CHICAGO - DeMar DeRozan already has his sights set on next season.
The five-time All-Star was looking forward to 4 a.m. workouts in Los Angeles and putting teammates through "hell" when they join him, particularly Patrick Williams. He wants to build on a standout season and help the Chicago Bulls make the next jump after taking a big step forward. He gets the sense from management they’ll try to do it with their core remaining intact.
"That’s where it starts," DeRozan said Thursday, a day after the Bulls’ breakthrough season ended with a first-round playoff knockout by the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. "All the great teams that played for something, that played deep, that competed for a championship, that’s got to be there first and foremost — that continuity. That’s definitely something we’re definitely going to work toward."
The Bulls no doubt made huge strides, the product of a massive overhaul that began when Arturas Karnisovas was hired out of Denver’s front office two years ago to lead their basketball operation.
Chicago went 46-36 in coach Billy Donovan’s second season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
DeRozan played at an MVP level and finished fifth in the NBA in scoring after being acquired in a sign-and-trade deal with San Antonio last August. The additions of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso solidified their backcourt and gave their defense a huge boost on the perimeter. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu also made big contributions.
With Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic already in place, the Bulls came in looking like a team poised to make a jump. They got off to a big start and finished with their best record since the 2014-15 team went 50-32 in former coach Tom Thibodeau’s final season, even if the way it unfolded left a bitter taste.
The Bulls led the Eastern Conference for part of the season, only to struggle over the second half. They finished the regular season in a 7-15 nosedive and got knocked out by the Bucks 4-1.
The Bulls also struggled facing the NBA’s best, with a combined 2-21 record against the top four teams in each conference. And injuries made things that much more difficult.
LaVine, who has an expiring contract, was in and out of the lineup the final few months because of a sore left knee. Caruso missed seven weeks with a broken wrist. Ball missed the final 3 1/2 months following surgery for a torn meniscus. And Williams missed most of his second season because of torn ligaments in his left wrist.
Assuming LaVine re-signs and no major trades are made, the Bulls will likely be banking on continuity and improvement from within.
"You see the group of guys that we have, a lot of guys that are willing to sacrifice to win, guys that get along well," Vucevic said. "Just based off that, I think that we do have the talent to match up with all the teams in the East."
With a four-year, $78 million contract expiring, LaVine is in line for a huge payday. The question is how big.
A supermax deal worth about $245 million over five years appears to be out of reach since he would need to be chosen All-NBA, MVP or Defensive Player of the Year to become eligible. A max contract would run more than $200 million over five years.
LaVine averaged 24.4 points and made his second straight All-Star team. But he had platelet-rich plasma therapy, a cortisone injection and fluid drained from his knee in Los Angeles prior to the All-Star break, hoping the treatment will help him get through the remainder of the season. He tore the ACL in the same knee playing for Minnesota in February 2017.
BALL TO SEE SPECIALIST
Ball said he is still in pain and "at a standstill" in his recovery. He will see a specialist next week and hopes to avoid another operation.
Ball was expected to be out six to eight weeks following surgery in late January. But he kept experiencing pain stemming from a bone bruise that happened before the operation whenever he ramped up his activities.
Ball also had his left knee scoped when he was with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018.
CARUSO FEELS BETTER
Caruso said he felt normal Thursday for the first time since he left Game 4 against Milwaukee because of a concussion.
Caruso took an inadvertent hit to the face from the Bucks’ Jevon Carter while trying to get around a pick by Giannis Antetokounmpo late in the second quarter. It left him with a bloody nose, which he said wasn’t broken. Caruso started experiencing pain in his head after he went back to the locker room.
Besides re-signing LaVine, the Bulls might try to extend Vucevic’s contract. A four-year, $100 million deal he signed with Orlando is set to expire after the 2022-23 season.
DeRozan, who averaged 27.9 points, turns 33 in August. But he’s not worried about his production declining.
"If LeBron’s still doing what he’s doing, I got hope," DeRozan said.