The Bulls enter the NBA trade deadline at a crossroads

CHICAGO -- THE BULLS had a golden opportunity.

After starting the season 12-18, the Bulls were riding a season-high three-game winning streak, building momentum with a blowout win at home against the Golden State Warriors, a thrashing of the Detroit Pistons in Paris and a convincing victory over the Atlanta Hawks back at home. With a soft schedule in front of them, the Bulls had a chance to move up in a crowded Eastern Conference play-in race.

"We have a helluva opportunity to write our own story," Bulls star DeMar DeRozan recalled telling his teammates before boarding their flight to Paris.

Instead, the story followed a familiar script. Chicago blew a 21-point lead against the Indiana Pacers -- Indiana's lone victory in the 11 games that guard Tyrese Haliburton was sidelined with a left knee contusion -- then lost by 15 points to the Charlotte Hornets. The Bulls closed January by blowing a 19-point lead in a loss to the LA Clippers, and then rebounded with a pair of home wins over the Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers, leaving them two games below .500 and in ninth place in the East.

It's the latest microcosm of the team's struggles this season: The Bulls have had three separate three-game winning streaks, but have yet to win four in a row. In January, they dropped four games when leading by more than 15 points, tied for the most by any team over the past 25 seasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. And the Bulls are 9-10 against teams under .500.

"Take two steps forward, two steps back," coach Billy Donovan said. "You keep going back and forth like that, it's hard to grow."

After finishing 46-36 last season and snapping a five-year playoff drought, the Bulls retained nearly their entire roster: Nine of the team's top 10 players by minutes played this season are holdovers from the 2021-22 season. Management touted continuity within the organization, believing a step forward was coming as its roster continued to gel.

"What we want to see is obviously improvement," Bulls vice president Arturas Karnisovas said in September. "Once you get to the playoffs and have healthy bodies, I think a lot of things can happen. We have to do better than last year. ... Those are the expectations."

Yet, in their second full season with a roster built around DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls are 25-27, three games behind the Miami Heat for the sixth spot in the East -- the same spot they finished in last season and were tasked with improving upon.

With Thursday's 3 p.m. ET trade deadline quickly approaching, the Bulls have not met their own self-imposed expectation. They find themselves at a crossroads but do not intend to trade core players this week, team and league sources told ESPN.

"They have a talented roster, but what is their identity?" an Eastern Conference scout told ESPN. "What are they supposed to be good at? You're not sure what you're going to get every night."

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ONE PERSON WITHIN the Bulls organization who isn't surprised by the team's struggles is Donovan, who pointed out the team's good fortune in close games in 2021-22.

The Bulls had the fourth-best record in the league in clutch situations last season at 25-16. They then lost their first seven clutch games to start 2022-23, and at 10-17, already own more clutch losses than all of last season.

"Listen, DeMar was incredible coming down the stretch of games," Donovan said, while pointing to the game-winning, buzzer-beaters in consecutive games DeRozan hit around New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in 2021-22. "And if we didn't have that good fortune, we'd be in the same exact situation we are in right now. Trying to fight to get back in the race."

So for now, the Bulls are preaching patience to allow the team to work through their offensive struggles despite the individual scoring talents of DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic.

DeRozan was named an All-Star again last week, shooting even better from the field (51%) and on 2s (52%) than last season. LaVine has rebounded from a slow start following offseason knee surgery to average 24 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. And while Vucevic, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, is averaging nearly identical points, rebounds and assists as last season, he is shooting much more efficiently (52% from the field, 36% from 3).

But together, the group is not clicking. Chicago ranks 20th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions despite having its three best players on the court for most of the season. DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic have played 1052 minutes together this season, fifth-most among trios in the NBA, yet the Bulls have outscored opponents by only 16 points in those minutes, a number that just rose into the positive last week. (Chicago was outscored by seven points in 1,206 minutes with that trio on the court last season). In 43 games with that trio, the Bulls are 23-22.

"They're still working toward it. I feel like some games they look amazing, some games they still look disconnected," veteran guard Goran Dragic told ESPN. "When I've been around stars, it's kind of funny because during the season at one point, it just clicks. Everybody realized, 'OK, I cannot win by myself, I need not only stars, but everybody.'"

One of Chicago's biggest issues on offense is the team is not creating shots for each other as much as it did last season. According to Second Spectrum, 14.4% of the Bulls' passes have led to an assist opportunity, the third-lowest rate in the league. That percentage drops further when DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic are on the court together.

"Obviously, we haven't played to our ability," LaVine told ESPN at practice last week. "You look at us three, obviously we're scoring the ball well individually, but team-wise we're not consistent enough where you can just rely on us to have a great game every night."

A key player who has not played at all this season and has undergone a pair of arthroscopic knee surgeries since his last game in January 2022 is Lonzo Ball. Despite incremental improvements -- running on a treadmill and doing some stationary jumping off his two feet to dunk -- Ball is still experiencing pain in his left knee during basketball activities. Donovan reiterated last week that Ball is "nowhere near playing."

When Ball was on the court with the Bulls' All-Star trio last season, Chicago outscored teams by 59 points. This season, the Bulls have been starting second-year point guard Ayo Dosunmu in Ball's absence, and he has struggled in the increased role. Chicago has been 4.1 points per 100 possessions better with Dosunmu off the court this season.

LaVine, who signed a five-year, $215 million contract extension in July, has drawn interest from several teams, including the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks, but rival executives say the Bulls have shown little interest in moving him at the deadline. LaVine reiterated his commitment to Chicago recently, stating he signed an extension because he wanted to be with the Bulls and that hasn't changed.

"Team's not playing well, so you're always going to hear those stories," LaVine told ESPN last week.

Donovan said after the Jan. 26 loss to the Hornets that the Bulls should not shift into teardown mode.

"I'm not at a point to say, 'OK, this just can't work,'" he said. "I think there's too much substance of guys that are good guys who want to do the right things and care. But ... we don't have any margin for error at all."

That margin for error disappeared when Karnisovas traded two first-round picks to acquire Vucevic from the Orlando Magic in March 2021, then sent another first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in the sign-and-trade deal for DeRozan, leaving Chicago with limited resources to improve the roster.

Because of the protections on the picks owed to the Magic and Spurs, the Bulls can't trade any of their own first-round picks. They do have an extra pick owed from Portland that they could include in a trade, but that pick is lottery protected through 2028. They also only have one second-round pick available to trade.

Alex Caruso has drawn interest from other teams and Chicago has been open to listening to offers on the reserve guard, a league source told ESPN, but the Bulls would likely have to be blown away by a deal to trade perhaps their most important defensive player. Coby White is on the final season of his rookie contract and can be a restricted free agent this summer, although several members of the organization are encouraged by his improvements this season. Andre Drummond, one of the team's free agent additions this summer, has fallen mostly out of the rotation.

After the team missed the play-in tournament in 2020-21, Karnisovas stated his intentions plainly at his first season-ending news conference, and those words loom large heading into Thursday's trade deadline.

"We will not settle for mediocrity here," Karnisovas said.