CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls are running out — of time, of options, of second chances.
The team’s trajectory had been established long before Saturday’s announcement that Zach LaVine would undergo season-ending surgery. The Bulls can’t keep their heads above .500.
On the surface, LaVine’s injury might not appear to change much. He played only 25 games before he was ruled out for the year. The Bulls have logged some of their best basketball — a relative concept in a 23-27 season — with LaVine on the sidelines.
But in reality, the decision made by LaVine to end his season could upend the Bulls’ plans. Prior to Saturday, the team’s next steps revolved around securing a trade for LaVine, who first voiced interest in leaving Chicago in November — just days before he first sat out due to injury.
Trade interest in LaVine was already meager. Now, it’s completely dried up. The Detroit Pistons — the only team with any notable interest in LaVine in recent days — have already moved on, according to reports from the Detroit Free Press. And with a four-to-six-month timeline on his recovery, this injury could hinder trade interest for LaVine through the summer.
The Bulls are now stuck. They can’t afford to freeze up in the headlights of another injury setback. But with four days left before the trade window closes, it’s unclear how — or if — executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas is prepared to adapt the course.
There is still plenty of time left to forge new offers and options with the remaining members of the roster. Coach Billy Donovan provided an optimistic perspective on the timeline the front office faces before the Feb. 8 trade deadline.
“A lot of times when you get 10 days, a week, five days out — it really doesn’t start to ramp up like 48 hours before the deadline,” Donovan said. “I know it’s right around the corner, but I think in their world, it’s not around the corner.”
This is a reasonable outlook. Trades can materialize in a matter of hours given the correct conditions. But shifting strategy away from LaVine to mine trade options from the rest of the roster doesn’t match the track record of the Bulls front office over the past two years.
Karnišovas made waves in his early months helming the Bulls, sending away cornerstone players like Lauri Markkanen while acquiring Nikola Vučević, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. But he’s made exactly one trade since August 2021 — sending the team’s 2026 and 2027 second-round draft picks to the Washington Wizards to pick up the No. 35 overall pick and draft Julian Phillips in 2023.
This front office prefers to work methodically. Karnišovas was always going to take one piece at a time — trade LaVine, then assess the next step. That plan won’t work anymore. So what comes next for Karnišovas?
The Bulls can’t wait to make changes for plenty of reasons. Perhaps the most pressing is the Bulls need bodies on the court.
This roster has been plagued by injuries outside of LaVine — Torrey Craig, Patrick Williams, Dalen Terry. Coby White has played the most minutes in the league this season (1800.4). DeMar DeRozan has logged the second-highest tally (1792.7).
This team is worn and weather-beaten, a situation that will grow more acute as games pile up. Donovan was realistic about his beleaguered roster.
“It’s not always about throwing guys in there,” Donovan said. “There’s some flexibility (in the roster) but clearly with some of the guys that we’ve had out, it’s putting a lot of the rest on those guys minutes-wise. There’s no question about it.”
So now the Bulls need to answer a new question: if LaVine won’t be the player to go, who’s up next on the trading block?
With White and Vučević both locked down to longer-term contracts, determining the future for DeRozan is the priority for the Bulls. The veteran is set to become a free agent this summer unless he signs an extension. The combination of LaVine’s planned exit and a lack of winning assets could make Chicago an untenable destination for DeRozan. If that’s the case, the time to move is now — or risk letting him walk free this summer.
Alex Caruso is another evergreen trade asset whose name appears in rumors every time the league enters a new trade cycle. Secondary pieces like Andre Drummond and Patrick Williams could help the Bulls assemble packages to acquire draft picks.
Both DeRozan and Caruso were taciturn about their hopes or expectations for a future in Chicago.
“Out of my control,” Caruso said ahead of Saturday’s loss to the Sacramento Kings. “Whatever they decide to do, it’s kind of their decision. My job as an employee of this team is to show up and do my duty and that’s to go out and play basketball every night. And that’s kind of what I’m focused on.”
The Bulls front office also isn’t providing much insight into their next steps.
Donovan said he will be involved in some conversations with the front office throughout the week, but he hasn’t been informed of any immediate moves — or even a sense of trade urgency. And Karnišovas hasn’t spoken to the media since Nov. 28, when the executive said he was “frustrated” with the team’s 5-14 start and pledged to make changes to address problems in the roster.
But the timeline and the stakes are set. It’s up to Karnišovas and the Bulls to prove they are nimble enough to adapt — and avoid another trade deadline defined by inaction.