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Chicago Bulls X-factor for 2021-22 season, and it’s not Lonzo Ball

Lonzo Ball, Bulls

There is no debating it, and Lonzo Ball knows it: The Chicago Bulls went to work during the 2021 NBA offseason.

After a 31-41 finish to their 2020-21 season, which left them eleventh in the Eastern Conference and without the possibility of a playoff appearance, the newly revamped front office knew they had to make some major changes. While coming into the year naming Arturas Karnisovas as executive vice president of basketball operations and replacing Jim Boylen with Billy Donovan was absolutely a step in the right direction, keeping the prior roster mostly intact, did not cut it.

Between having too often to rely on Ryan Arcidiancono and Coby White to play floor generals, holding onto a crunch-time liability in Denzel Valentine, and hoping for better hands out of Cristiano Felicio, there was only so much that squad as constructed, could accomplish.

So come August, the Bulls hit the ground running, determined to make the most out of 2021 Free Agency – and they succeeded.

Now there are a handful of moves that Chicago should be applauded for, including signing DeMar DeRozan, a veteran that many other teams (most notably the Miami Heat) were also gunning after. The four-time NBA All-Star may be 32-years-old, but he certainly still has plenty of gas left in his tank. As a member of the San Antonio Spurs last year, the swingman averaged 21.6 points on 49.5 percent shooting from the field, alongside 4.2 rebounds, and a career-high 6.9 assists a game. He also has six playoff runs under his belt, with last postseason being the first he has missed since 2013.

Another offseason win for the Bulls, albeit bittersweet, was finally getting Lauri Markkanen off the books. The 7-footer, who joined the team in 2017 after first being drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves and then traded with Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn for Jimmy Butler and the rights to Justin Patton, showed incredible upside; having attended the University of Arizona, Markkanen was labeled “the best shooting 7-footer college basketball has ever seen,” with performances like scoring 30 points against rival Arizona State, to back it up. But unfortunately, between injury, a poor offensive fit and problems with personnel, the Finland-native just did not live up to the hype and was shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a three-team trade (that landed former Portland Trail Blazer Derrick Jones Jr., in Chicago).

Perhaps the most applauded offseason win though, was signing Lonzo Ball. Coming off of his fourth season in the league (split between time with the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans), the 23-year-old has already made quite a name for himself (and not only thanks to Big Baller Papa Bear, LaVar Ball). Although he is known for being more of a playmaker than a shooter, having averaged 11.7 points a game on 39.7 percent shooting over his career, he stepped things up last year, averaging 14.6 points on 41.4 percent shooting (37.8 percent from three). Other aspects of the guard’s game did not take too great a hit either, as he still averaged 4.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.5 steals per contest (in comparison to 5.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.5 steals, over his career thus far).

However, despite the fact that he will undoubtedly have a large hand in positively impacting the team this season, he will not be the Bulls’ 2021-22 X-Factor.

That title actually belongs to LaVine.

Entering his fifth season in Chicago, the 26-year-old has obviously already brought plenty to the table for this organization. Last year, he averaged a whopping 27.4 points per matchup on 50.7 percent shooting (going 41.9 percent from downtown), alongside 5.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists – all career-highs. He was also selected to the 2021 All-Star Team, the first Bull to do so since Jimmy Butler in 2017, and was named to Team USA.

But Bulls fans will be getting an entirely new LaVine come this year, with a reconstructed roster allowing for his role to shift.

For example, while he may indeed remain the team’s leading-scorer, he does not have to be; between DeRozan thriving with the ball in his hands (he finished third-highest in the league on ISO buckets last season) and Ball’s continued commitment to his improving his shot, LaVine can balance out his shooting with creating more opportunities for teammates and being a solid option on defense.

Concurrently, what can be expected from LaVine’s scoring, is an increase in release from three-point land. The star has steady improved his three-ball since arriving in Chicago, but with guys DeRozan and Ball facilitating pick-and-rolls (with Nikola Vucevic also being known to throw a pretty pass), he will likely get even more looks from deep.

It also has to be mentioned that LaVine is absolutely entering 2021-22 with a chip on his shoulder, which is something the organization could use to its advantage. It is no secret that No. 8 is looking for a well-deserved payday and with a contract-extension looming, fans should definitely expect a more aggressive, confident version of their shooting guard.

There may be a new era of Chicago Bulls basketball on the horizon, but the headlining act will still remain.