Prior to making the playoffs this year, the Chicago Bulls were struggling to find their way in the midst of a rebuild, much like the Orlando Magic.
After Chicago lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2017, they traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine and pressed the restart button in some ways, banking on a budding young star to lead their next iteration.
In the time between then and now, they had trouble drafting and developing young talent — or finding a coach. But the team used trades and free agency to jumpstart its rebuild. They knew they need to make a splash not just to push the team forward but also make sure LaVine would stay with the team beyond his contract expiring this summer.
And so a little more than a year ago, the Magic and Bulls made a trade sending both organizations in different directions.
The Chicago Bulls went all-in on their roster and got some reward a year after their big trade with the Orlando Magic. But an uneven season has them assessing their future again.
The Magic traded Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu to the Bulls for Wendell Carter, Otto Porter and two first-round picks (one of which would become Franz Wagner).
The deal marked the end of an era for the Magic as the front office decided it was time for change because the ceiling was too low under their core group of players.
Orlando also tore their team apart back at the 2021 deadline by getting rid of Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. It was a move to reposition the franchise after losing in the first round the past two years.
But for the Bulls, it was an aggressive play that paid off in the upcoming free agency where they paired Vucevic and LaVine with talented veterans. Chicago acquired both DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball in sign and trades, and signed Alex Caruso to a four-year deal.
Those moves may not amount to much individually but together they vaulted the Bulls into the playoffs. What seemed like rolling the dice in the offseason, turned into their best season in seven years.
The top-end talent the Bulls acquired helped them overcome injuries this past year that could have derailed their season if they did not have a player to consistently lean on. But the lack of flexibility they now have has them banking on a higher ceiling with the players they currently have.
The Bulls got off to a hot start to the 2022 season compiling a 27-13 record in the first 40 games. They were the number one seed at the All-Star break and despite falling off later in the season still won 46 games, which is more than they were predicted at 42.5.
Most of that success came because of DeRozan’s dynamic play.
DeRozan put together the best season of his career at age 32. He averaged 27.9 points per game, made,10.2 field goals per game, and shot 35-percent from 3-point land. All of those were career-highs. He was voted an All-Star game starter and was also in the MVP conversation as late as March.
DeRozan kept the Bulls more than afloat when they dealt with injuries to Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams. Caruso missed an extended amount of time with a fractured right wrist after a hard foul in December. Ball and Williams only played in 52 total games combined.
It is safe to say that investing in DeRozan has paid off already for the Bulls. But the team fell off and lost grip of the top spot in the playoffs because of these injuries.
Still, Chicago feels like the team needs something more. A year removed from a complete franchise reformation around their star in LaVine, the Bulls still feel like they need more. Health will help, but the team seems to be at a crossroads yet again.
Despite DeRozan’s best season as a pro, the Bulls struggled against playoff teams and ended up being overmatched by the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in the postseason. Questions about how good the team could be in the playoffs were raised all throughout the regular season.
The Bulls had a record of 3-21 against teams that made the playoffs (top-8 seeds). They went 1-14 against the top four teams in the East and were 9-20 in the final three months of the season. They also ranked just 25th on offense and defense after the All-Star break.
Going out in the first round was not a surprise considering their fall off near the end of the season and dropping to the sixth seed.
So after just a year and a half, the Bulls must re-evaluate how good they can really be, just like the Magic did at the 2021 deadline.
Chicago will look forward to this summer where the team will need to re-sign Lavine who is a free agent. Deciding if he is worth a five-year, $212-million extension will be tricky considering his knee injury history.
But letting him walk is out of the question for the Bulls’ plans so it is probably a done deal he will sign some sort of long-term deal with the team.
They also hope to see Ball justify his $20 million price tag by playing more since the most games he has played in a season is 63. His being out for the season before the All-Star break really hurt the team. Ball would have provided a defensive presence that was missing down the stretch.
The Bulls must assess whether injuries truly determined their ceiling this year or if this will become a common theme with their future teams. Injuries happen to every team so running back the same team and relying on health is naive which is why staying flexible with cap space is crucial.
Chicago will have to look over their options for Vucevic. Vucevic is already starting to pop up in early offseason trade rumors as they look ahead to the offseason and ways to improve. Vucevic struggled throughout the season and was not the same star he was in Orlando.
Either way, Vucevic was a defensive liability and his offensive presence is not as valuable or necessary with the other added talent they have.
The Bulls are in a common position a lot of NBA teams face. Defining how far away they are from being a real contender can be a dreaded place.
When the Magic unloaded Vucevic when they felt like the franchise was not going anywhere but the Bulls must be careful to not end up in that exact spot come the next couple of years.
The Bulls gave up on young players such as Laurie Markkanen and Wendell Carter who have helped other rebuilding teams.
While it is no question these moves have immediately helped the Bulls if they end up not becoming a real contender in the East, it begs the question of whether it was worth it. Especially if they have to tear it all down and restart again.
Knowing this, the Magic understand trusting the development process is the way to go. You cannot rush the process or else you will find yourself hitting the reset button and repeating everything all over again.
The most important thing for the Magic to keep in mind this upcoming season is to stay patient. See out the investment they have made with their draft picks, Markelle Fultz, and Wendell Carter Jr. will be the most crucial components to their success in the future.
And the Magic, unlike the Bulls, probably will not be able to build outside of the draft anyway.
The Bulls have a presence in the free-agent market and can land a big-time name. And this top-end talent helped withstand injuries over the course of a season.
The Magic once were a destination for free agents in the early 2000s when they landed Grant Hill and Tracy Mcgrady, but those days are far removed. They will most likely need to already be a playoff team to cash in on that market.
But there are still valuable takeaways from this Bulls team.
How Chicago handles their early exit compared to how the Magic handled it back in 2021 will be interesting. If they stay healthy in time for the playoffs they could make more noise and if they can bring Lavine back then the 2023 season will be all about seeing how good they can be.