How are Bulls fans feeling right about now? I, for one, am happy. Over time, my emotional investment in the team has decreased significantly. As a young, wide-eyed fan growing up an hour outside of Chicago, I had several years of championship hopes for a memorable Bulls roster led by 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, who is one of the most exciting and dynamic athletes I have seen this century. Their playoff runs were thwarted several times by one LeBron James, and after Rose’s debilitating knee injuries stunted him from his MVP-caliber play, the Bulls faded into mediocrity. As I entered my adolescence, I began to inject my hopes with a healthy dose ofr realism. Is this a sign of growth and maturity, or is it simply emotional numbness caused by a decade of mediocrity? It’s hard to say, but entering this season I felt a glimmer that I hadn’t felt in a decade.
For once, Chicago made excellent off-season plays, most notably scoring DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan was my favorite player to watch this year. Admittedly, I had not really seen him play in San Antonio, but had always liked his game in his early years with the Raptors. I was excited for the DeRozan signing, but truthfully did not expect the play that I saw from him this season. His mid-range game was elite, probably the best in the league this year. I have heard that the mid-range game is dead in the NBA, seeing as so many players can shoot the three-pointer and the degree of difficulty for mid-range shots is not worth it for only two points. This is definitely not the case, though. If a player has a skill that they can utilize as effectively as DeRozan does his mid-range game, there is a place for it in the league. Some of the more exciting moments this season as a Bulls fan came from watching DeRozan operate in a one-on-one late in the shot clock. It is difficult to keep track of the variations in his mid-range bag, from the half-spins, contested fadeaways and pull-ups. DeRozan’s sense of timing is impeccable, showing growth from his time in Toronto.
Other notable pickups for the Bulls included Lonzo Ball, an excellent playmaking guard who I view as a sort of defensive anchor. There’s also the hard-nosed, athletic guard Alex Caruso, who started a career-high 18 games for Chicago. There was more to celebrate, like the fact that they got rid of players I had wanted out of Chicago for years, including Lauri Markannen, Denzel Valentine and Tomas Satoransky. Their draft pick of Ayo Dosunmu from the University of Illinois panned out very well, as the rookie put up solid minutes on a talented team and showed a lot of potential for his future in the league. The one player that hurt the most to lose was Thaddeus Young, a glue-guy who I had grown to love during his time as a Bull.
The regular season went pretty well. As I said, DeRozan had an incredible year (arguably a top five player this season), and Zach LaVine was as good as ever. Chicago spent some time at the top of the Eastern Conference. They were not the best team, and the fans knew it, but they were talented to be sure, and it was fun to be on top for a bit. For a bit, I felt that glimmer of hope. DeRozan and LaVine are one of the best one-two punches in the league, but I also didn’t genuinely feel that they were a championship level one-two punch. The supporting cast was good, though. At least they were, until key injuries to Ball, Caruso and Patrick Williams stifled their season further. Before I knew it, I looked up and the Bulls were placed at a six seed.
The one NBA game I attended this year was the Bulls’ final home game this season, a 16-point loss to a young and talented Hornets team. It was a lackluster effort to be sure, and an ominous sign entering the playoffs. I wrote it off, figuring that the Bulls were not invested in the game having clinched a playoff seed already. However, the ominous signs that I picked up in that Hornets’ game proved foreboding to their efforts in the postseason. They were several steps behind in their defensive rotations. More notable was the absence of Lonzo Ball’s passing and perimeter defense. His younger brother – Hornets’ guard LaMelo Ball – had his way with the Bulls, scoring at will against undersized guard Coby White and dicing up rookie Ayo Dosunmu.
Did I feel hope entering the series against the reigning champion Bucks? Truthfully, no. Giannis had yet another MVP caliber season, and the Bucks are simply the better team at this point in time. The Bulls came into the series with key injuries, which was the story of their year. Entering this series without expectation protected me from the pain of a loss, which I saw as inevitable.