A 5-10 record is not how the Chicago Bulls anticipated starting this season after returning the same core group for the third straight year.
But that’s where the Bulls stand following a 118-100 home loss to the Miami Heat on Monday, a game that looked all too familiar to the previous four.
The Bulls once again started slow, this time digging a 12-2 hole, only to claw back and hang around before wilting late. Miami led by as many as 24 points and never trailed.
“We weren’t down 20-1 this game,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine said, “so that’s a positive.”
Suddenly, it passes for progress, which says everything you need to know about how this season is going.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan has tried different starting lineups and rotations. He has preached about improving spacing, ball movement and quick decisions. Yet every night, the Bulls are bumping their heads against a brick wall and barely making a dent.
Most teams’ decision-makers search for solutions when it becomes clear their product isn’t working. But the Bulls just keep bumbling along, hoping time will heal their woefulness.
News flash: It won’t.
This is squarely on Artūras Karnišovas. The only question left for the executive vice president of basketball operations is how much longer he will give it. His plan, essentially banking on continuity bringing better results, already has backfired. The Bulls are on the fast track to nowhere, on pace to be 16 games below .500 at the season’s halfway point.
Critics can point to Donovan’s coaching or bemoan the players’ limitations. But Karnišovas and his staff assembled this roster, then dared to double down by running it back this season. Chicago’s ineptitude has made it impossible to celebrate even the few encouraging developments seen early this season. The list is largely limited to Alex Caruso’s all-around play and Coby White’s growth.
Little else has worked, and with each passing contest, it doesn’t appear to be headed in the right direction.
Fourth-year forward Patrick Williams, the No. 4 pick in 2020, has been a failed experiment. He scored 9 points on 4-of-7 shooting with three rebounds, two blocks and two turnovers in 17 minutes Monday, and that’s considered a solid performance for him. The team’s last two first-round picks, Dalen Terry and Julian Phillips, can’t crack the rotation and are being shuttled between the NBA and the G League. Jevon Carter, this summer’s top free-agent acquisition, is being forced into a 10-man rotation because he was signed despite Ayo Dosunmu’s existence and continued development.
And now LaVine wants out.
Most don’t expect the Bulls to make a trade until at least mid-December after contracts that were signed this summer can be traded. A more realistic target is the Feb. 9 trade deadline. It often takes additional time to construct a trade for high-contract players, and Karnišovas has demonstrated numerous times that he’s patient in making a deal.
But the LaVine saga is growing more curious by the game. Following the Bulls’ home loss to the Orlando Magic on Friday, LaVine didn’t hesitate to declare the players are doing all they can to win. The next night, after an emotional comeback win against the Heat, LaVine walked off the floor appearing frustrated, blowing off a team public relations staffer’s attempt to get him to do an on-court interview with the team broadcast.
Against the Heat on Saturday and Monday, LaVine’s shot selection came under scrutiny. He scored 13 points on only 10 shots in Saturday’s win and only 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting Monday.
“I think he played really, really unselfishly,” Donovan said. “He, I thought, generated a lot of good looks for other guys.”
LaVine certainly has been a willing passer. On several possessions, however, he doesn’t appear to be looking at the basket. He’s not making himself a threat. That’s what looks most curious. He’s a true scorer, not a true playmaker. Heat sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, with 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, outperformed LaVine and DeMar DeRozan (15 points on 6-of-10 shooting).
“I was trying to do everything I could to be aggressive, get downhill and create for others,” LaVine said. “I think me and DeMar both, we were playing the right way, taking shots when we needed to. It worked last game. Today was a different story.”
But for the 10th time in 15 tries, the Bulls lost. And all anyone can do is wait to see what Karnišovas does to fix it.
“Everything is really totally geared, in our conversation, toward how we can help this group try to play better,” Donovan said. “Certainly we’ve talked about the starts that we’ve gotten off to early in games. Looked at some different starting lineups, played some different rotations, tried to do some different things to try to get back to a level of consistency.”
It doesn’t work with this group.
By now, Karnišovas has to see that.
(Photo of Zach LaVine: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)