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Westerlund: As trade deadline looms, uninspiring Bulls trending downward – and in need of change

WSCR Radio Chicago logo WSCR Radio Chicago 3/25/2021 Cody Westerlund
Artūras Karnišovas wearing a suit and tie © Provided by RADIO.COM

(670 The Score) As the NBA trade deadline looms Thursday afternoon, the Bulls are precariously trending downward.

At 19-24, they reside in 10th place in the East, which represents the final slot to gain entry to the play-in tournament, which offers the chance to earn a berth into the traditional eight-team playoff structure in each conference. On the flip side, the Bulls are also playing a combination of some of their most heartbreaking and uninspiring basketball of the season lately, as further evidenced by a 103-94 loss to the injury-riddled Cavaliers (17-27) at the United Center on Wednesday.

The goodwill the Bulls built up in the first half of the season by merely being competent is fading fast. They raised the standard, however modestly it may have been, and now they aren’t living up to it. In the past eight days alone, the Bulls have blown a 23-point lead in a loss to the Spurs, blown a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to the Nuggets and laid an egg against the injury-riddled Cavaliers. The Bulls' comments after each setback suggest what happened wasn’t acceptable, but it’s becoming a trend lately.

“We can’t have losses like this,” center Wendell Carter Jr. said. “Not to say Cleveland isn’t a good team, because they are. But we’ve shown that we can play with some of the best of the best in this league, and I feel like from the get-go, as a team, I felt like we underestimated them. We just thought we could show up and play just because of their record, just because of whatever. Whatever everybody else was thinking, I don’t know, but that’s kind of the vibe I was getting, even in warmups. I’m like, ‘Come on, like this is another game for us, another opportunity for us to get better.’ And s***, we aren’t one of the best teams in the league either, so you can’t underestimate anybody. I feel like that’s kind of how we went into it.”

Two games after the All-Star break, the Bulls yanked Carter and guard Coby White from the starting lineup, which had been struggling mightily as a group. The thought process was two-fold. For starters, the Bulls wanted to prioritize winning. They also wanted to take some pressure off the youngsters Carter and White and help them establish a rhythm off the bench.

The Bulls’ hope hasn’t come to fruition. They’re 3-6 since the All-Star break, including 3-4 since the lineup change against a relatively soft stretch of the schedule that has included four lowly opponents. The play of White and Carter has remained inconsistent.

Carter is averaging 7.7 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 46.3% from the field in that seven-game span. White is averaging 10.1 points, 2.9 assists and 2.4 turnovers while shooting 36.5% in that stretch.

The Bulls’ stagnation suggests they’re in dire need of change of some kind, but what might happen Thursday remains a mystery. The Bulls have indicated to other teams that they plan on keeping veteran forward Thad Young, according to reports, because of his strong production and leadership role in the locker room. There has been more trade buzz around big man Lauri Markkanen, who has struggled with health and failed to establish himself as much more than a spot-up shooter and finisher as restricted free agency awaits him this summer. There was also a gulf between the sides during contract extension negotiations last winter, so it would be logical for the Bulls to recoup some value if they intend to part ways with Markkanen after this season.

There’s no quick fix for these Bulls considering the long-term goal is to win a championship. It will likely take a series of deft drafts, smart signings and timely trades to ascend to a championship level. Only one of those three paths to player acquisition is on the table Thursday, but these Bulls would be wise to turn their full focus to the long term.

It’s clear the Bulls need a jolt – not the type to save this season but one to better position themselves for the future as they tread water. The best way to provide that would be to add a true point – a dire, dire need – but the Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball figures to be hard to pry out of New Orleans, which recently has been asking for a first-round pick in Ball talks, K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago reported.

In his pregame interview Wednesday, Bulls coach Billy Donovan shared that he expected any trade made by the Arturas Karnisovas-Marc Eversley regime in the ensuing day would prioritize Chicago’s long-term outlook. While the comment came off smoothly, it contradicted the veteran Young being off the trade market to date.

Perhaps that stance changes. If Karnisovas and Eversley needed any reminder of why it would be wise to move Young for a first-round pick or a younger rotation player who better fits their contending timeline, the Bulls gave them one with their debacle against the Cavaliers. The Bulls are hanging onto the 10 seed, but their schedule gets tougher in a hurry with a four-game road trip beginning against the Spurs on Saturday.

“Just in my short period of time with Arturas, I think he’s pretty patient and calculated and deliberate,” Donovan said postgame when asked if an ugly loss can spur action. “I can’t imagine one game would alter his feelings toward anything. I think he’s going to probably look at the season in its totality of the 40-plus games that we’ve played. I wouldn’t anticipate that, no, that this game is all of a sudden going to trigger some kind of reaction.”

That’s almost certainly the case, but perhaps the 43 games have already told Bulls management what it needs to do next.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.


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