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Can the Bulls Contend for Home Court Advantage in the East?

Chicago has a challenging road ahead, but don’t be surprised if it’s in the mix for a top-4 seed.

If you sit long enough, squint some, and start letting your mind wander to the places it hasn’t been able to for years, the Bulls appear to have the makings of a dangerous team, broadly speaking.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be breaking news. Adding a four-time All-Star like DeMar DeRozan to another pair of All-Stars in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević makes Chicago better. The real question is, how much better?

Some would contend the Bulls’ moves do nothing more than make them a low-level playoff team in the solidified Eastern Conference. But if things break right for this club, is it realistic to think Chicago can earn home court advantage to begin the postseason?

Even after a campaign in which the Nets looked flat-out unreal when healthy, the Sixers took the top seed despite Joel Embiid missing 21 games, and the neighboring Bucks won the damn championship; Chicago should head into the 2021–22 campaign relatively unfazed. The Hawks just got within a stone’s throw of the Finals and, perhaps, would have advanced to that stage if not for an untimely Trae Young injury.

It’s challenging to think anyone is going to have a better offense than a full-strength Brooklyn attack. But don’t be surprised if the Bulls are among the teams not far behind. This was already a team that moved the ball well last season, ranking fourth in both assist percentage and secondary assists per contest. Now add DeRozan and Lonzo Ball, two playmakers who easily would’ve been the best distributors on last year’s roster.

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Then there’s the fact that this revved-up lineup should have really nice spacing to it. Vučević and LaVine are coming off career-best seasons from deep at 40% or better. Ball shot a career-best 37.8% from three and drilled better than 40% in the catch-and-shoot scenarios he figures to see a lot of as a Bull. Even Patrick Williams, who started at power forward as a rookie last season, shot 39.1%, including 42.1% from the corners.

We know what you’re thinking: DeRozan, who shot a “Damn, for real?”-esque 25.7% from the arc last season, is an anti-spacer. So you have to factor that in, too. But we are. If the Bulls are smart, he’ll often be the one with the ball in his hands, probing for openings to either hit an open teammate, or to get to the basket. Yes, DeRozan is known for his lack of three-point shooting, and his turn-back-the-clock affinity for midrange shots. But as my teammate Michael Pina eloquently laid out last week: A career-low share of DeRozan’s attempts were long twos this past season, all while getting to the line at the best clip he ever has. As the Spurs’ small-ball power forward, he squeezed out nearly seven assists per game on the same scoring efficiency as Bradley Beal. That’s nothing to sneeze at, especially while playing as a lone star.

If Ball was the addition that had the capacity to loosen up potential bottleneck jams in Chicago’s offense, DeRozan is the emergency vehicle roaring down Lake Shore Drive, clearing the way entirely.

The team has three highly talented scorers and a young player whose perimeter shooting is quickly catching up with his vision as a passer. And none of this even mentions the other key pickup the Bulls made, signing away guard Alex Caruso from the Lakers, someone who figures to give Chicago a pesky, plus defender who can handle the ball in spurts while knocking down open jumpers off the catch. (It’s certainly feasible that he, Ball, LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević could occasionally finish games.)

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The additions weren’t without some subtraction, of course. Forward Thad Young, perhaps the most well-rounded Bull over the past two years, is headed to San Antonio for now. Tomáš Satoranský, who surehandedly filled the Bulls’ backup point guard minutes while not shooting all that much, was part of the sign-and-trade with the Pelicans to get Ball. (As an aside: that deal, which was reported by newsbreakers the very second free agency started, is being investigated by the league for tampering purposes.) So the team’s rotational depth will undoubtedly take a hit, with its bench filled mostly with one-way talent.

Quite frankly, that is where Chicago looks to be at least a solid step behind the foremost contenders.

Despite their best players being less-than-stellar defenders, last year’s Bulls finished No. 12 in the NBA in defense. When looking solely at post-All-Star break play, Chicago ranked No. 8 in the league on that end, albeit with LaVine missing a chunk of that time. (Still, in surrendering 110.5 points per 100 possessions in the minutes LaVine and Vučević shared, the club would have ranked in the top 10 defensively.) DeRozan won’t help there much, but Ball and Caruso are smart stoppers who will be instant upgrades.

So with the defense having the potential to crack the top 10, and the offense having a shot at being among the league’s best—with multiple players capable of closing out a game—the rotation may stand out as an Achilles’ heel. It remains to be seen what will happen with Lauri Markkanen, and perhaps Coby White becomes more consistent with less forced-ballhandling responsibility on this roster than before.

Having three fringe-level All-Stars, with one entering his prime, will at least give Billy Donovan’s team a chance to accomplish something meaningful.

It won’t be easy in the East. The Nets just added Patty Mills and got Blake Griffin back at a thrift-store price. The Bucks, who lost P.J. Tucker, will gladly welcome back a rehabbed Donte DiVincenzo. Beyond Kyle Lowry, the Heat loaded up on bruisers, including Tucker and Markieff Morris. We can debate Andre Drummond’s ultimate value in today’s NBA, but it’s hard to argue with getting him on a minimum deal, like Philadelphia just managed to do. The Knicks transplanted Boston’s starting backcourt into theirs. And Atlanta will get back young wings De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, both of whom missed enormous chunks of last season.

It will be a challenging task to overtake any of those clubs, or someone like Boston, which got ravaged by both injury and the coronavirus last year. The Wizards also figure to make noise after their strong offseason.

Between the depth questions and the new faces, there’s no telling exactly where Chicago will finish. But with a likely improved defense, and what should be a vastly improved offense, don’t be surprised if DeRozan and the other new acquisitions find a way to storm through the Eastern Conference traffic into the conversation for home court.

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