Bulls’ 5 most significant moments of the 2022 calendar year

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Looking back at Bulls' 5 most significant moments of 2022 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ most recent calendar year was no walk in the park. Nor was it boring.

No, the stretch run of the 2021-22 campaign, 2022 offseason and start to the 2022-23 season has offered plenty of intrigue, as well as moments good, bad and in between.

With New Year just around the corner, here is a roundup of the Bulls’ five biggest moments of the year:

DeMar DeRozan delivers — again

Whatever you think of the big picture of the Bulls’ 2022 calendar year, it got off to a rousing start.

That came courtesy of DeMar DeRozan, for the second night in a row, winning a game the Bulls trailed by two with a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The first came on New Year’s Eve of 2021, when he sank the Indiana Pacers with a one-legged heave from the top of the key; the next came on an improbable, highly-contested pull from the corner to beat the Washington Wizards:

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With those shots, DeRozan became the first player in NBA history to make game-winning buzzer-beaters on back-to-back nights. And he stretched a Bulls’ winning streak that would eventually reach nine to seven.

What’s more, with the crown jewels of his litany of clutch heroics, DeRozan put twin exclamation points on a first half of the season that had the city of Chicago buzzing. Most valuable player consideration followed for a time, as did a trip to start the 2022 All-Star game in Cleveland.

And the tone was set on New Year’s Day.

Lonzo Ball goes down

This is less a moment and more a development. But Ball’s left knee looms over all that the Bulls did in 2022 and will do in 2023.

Prior to suffering a slight tear in his meniscus in January, Ball was the X-factor behind a Bulls team taking the league by storm. His switchability and disruptiveness keyed a top-10 defensive rating at the turn of the calendar; his high-volume 3-point marksmanship and open-floor passing juiced an offense that sat fourth.

But the most telling statistic of all: In Ball’s 35 games in 2021-22, the Bulls owned a 22-13 record. Since he last played on Jan. 14, they are 35-40 between last season’s 19-21 finish and this one’s 16-19 start.

Worse, as of this writing, a return is nowhere in sight. The initial six-to-eight week recovery timeline for Ball’s January surgery — to address the meniscus — spilled into the offseason. And after a summer of unsuccessful rehab, which culminated in a sobering media session in which he told reporters he felt inexplicable pain in his knee even while walking up stairs, another operation followed.

Four months later, despite marginal progress, Ball still is experiencing discomfort in the area. The Bulls now await his rehab to progress to full-speed running, at which point they can begin to build out a ramp-up and return-to-play plan. The wishful hope is that an eventual return will be one of the defining moments of the upcoming calendar year.

First playoff win since 2017

Without Ball, and with Zach LaVine hampered by a mysterious knee ailment of his own, the Bulls entered a first-round playoff matchup with the then-defending champion Milwaukee Bucks as seismic underdogs.

But for a brief moment, a glimmer of hope shone through.

That moment came in a Game 2 win over the Bucks at Fiserv Forum — the Bulls’ first win against the Bucks in a game Giannis Antetokounmpo played since December 26, 2017.

DeMar DeRozan had 41 points. Alex Caruso drew a critical charge on Antetokounmpo in the waning seconds. The Bulls left Milwaukee that night determined to continue applying pressure to a wounded Bucks squad, which played the rest of the playoffs without Khris Middleton.

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The rest — two blowout Bucks victories at the United Center, then a Game 5 clincher that the Bulls played without LaVine and Caruso — is history. But the Bulls’ first playoff victory since 2017 warrants mention nonetheless.

Zach LaVine signs a max contract

The Bulls’ 2022 offseason was largely uneventful, especially compared to 2021’s free agent blitz. Goran Dragić, Andre Drummond and Dalen Terry marked the team’s only additions.

But the front office checked off the biggest item on their list early.

On the second day of free agency, the Bulls agreed to terms with two-time All-Star guard Zach LaVine on a five-year, $215 million max deal, the largest contract in the franchise’s history by more than $100 million.

The eventual returns on said contract will take years to evaluate. LaVine got off to a slow start in the first year of deal following offseason surgery and a surprise knee injury management plan to open the 2022-23 campaign — although evidence is mounting that a return to prior form is in the cards. Since the start of December, LaVine is averaging 25.2 points across 14 games, including massive improvements in his shooting splits from the field (53 percent), 3-point range (43.2 percent on 6.8 attempts per contest) and in the restricted area (79.5 percent).

At the time, the contract was a gratifying moment for a player who had long toiled in losing situations beyond his control, but all the while improved incrementally. He ascended to All-Star status and ultimately convinced the Bulls’ front office to retool the roster it inherited around him between the 2021 trade deadline and offseason.

And it was a definitive moment for a team that, with the commitment, set in stone its confidence in LaVine to blossom as a true franchise player.

In whichever direction the pact eventually ages, that commitment to LaVine will play an outsized role in shaping the future of the franchise — one way or another.

Billy Donovan signs a secret contract extension

So, too, will the contract extension head coach Billy Donovan signed in the offseason, which tacked multiple years onto his current deal when it ends in 2023-24 and was not reported on or confirmed by the team until Nov. 29 — 20 games into the season.

Upon firing Jim Boylen in August of 2021, Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley aggressively pursued Donovan to take over as the franchise’s frontman. Since, he has amassed a 93-96 record, but did steward the breakthrough in 2021-22 that led to the team’s first winning record since 2016 and postseason appearance since 2017.

The significance of the extension is not only about management’s confidence in Donovan, which is palpable, but also in the desire to continue to compete — without taking rebuilding steps backward — that they have now telegraphed in various ways.

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