As discontent continues to bubble behind the scenes, it’s clear that plenty isn’t working on or off the court for the Chicago Bulls.
The recent string of losses has been punctuated by sloppy defense and turnovers, but there’s another common trait: an abundance of hollow stat lines from the team’s big three of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević.
The Bulls are no strangers to hero ball. And in past seasons, DeRozan and LaVine often salvaged poor team performances with singular high-scoring nights.
But that hasn’t been the case this season for the Bulls, who still are learning that if they can’t play together on both ends of the court, the wins simply won’t come.
“We’re not playing for each other,” guard Goran Dragić told reporters after Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. “It’s as simple as that.”
As the Bulls continue to trend downward in the Eastern Conference standings, their big three’s statistics actually are trending upward. Both Vučević (18 points per game) and LaVine (23.5) had scored above their season average through the first eight games in December entering Tuesday night’s game against the Heat in Miami.
That should be a sign of progress — but it hasn’t been for the Bulls, who lost six of those games.
Sunday’s loss proved why the trio’s scoring success isn’t a winning formula. All three finished with 20 or more points, yet the Bulls were blown out by 26 points while allowing a season-high 150 points.
The Bulls spent an otherwise quiet offseason focused on securing LaVine with a $215.2 million maximum contract, cementing him as the team centerpiece. But coach Billy Donovan entered the season with the goal of taking the focus off the big three, emphasizing ball movement and balanced scoring to prevent opponents from clamping down on the star trio.
When the offense isn’t working as a whole, the Bulls fall back on a silo system that places too heavy of an emphasis on LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević.
Weeks ago, the Bulls bench was a bright spot as the starters struggled, but injuries and new rotations have thrown the second unit into a slump the team desperately needs to shake. The Bulls bench recorded a minus-0.9 net rating over the last seven games before Tuesday and a minus-1.2 during the four-game losing streak.
The unit feels disjointed in many ways. Coby White remains inconsistent from 3-point range, while Ayo Dosunmu has struggled to finish at the rim. Javonte Green remains sidelined with a right knee injury after moving into the starting lineup for one game.
And after serving an impactful role as the team’s No. 2 rebounder, Andre Drummond has battled to get off the bench in the past month, averaging just under 10 minutes per game after being a healthy scratch in the loss to the Timberwolves.
This drop-off from the bench has been punctuated by a teamwide decline in defensive rigor. The Bulls defense has plummeted since a relatively strong start, entering Tuesday with a 115.9 defensive rating (20th in the league) in December.
While LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević aren’t necessarily the Bulls’ strongest defenders, they still carry the burden of setting a standard for effort — including on the defensive end. It’s clear that 20-point games alone won’t cut it. For the Bulls to get back into the win column, the star trio must take the lead in reigniting the team’s intensity.
“If we want to be any good, we have to confront the fact that we’re not escaping competition,” Donovan said. “We need to compete a whole lot better on the defensive end of the floor. That’s five guys being connected.”