The 2021-2022 Chicago Bulls campaign has exceeded just about all external expectations to this point.
ESPN’s preseason power rankings had them 19th, while most sportsbooks set their win total over/under at 42.5. Currently, FiveThirtyEight has them projected to finish 47-35, with a 97% chance to make the playoffs.
While this year has been as successful and enjoyable as any for the franchise in the last six or seven, Chicago has suffered through awful injury luck. On October 28th against New York, just five games into the season, starting power forward Patrick Williams found himself on the receiving end of a hard foul from Knicks’ center Mitchell Robinson, leading to torn wrist ligaments and a perilunate dislocation.
On January 20th, the Bulls announced that starting point guard Lonzo Ball would need surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. At the time, Ball was averaging 13.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game, while shooting a career-high 42.3% on 3FG and providing outstanding perimeter defense, proving to be a perfect fit in Chicago’s lineup.
Just a day after the Bulls provided that update on Ball, Alex Caruso’s wrist was broken after Bucks’ guard Grayson Allen pulled him out of the air on a layup attempt. Caruso’s defensive rating of 102.0 ranks 15th of any player in the NBA, while his net rating of 9.1 is by far the highest mark on Chicago, according to NBA.com. Following a loss to Golden State on January 14, the last game where both Ball, and Caruso were available, the Bulls sat in first place in the East at 27-13, a 67.5% winning percentage, which would translate to a 55-win season. Since then, Chicago has gone 12-13 while dropping to fourth place, and it’s clear the prolonged stretch of playing short-handed is taking a toll.
After missing the final three games before the all-star break, Zach LaVine had fluid drained from his ailing left knee, the same one in which he tore his ACL in 2017, while also receiving a cortisone shot and a platelet-rich plasma injection. His overall numbers this year are still impressive, but the knee is clearly bothering him.
“I‘ve been obviously battling the knee soreness for a little bit and not playing at 100% but you know, I just want to continue to go out there and try to help us win,” Lavine admitted at the all-star break.
He doesn’t seem to have his usual burst that allows him to get to the rim with ease and the numbers are backing that up; 12.7% of his points are currently coming from the mid-range area, compared to 9.7% last season. LaVine’s shot 52.9% from the field and 47.7% on 3FG in December, compared to 43.6%/35.1% splits in January before receiving treatment in February.
Meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan might be hitting a bit of a wall after helping carry the Bulls while they’ve missed Williams, Ball and Caruso. At 32 years-old, DeRozan is 5th in the league in total minutes played this year. The six other players in the top seven, Miles Bridges, Mikal Bridges, Jayson Tatum, Julius Randle, Saddiq Bey, and Tyrese Haliburton, have an average age of 23.8 years-old. Through January 14, DeRozan had crossed the 38-minute threshold just twice in 37 games, but in 24 games since then, he’s played at least 38 minutes in 12 different outings. Over the last five games, DeRozan is averaging 24.6 points on 39.2% shooting, which is a significant dip from his overall season averages of 28.0 points on 50.9% shooting.
Other players have raised their levels to try and fill the void created by injury, most notably Ayo Dosunmo.
The second-round pick averaged just 17.3 minutes per game in November, but with Ball and Caruso out, Dosunmo averaged 36.7 minutes per game in February, averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 assists to just 1.9 turnovers per game with shooting splits of 50.5%/37.2%/81.8%. He’s provided much-needed perimeter defense and playmaking, turning himself into a no-brainer pick for the All-Rookie Team. Javonte Green has essentially come out of nowhere to turn himself into an integral part of the rotation, adding transition juice, hard-nosed defense, exceptional effort, and respectable shooting. Coby White is shooting the ball better than he ever has, with shooting splits of 45.1%/40.1%/84.8% while significantly reducing his turnover rate.
All that said, everyone has been asked to do a little too much for a little too long, and the effects are apparent, as Chicago has lost five straight. On Wednesday, head coach Billy Donovan stated that Caruso had been cleared for full-contact practice, Williams was cleared for minimal-contact, while Ball has yet to start lateral movement. With just 17 games remaining in the regular season, the Bulls are trying to keep their heads above water while waiting for reinforcements. The ceiling on this team is still a question but if they can’t get healthy and mesh before the playoffs begin, we’ll never get the answer.
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