Bulls set sights higher, look to build on run to playoffs

DeMar DeRozan speaks at the Chicago Bulls' end-of-season news conference on April 28, 2022, at the Advocate Center in Chicago. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Zach LaVine had quite the offseason.

The Chicago Bulls’ two-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist landed the richest contract in franchise history when he agreed to a $215 million, five-year contract. He and his wife, Hunter, welcomed their first child, a son named Saint Thomas.

LaVine also had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May. He said he is completely healed, looking forward to playing at full strength and seeing just how far the Bulls can go with expectations high coming off a playoff appearance.

"If they’re not high, then what are we doing here?" LaVine said Monday at the team’s media day. "Our expectations have to be really high. If we’re not thinking we can compete for championships, we’re selling ourselves short."

The Bulls have their sights set higher after making the playoffs for the first time since 2017 and ending a run of four losing seasons. They led the Eastern Conference for a big portion of the season with DeMar DeRozan playing at an MVP level, only to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference at 46-36 and get knocked out in the first round by Milwaukee.

Chicago returns with its core intact, though point guard Lonzo Ball was scheduled have surgery this week on his left knee for the second time in less than a year. He’s set to have an arthroscopic debridement and be re-evaluated in four to six weeks. When he suits up remains to be seen.

Ball, acquired from New Orleans in a sign-and-trade deal, played a major role in the jump Chicago made last season. He was limited to 35 games and did not play after Jan. 14.

Ball had torn meniscus surgery a few weeks later and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up basketball activities. The Bulls had him rest for 10 days at one point, hoping it would resolve the issue and allow him to return. But he felt pain again when he started preparing to play.

Ball averaged 13 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals. He helped steady the offense, and along with Alex Caruso formed a disruptive defensive duo on the perimeter.

But he also missed significant time because of injuries over his first five seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans and Chicago. And he’s starting this one on the sideline.

The Bulls have options at point guard with Ball out. Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White, Caruso and veteran newcomer Goran Dragic could all see time there.

"Who starts, how it goes, the starting job — I’m not really that wrapped up in that right now as much as can we establish who we want to be as a team going forward," coach Billy Donovan said.

The Bulls insist they have the talent to compete in a tough Eastern Conference. But while other teams loaded up, they’re relying mostly on improvement from within.

"We were not surprised that we made the playoffs," executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said. "A lot of people were surprised. Nor (will we) be surprised to make the playoffs this year. But what we want to see is improvement. Once you get to the playoffs and you have healthy bodies, then a lot of things can happen."

Though they were fourth in 3-point accuracy, the Bulls were last in attempts. That’s something they’re looking to change. They’re counting on Patrick Williams to be more assertive on offense than he was in an injury-riddled second season. Torn ligaments in his left wrist limited him to 17 games.

DeRozan averaged 27.9 points last season. But at 33 and entering his 14th year, can he approach that level again? DeRozan said he finds "humor" in the doubters.

"But I always use whatever I can take," he said. "It’s kind of like free energy. I indulge in it and just let them eat their words."

DeRozan said the doubters "irk" him at times, though they’re not his main source of motivation.

"It’s just like ... what’d I do to y’all?" he said. "You look at so much stuff like it’s entertainment. You indulge in it. You take whatever you want from it. You just make people eat their words and you get the last laugh at the end of the day. Nobody understands and knows the amount of work that I put in. And I know for a fact that most of the guys in our league don’t work like I do."