Will the Chicago Bulls’ Big 3 project finally pay off? ‘This is our last shot to make something happen.’

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Familiarity is the theme of the 2023-24 NBA season for the Chicago Bulls. Familiar roster. Familiar problems. Familiar solutions.

The Bulls return 13 players from last season’s roster. Eight have been on the team since 2021 or earlier. In the span of two years, the front office chose to forego any major moves, remaining steadfastly stuck to the idea that a roster built around Nikola Vučević, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan could make a serious case for itself in the playoffs.

That has yet to be true. The Bulls were bounced decisively out of the first round of the 2022 playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks, then stumbled out of the play-in tournament last season after coughing up a fourth-quarter lead to the Miami Heat.

Now, after two seasons of adapting and adjusting and tinkering with the same concept, the trio at the core of this Bulls project knows they’re running out of time.

“This is our last shot to make something happen,” Vučević said. “We as players expect to have better results and get to the playoffs. That’s the minimum we can do. If we don’t, I’m sure there will be some decisions the front office will have to make. We have to deliver. We have to be better.”

The pressure is most apparent for LaVine, Vučević and DeRozan. They mostly keep their conversations about the upcoming season focused on the positives: “How can we fix this? What needs to be done to do that?”

But the issue for the Bulls‘ Big Three isn’t their play. DeRozan and LaVine both recorded the most efficient offensive spans of their careers last season. Vučević’s numbers have dipped significantly since he was the centerpiece of the Orlando Magic, but he remains a steady producer of double-doubles.

The Bulls have to figure out how to ignite the rest of the offense around the star trio. That means improving weaknesses that have now lingered for years — getting in the paint, drawing fouls, taking — and making — more 3-pointers.

That starts with finding a voice for a team often noted for not making much noise.

“I’ve played on a lot of teams,” forward Torrey Craig said. “This is one of the quietest teams I’ve been on.”

That has been a common observation by newcomers to the Bulls roster ranging from Jevon Carter to Patrick Beverley.

Vučević admitted the team’s stars aren’t a naturally vocal group, preferring to set a standard by example and pick their moments to raise their voices.

“We have guys that in general are pretty quiet, and it’s hard to change,” Vučević said. “If it’s not really in your nature, it’s tricky. It’s hard to just change your personality like that.”

The roster finds more vocal leadership in two places. The first is its defensive secondary rotation — Craig, Carter and guard Alex Caruso. All three have played with and around championship teams, and they rarely hesitate to call out slacking or mistakes in practices or games. The defensive edge they provide will be key to the Bulls maintaining their position as a top-five defense, but their mentality extends to both ends of the court.

The second source of leadership for the Bulls will come from new starting point guard Coby White. Entering his fifth NBA season, White, 23, has embraced his role as the “commander” of the starting unit.

But even the quietest players on the roster know they need to make a bigger commotion if the Bulls are going to shake themselves into action.

“There’s a different energy,” forward Patrick Williams said. “There’s a different focus. There’s a different communication level that we lacked last year, to be honest. It’s been good for us, just positive talk.”

Players are aware of the sharpened scrutiny that will follow their results — but coach Billy Donovan is under just as harsh a spotlight, even after signing a multiyear extension in 2022.

Donovan is the coach most likely to be fired with plus-400 odds, according to BetOnline.ag and Sportsbetting.ag.

Donovan, 58, is aware of the external pressure weighing on the front office. But as a veteran coach, he’s not easily rattled.

“I don’t necessarily look at it that way,” Donovan said. “I’m always placing pressure on myself to try to help our guys and our team play to the very, very best of their ability. I totally understand it’s a results-oriented business. I don’t think, however, that my relationship with Artūras (Karnišovas), Marc (Eversley), Jerry (Reinsdorf), Michael (Reinsdorf) changed how I go about each and every day trying to help our group as best I can.”

Donovan’s outlook is the ultimate key for the Bulls: embracing pressure without being swallowed by it.

While playoffs are the primary goal for a team that fell short last season, most players don’t see that as a step forward. The goal is to get into the playoffs and compete — then advance.

The timeline for this group isn’t the end of the season — most likely, change will have to come by the Feb. 8 trade deadline. The Bulls front office didn’t make a move at the last two trade deadlines. A third year straight could mire this team in mediocrity.

That gives the eight players at the heart of this project about three months to make their case for a little more continuity. A strong start will be critical — something the players know as they open the season against Oklahoma City on Wednesday at the United Center.

“I wouldn’t say (there’s) pressure. But our job here is to win,” White said. “We’ve been together more than three years now, this group. We’ve got to win. We’ve got to start strong and make that playoff push.”

The clock starts ticking Wednesday.


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