The Chicago Bulls made bold moves at the NBA trade deadline by bringing in Nikola Vucevic in a blockbuster trade and also acquiring rotation pieces in Daniel Theis and Troy Brown Jr. in a separate deal. The trades signaled a desire to make a playoff push this season while showing a long-term commitment to Zach LaVine by bringing in another All-Star to play with him.
Unfortunately, the high from the deadline quickly wore off with a string of four straight losses. After a three-game winning streak brought some hope, things are now just going from bad to worse. The Bulls seemingly hit rock bottom with an ugly 115-106 loss to, ironically, the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night. It was Chicago’s fourth straight defeat, moving them to 22-32 on the season and 3-8 since the trade deadline. That’s a worse post-deadline record than the Magic, who traded away their three best players in Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski then reported Thursday LaVine will miss time after entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols. While Woj didn’t report a timetable, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium is saying LaVine’s absence could be two weeks or perhaps even longer:
NBA analyst Nate Duncan says this timetable would imply a positive Covid-19 test, with Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reporting this as the case. The Bulls had to cancel Thursday’s practice because of the news. In addition to LaVine being out, missing out on this crucial practice time is important as well given the lack of it since the trades. Thaddeus Young recently admitted how tough it is to incorporate new players without practice, and Chicago’s recent poor play on the court shows how much that extra work is needed.
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If LaVine actually misses two weeks, he would miss eight games as the Bulls desperately try to keep their spot in the play-in tournament. Chicago is still in 10th place despite this latest slump, but the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards are just a game back, with the Cleveland Cavaliers sitting two games back. While the Raptors don’t really seem like they’re trying to win, the Wizards are a different story, and they have one of the easier closing schedules the rest of the way. The Bulls, on the other hand, do not.
No matter how long LaVine is out, Chicago is going to have to dig deep and start playing better basketball. Replacing LaVine’s elite scoring ability (27.5 points per game on 63.3% true shooting) will be tough, but the Bulls did stay competitive in a recent loss to the Phoenix Suns when he missed the game with an ankle injury. Chicago will need to play through Vucevic and play as a team, getting more players consistently involved than we’ve seen of late.
This means Patrick Williams, Coby White and Lauri Markkanen have to snap out of their respective funks and produce. This wouldn’t be a bad time to give Williams more offensive responsibility to see if he can handle it. Troy Brown Jr. and Denzel Valentine will get opportunities on the wing. The return of Garrett Temple from a hamstring injury should help as well as he gets his legs back. It’s going to take a team effort on both ends of the floor for Billy Donovan’s squad to stay afloat.
If the Bulls continue to fade and wind up missing the play-in tournament, or if they sneak in and lose, one silver lining is the 2021 first-round pick they traded to Orlando is top-four protected. Protecting the first-round picks in the Vucevic trade was done for circumstances like this, otherwise this would have the makings of a total disaster. Instead, Chicago would likely have at least a 20% chance of keeping that pick in a lottery scenario that saw them miss the play-in tournament.
Of course, the Bulls’ goal isn’t to tank. It might happen organically, especially without LaVine for a while, but they’re going to try to win and get in this play-in tournament. The front office didn’t make these trades to see the season go down the drain. Having another All-Star in Vucevic on board should help mitigate LaVine’s loss to a degree, and the entire team must get off the mat and respond after getting knocked down. We’ll see what this team is made of over the next few weeks.