing many good looks from three. While I will cut him some slack for being thrust into a role that he might not have been ready for with the team’s ongoing injuries, I am disappointed that he has not lived up to some of the promises we saw from him last season.”