On Wednesday night, the Pacers hosted the Bulls for Indiana’s final pre-All-Star game. Since I had a long flight ahead of a scouting trip this weekend, I figured I would watch an NBA game between two teams I have had a hard time diagnosing their long-term needs and outlook for. A quick game recap:
The Bulls dominated early on, with Zach LaVine scoring at will from all three levels, and Indiana’s middle being wide open defensively. They led by as many as 24 points, which was the largest lead they had after a first quarter since the Jordan-era Bulls.The Pacers, however, led a strong comeback once Buddy Hield got going. Hield had an electric 19 third quarter points, spotting up, taking indecisive defenders to the rim and finishing, and doing an elite job at relocating on the perimeter.
Along with Hield, all-star Tyrese Haliburton and one of the most unique centers in the game Myles Turner got going. Once they started finding a rhythm after a few timeouts, the Pacers became unstoppable. In addition to the offensive firepower after the first quarter, the Pacers trapped Zach Lavine, and his options were limited, thus destroying most of the momentum Chicago had after the hot start.
For Chicago, I saw one thing clearly in this from the start: they miss Lonzo Ball ever so desperately, and his absence trickles down the roster. Alex Caruso is forced to play a bigger role on offense, despite being somewhat hesitant to shoot and disrespected on the perimeter. Another issue it forces is that when LaVine is the lone first option, since DeMar DeRozan was out, he struggles to play off-ball, which has been a strength for him over the years. This leads to another issue: the Bulls lack spot-up shooters like the aforementioned Buddy Hield, or his teammate Aaron Nesmith. The Bulls’ only reliable off-ball options as shooters are their two players that can create offense from anywhere on the floor: Nikola Vucevic & Zach LaVine. This combination feels like a paradox, and is where they will sorely miss having their own pick this year in the draft, that is instead headed to Orlando.
The Bulls don’t own a single pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, but they could find a way to buy a pick or trade into the second round. However, the likelihood of finding a useful rotation player that addresses weak spots as more than a band-aid in year one is highly unlikely. The Bulls need to find a way this offseason to not only find shooters, but also to improve their pick & roll defense. The Bulls are facing free agency with two of their top shooters in Nikola Vucevic (unrestricted) and Coby White (restricted).
One way that may be able to solve their convoluted conundrum: consider trading DeMar DeRozan. While DeRozan is an all-star and certainly far from the problem in Chicago, his value as a 33 year old (fact check) will likely never be higher. There also have been reports that Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have had chemistry issues that limit them from hitting their ceiling they had reached last year before injuries hit. They could get a good return in a second option, allowing LaVine to be the true first option, and adding weapons to maximize his playmaking and minimize any defensive woes he faces. Depending on the return, they also could neutralize both Vucevic and White’s potential departures.
As for Indiana, the problems are less glaring as a team overachieving and on the up-and-up. Tyrese Haliburton is clearly the future of the franchise, changing their outlook from preseason projections of tanking for Victor Wembanyama, to now being a potential play-in or playoff team. In addition to Haliburton’s growth, the Pacers hit in the draft with rookie Andrew Nembhard, they have revived Aaron Nesmith’s career, and coach Rick Carlisle has been a perfect fit with Haliburton & Buddy Hield.
For their long-term needs, continuing to further their depth at center behind Myles Turner will be crucial. Additionally, while their top shooters can hit off the dribble jumpers in some capacity, there still is a lack of three level scoring shot creators off the dribble behind Tyrese Haliburton. Lastly, they had struggles defending the paint and drives as whole when Myles Turner wasn’t there to anchor the defense; this makes me think defense against slashers will be a key trait to add to the roster this offseason. While they drafted Kendall Brown to potentially do that, he has barely touched the floor and is largely in the G League. Ideally, since they have a somewhat favorable draft position at the moment, they may be able to find a true 3&D wing that can help as a year-one and long-term core piece.
One way or another, the Central Division will be shaped strongly by this offseason. With the Bucks’ reign having no end in sight, the Cavs being an up-and-coming team, and the Pistons in rebuild mode, the Central Division could become among the strongest in the league in the coming years, depending on the transactions the Pacers & Bulls make this summer.