NBA Playoffs 2022: The Chicago Bulls got back to relevancy -- getting back to contention will be harder

THE FINAL 12 seconds of Game 4 between the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls had yet to expire, but both Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan had seen enough.

With the game out of reach and their once-promising season slipping away, the Bulls' All-Star star duo rose from the end of the bench, their home white jerseys still untucked, and made their way toward the locker room, not sticking around for the final buzzer.

After splitting the first two games in Milwaukee, the Bulls had returned home to host their first playoff games in five years, with the momentum on their side. An injury to Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton in Game 2 had given them an opening to perhaps upset the defending champions.

Instead, the Bulls were blown away for eight non-competitive quarters over the weekend, the Bucks seizing a commanding 3-1 lead in the series and making a first-round exit all but inevitable for the Bulls. Chicago had been dispatched in a way that mirrored the team's struggles all season against the Eastern Conference elite.

The 2021-22 Bulls season ended Wednesday night with a 116-100 loss in Game 5, bringing to a halt a ride that darted out of the gates and heightened expectations before crashing with an eventual second-half disappointment. The Bulls spent 56 days atop the Eastern Conference, more than any team besides the Miami Heat, who eventually claimed the top seed. However, the last of those days came back on Feb. 25; Chicago went 8-15 after the All-Star break against the toughest second-half schedule in the NBA.

On one level, Chicago's season was a success: The Bulls made the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 season thanks to a roster overhaul led by vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley. Their 46 wins were their most since 2014-15, the last season of the Tom Thibodeau era.

But Chicago's swift playoff exit, combined with an abysmal record against the Eastern Conference elite (1-14 against the top four teams in the East), offer a harsh reminder of the team's current status among the NBA hierarchy.

Going from irrelevant to relevant is one thing, but what Chicago attempts next, going from good to great, will be its hardest test yet.

LESS THAN FOUR minutes had gone by in the first quarter at the United Center on Jan. 14, the then-conference leading Bulls hosting the Golden State Warriors in one of Chicago's few nationally televised games, when LaVine soared into the air to secure an offensive rebound. LaVine landed awkwardly on his left leg.

He dribbled out of the paint and away from a pair of Warriors, and slung a pass toward Nikola Vucevic that was intercepted. LaVine never ran to the other end of the floor; he fouled Stephen Curry after the possession changed and quickly removed himself from the game.

For the rest of the season, LaVine played with that left knee injury. To stay on the court, he had platelet-rich plasma therapy, a cortisone injection and fluid drained from his knee near the All-Star break and missed 13 games over the the rest of the season. LaVine, who will be a free agent after the season, said at All-Star Weekend that "in the offseason I'll be able to take care of it and try to get myself 100 percent."

"Some games you feel great, sometimes you don't," LaVine told ESPN near the end of the season. "I try to maintain it. Understand you're not going to be able to do certain moves or have some explosiveness each and every game."

While that Warriors' game derailed Lavine's season, it officially ended Lonzo Ball's.

Before their next game, the team ruled Ball out because his knee wasn't responding to treatment. He then opted to have arthroscopic surgery with the hope of returning late in the season. He never did.

His first season in Chicago was a 35-game campaign in which he established himself as a pesky defender and their most accurate, high-volume 3-point shooter (42.3% on 7.4 attempts per game). Without him, the Bucks dared the Bulls to beat them from the 3-point line. Chicago failed, shooting a league-worst 28% from deep during the playoffs.

Alex Caruso, who like Ball joined the Bulls last summer, missed that fateful game against the Warriors while in health and safety protocols. He returned one week later for the Bulls' first game against the Bucks this season. During the third quarter that night, Caruso hit the floor hard after a flagrant foul from Grayson Allen, resulting in a broken wrist. He missed the next two months.

Bulls players missed 221 games this season because of injury (including COVID-19), according to Spotrac, the most among Eastern Conference teams who qualified for the postseason. They used 29 different starting lineups to get through the season, their most in a season since 2000-01, when they used 32. That team went 15-67.

"I think if you would've told me, coming out of the All-Star break in February: Lonzo Ball is going to play less than half the year. Caruso is going to play less than half the year. Patrick Williams is going to break his wrist and be out for five months. Zach LaVine is going to be dealing with a broken finger, torn ligament, and then he's going to basically be dealing with a knee issue for the entire season. And Ayo [Dosunmu] is going to be your starting point guard for the next three months -- you'd be scratching your head like 'oh my god, what is this going to look like'?" Bulls coach Billy Donovan told ESPN.

"Training camp was so predicated on what we were trying to do to get the group to play together. And it just never really happened for us."

CHICAGO'S PUSH TO return to the postseason began not in the summer of 2021, but five months earlier.

In the first trade deadline with Karnisovas and Eversley leading the organization, the team acquired Vucevic from the Orlando Magic for two first-round picks (2021 and 2023) and center Wendell Carter Jr.

"We're serious about the culture of being very competitive," Karnisovas said after the trade. "Any opportunity we get to make this team better, we will."

The Bulls were mocked when the trade failed to result in a playoff berth in 2021 -- and resulted in Chicago sending a lottery pick to Orlando -- but that disappointment didn't tamper the front offices' aggression. It added DeRozan, Caruso and Ball and flipped just about everyone else on the roster they first inherited -- leaving only LaVine and Coby White as players acquired by the previous regime.

"Being willing to go out and get these caliber of players to really go after it and win, this year has been great showing that we're not just here to hope and see," LaVine said.

"I don't think anybody wants to stick in the same situation, especially when you're playing at a high level and you're getting toward the prime of your career. You don't want to sit in the same situation."

After the roster overhaul last season, the team's message now centers elsewhere.

"It's progress," one member of the Bulls front office told ESPN. "Rome wasn't built in a day."

DeRozan knows that all too well. He spent nine seasons in Toronto, making five straight playoff appearances that all fell short of the NBA Finals. He followed that up with three seasons in San Antonio that resulted in a single playoff berth. DeRozan arrived in Chicago with confidence in his new team, but he is also realistic about overnight success.

"We're probably the newest team put together," DeRozan said, comparing Chicago to the other Eastern Conference contenders. "I'm not trying to make an excuse, but if you look at a lot of those teams, their foundation was already there. For us, our foundation, it was new and it was kind of dismantled throughout the season with injuries."

THE FIRST-ROUND loss to the Bucks underscores the challenges facing Karnisovas and Eversley.

Chicago was outclassed in just about every way by Milwaukee. Entering Game 5, the Bulls had posted an abysmal offensive rating of 94.2, dead last among teams in the playoff field, trailing the next closest team, the Atlanta Hawks, by 10 points per 100 possessions. The Bulls survived all season despite attempting the fewest 3s in the NBA because they had the fourth-highest percentage of makes, but their lack of perimeter shooting was exposed with Ball out and Vucevic in a season-long slump (his 31.4% 3-point shooting was his worst since 2017-18). And the Bulls received little production from their bench, which scored just 67 points over the first four games of the series.

The postseason exacerbated these issues, but they had been hindering Chicago for months. The Bulls were 25th in offense and 25th in defense following the break and went 9-20 over the past three months, including the postseason.

"I don't know where we'd be at right now if our schedule was flipped," Donovan says. "If we would've had the harder part in the beginning and we would've got off to [a slow start] people would have said 'oh hey they're finding their way. They're new and the schedule is really hard'.

The Bulls are newly constructed, but the core they have put in place is not a particularly young one, and Chicago has to hope this group has not already reached its full potential. DeRozan and Vucevic are both over 30. LaVine just turned 27 in March, but he will be seeking a max contract this offseason that takes him into his 30s.

DeRozan, who will turn 33 heading into next season, put together a career-year, setting highs in scoring (27.9 points), shooting percentage on 2s (52.0%) and 3s (35.2% on 1.9 attempts, his highest since 2017-18) while playing the most minutes he has logged since he was a 24-year All-Star in Toronto.

And while Ball's absence loomed during the second half, it certainly isn't an anomaly. Ball, who signed a four-year, $85 million contract in free agency last offseason, has played in 252 games in his five-year NBA career, including two pandemic-shortened seasons, for an average of about 50 games per year.

Such aggressive spending to get back to the postseason comes with a cost, and Chicago has already sacrificed some of its long-term flexibility. The Bulls enter the offseason short on the two things other teams covet in trades: young players and draft picks.

The Bulls own the No. 18 pick in this year's draft, but still owe first-round picks to the Magic (2023) and Spurs (2025) as part of the Vucevic and DeRozan trades. Chicago does have an extra pick from Portland as part of a three-team sign-and-trade that sent Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland last summer, but the pick is lottery protected through 2028, and the Blazers just finished No. 13 in the West.

The Bulls will hang tight to Williams, who doesn't turn 21 years old until August, as several members within the organization still believe he can blossom into a future star. And White, the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft, enjoyed a career shooting year (38.5% from 3), but the team was outscored by 53 points while he was on the court in the playoffs.

The Bulls did not make a move at the trade deadline this past February, in part because they still believed at that point that their team would get healthy and because the organization could not find a deal it believed would meaningfully change their trajectory, especially with such limited resources, team sources told ESPN. Perhaps such a deal will materialize over the summer, but there's no guarantee the Bulls have enough pieces to pull off the major additions they made a year ago.

"Part of the conversation I had with them to convince me to come was the necessity to want to win," DeRozan said. "That's all I needed to know. I knew it wasn't just 'we're just trying to win for one year.' We want to turn this thing around and I wanted to be a part of it. You can just feel it in the whole culture here."