The Bulls’ struggles include managing the split between LaVine and DeRozan on court: sources

With two 2022 All-Stars in Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan and former All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls had hoped to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference and build on their 6th-place finish last season. But over the course of this season, with the Bulls now sitting at a disappointing 11-18 and playing without their star point guard Lonzo Ball due to a lingering knee injury, serious questions have arisen in the locker room about whether their two-star wings can do so this season and also fit together at a high level on the pitch.

The Bulls have held several team meetings to try and resolve their issues, and that has included personal sitdowns between DeRozan and LaVine, according to team and league sources, who have been granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about team dynamics. DeRozan and LaVine have always had a great mutual respect for one another. Just 10 months ago, at All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, the Stars declared themselves the best duo in the NBA. You maintain a good personal relationship. But their meetings haven’t produced any results in the game so far, as a certain stylistic tension festers on the pitch throughout the season and is compounded by win-loss records.

“I think everyone goes through ups and downs, just like every team,” LaVine said the athlete on Tuesday when asked about the matter. “Obviously not everyone will be happy if we don’t win games. It won’t look as good as it did before. It’s all glitter and show when you win games. But when you’re losing games and trying to do the same things, there’s an uproar. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. For me I keep my head down. I’m working on my game and trying to help my team. I help lead the team. There I stand. I just try to take it day by day and evaluate how we’re doing.”

Additionally, multiple league sources and sources close to the organization say LaVine and the Bulls disagree. In recent weeks, there has been a palpable sense of disconnection from LaVine’s situation in Chicago in various parts of the franchise. All of this happened while LaVine is in the first season of a five-year, $215 million maximum deal that was signed this summer.

“There’s a level of frustration with people trying to figure out what we can do to fix the ship,” LaVine said the athlete. “I think with the players we have we try to help each other fix the ship. We have these types of guys, these types of mentalities where each of us has been number one on a team before and then we all come together. It won’t take one person. It will take us all as one. I think that’s what the guys are trying to figure out how to help the group.”

As the saying goes, winning heals everything. A year ago, DeRozan, LaVine and those Bulls were clicking on all cylinders while Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics struggled to find their way. A year later, the roles appear reversed, and it pops out when you look at the rankings.

In the third season of Billy Donovan’s tenure, skepticism towards the head coach and the coaching staff has also risen in the locker room. For Donovan, the challenge of improving DeRozan and LaVine together through a balance of execution, accountability and collaboration is paramount. However, Donovan’s job is currently secure since the athlete reported that he signed a multi-year contract extension before the start of this season.

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Bulls coach Billy Donovan sets the tone for next season: “We still have more to prove”

The Bulls’ season began with optimism. They brought back 12 players from last season’s roster and hoped for continuity that came with increased chemistry and better results. The Bulls are a much more complete and dynamic team with naturally healthy ball, as his ability to pick up the pace and set the table for DeRozan and LaVine was necessary for last season’s team.

But while Ball’s status is up in the air regarding his potential return, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnišovas set expectations for this season at the team’s media day in September.

“What we want to see is obviously an improvement,” he said. “Once you get into the playoffs and you’re in a fit body, I think a lot of things can happen. So I think we have to do better than last year. As always, when you get to the playoffs, things happen. A certain team is missing a key player or two and you may get through a round. So those are the expectations.”

From the start, however, the Bulls had to deal with a bumpy road.

LaVine unexpectedly sat out the team’s first two competitions this season, with the team saying his occasional absence would be part of planned maintenance focused on managing off-season arthroscopic knee surgery. LaVine struggled through a nagging knee problem in the second half of last season and showed tremendous resilience and fortitude to stay grounded in the first postseason appearance of his career. LaVine could have had knee surgery during the season but chose to wait until after the Bulls’ playoff run to ensure his availability to the team.

DeRozan joined the Bulls in the 2021 offseason to be second option behind LaVine most nights and give LaVine the support to win more games. However, in that role he proved to be one of the best players in the league with clutch moments, multiple winners in games and a consistent lead.

“Now it’s time to understand how we can make this work for the whole group. I’ve never played with a talent at this wing position like Zach. He is unique. I want to share everything I’ve been through in my career with him and win together.” DeRozan said last October.

The duo had a successful first season, leading the Bulls to a 46-36 record and their first playoff spot in four years, while appearing to have the best record in the East for parts of the first half of the year due to a 27-11 start to really enjoy each other’s presence. It’s clear that Ball is an engine for these Bulls: the team went 22-13 with him in the lineup and 24-23 without him. DeRozan and LaVine seemed to have laid a foundation for their partnership last season — except this season everything has been called into question throughout the organization.

For Karnišovas, the best move of his tenure was acquiring DeRozan, who made the All-NBA second team and was named MVP a season ago. DeRozan has played brilliant basketball since joining the Bulls. He has averaged 27.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 88.1 percent on nearly eight free throws per game. A fourth-quarter pick, he’s among the best in the NBA.

DeRozan joined the Bulls in 2021 on a three-year, $85 million contract and is eligible for a maximum four-year, $153.7 million extension this summer. Do bulls see DeRozan as a centerpiece for years to come?

LaVine dismissed the notion that the weight of expectations from his maximum allowable contract influenced him.

“It didn’t weigh anything for me. I don’t see how this is put into context,” LaVine said the athlete. “Just because you’re signing a deal, is it supposed to add weight to it? I think there’s extra weight every time you step onto the court if you’re not performing or not playing properly. But everyone is open to their own opinion.

“I’ve improved every day that I’ve recovered from an injury. If you lose, you don’t see it. Obviously it’s frustrating when you lose and all these other narratives come out. It’s not from us. It comes from outside sources. It’s just what you have to deal with. It comes with the territory. I understand that. I think the team understands that. It doesn’t bother me. I think it’s something that just comes with it.”

Additionally, Vucevic is eligible for an extension worth up to four years and $118.2 million but is currently expected to enter free agency in the offseason.

The Bulls’ forward direction is clouded by the fact that they still owe the Orlando Magic a top-four first-round pick in the 2023 NBA draft. By potentially switching from competing for a playoff and play-in tournament spot to a full rebuild, the Bulls’ front office would risk still not being in the top four, thus giving Orlando its pick.

And yet, should these Bulls continue down this path despite all that talent, the organization might have no choice.

Goran Dragić, the team’s oldest and most experienced player, didn’t gloss over the team’s problem after a 150-126 loss in Minnesota on Sunday.

“We don’t play for each other,” he said. “As simple as that.”

The veteran point guard’s comments followed those of Donovan in an equally candid post-game interview. Donovan has publicly challenged his star trio through the media, but he was more direct than ever on Sunday.

“We have to get out of the mindset of worrying about goals and how things are going offensively and being aware of ball scores,” said Donovan. “And when the ball moves and has passed, whoever scores scores.”

Donovan reiterated Dragić’s opinion that the Bulls are playing too individualistically and the results won’t change until the team does.

“If we get the mentality that I feel like I’m doing it for him. And I’ll do it for him, and I’ll do it for him. And I’m not letting down the guy I’m out there with,'” Donovan said.

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(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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