Column: Low expectations are becoming the norm for the Chicago Bulls in Year 3 of the Big 3

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Jerry Reinsdorf’s credo for making fans happy will be put to the test once again as the Chicago Bulls prepare for the 2023-24 season opener.

Winning championships is a laudable goal, no doubt, but the key to happiness is being in contention down the stretch, or so says the Bulls chairman.

“I think the important thing to fans is, while they want you to win championships, they want to know that when they get down to the last month of the season you still have a shot,” Reinsdorf said at a symposium last spring. “You’re still playing meaningful games. If you can do that consistently, you’ll make your fans happy.”

Thus, the quest for “meaningful games” in March begins Wednesday night at the United Center against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

No one expects much out of the Bulls, who slid backward last season to a play-in spot and then made only minor changes to the roster in the offseason, signing forward Torrey Craig and point guard Jevon Carter while bringing back free-agent center Nikola Vučević.

It’s the same muted expectations from last year, when they kept the core and added Goran Dragić and Andre Drummond. They’ll still rely on DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine to carry the load offensively, for Vučević to be a double-double machine, for Alex Caruso to be a defensive force and for the United Center to be packed win or lose.

Improvement from Patrick Williams and Coby White will be necessary if the Bulls expect to compete for a playoff spot, and both have been around long enough now to avoid using youthfulness as an excuse. It’s now or never for these guys.

Bulls fans have had it much worse. It was only three years ago they finished 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 22-43 record in the pandemic shortened 2019-20 season.

So if watching DeRozan and LaVine perform at a high level on a nightly basis is all they’ve got, maybe they should count their blessings. Michael Jordan has been gone for 25 years, meaning an entire generation of Bulls fans never watched him play a game.

At the very least we won’t have to spend the next six months receiving sporadic Lonzo Ball updates, which make for good notebook fodder but are irrelevant since he won’t be returning from his third knee surgery until next season, if then.

This is a likable enough team that plays hard and knows its limitations. Coach Billy Donovan, entering his fourth year in Chicago, has probably gotten as much out of them as possible, which is to say he has done a good enough job but is no miracle worker.

At the start of camp, Donovan promised a more up-tempo offense, with more attacking and 3-point attempts. That sounds good and seems like something that needed to be said, but seeing is believing.

“Obviously we want to play fast,” LaVine said. “I like to do that, get down the floor and get a lot of easy shots, open 3s. It’s a good way to play. We’ve seen how good it can be and hopefully we can get back to it.”

If the Bulls finish 44-38 and land in the No. 6 spot in the East, management will no doubt be satisfied. That’s about as high a ceiling as this team can climb if the Big Three stay healthy and the bench improves with the additions of Craig and Carter.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Bulls fans, unlike White Sox fans, don’t seem all that bothered by the status quo. They just keep coming out to the West Side, no matter the diminished expectations.

Seldom is a discouraging word heard about executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas, who was briefly mentioned as an Executive of the Year candidate two years ago before Ball’s injury brought the Bulls back to earth.

But this is a prove-it year for him as well. He has bet on the core. Now it’s up to the core to prove him right.

Since bringing in DeRozan, Ball and Caruso, Karnišovas’ moves have been less than impressive. His best decision was signing waived guard Patrick Beverley in February. Beverley added some intensity to a generally mellow lineup and helped them finish 14-9 to “earn” the 10th seed in the play-in tournament. They upset the Toronto Raptors, then lost a heartbreaker to the Miami Heat to end their season.

“The way we finished the season, I think we’re on the right path,” Karnišovas said afterward.

It’s hard to imagine taking that small sample size and extrapolating it to being “on the right path,” especially when the Milwaukee Bucks added superstar Damian Lillard to an already loaded roster.

The 1-4 preseason didn’t change expectations, nor should it. Those games mean nothing, so nothing should be read into their record or their performances, including Williams’ 0-for-7 shooting on 3s in the final game.

How they start out will affect whether the Bulls can actually do something out of the norm. They play 10 of their first 15 games at the United Center, with only one three-game trip through Nov. 20. If they can’t capitalize on a schedule like that, it wouldn’t bode well for the rest of the season.

The journey begins Wednesday on the West Side, and that’s always something to look forward to if you love the Bulls.

Meaningful games or bust.


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