DeMar DeRozan

How the Bulls-DeMar DeRozan partnership broke down

Six-time All-Star remains unsigned as free-agent market dries up

NBC Universal, Inc.

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

It’s 2021 free agency all over again. Although this time, the Chicago Bulls currently don’t project to be a landing spot if DeMar DeRozan and his hometown Los Angeles Lakers can’t figure out a partnership.

NBA free agency is mostly a lucrative game. But it also can be an unsentimental one at times, squeezing out high-level players.

And at least for now, DeRozan’s options are dwindling after the Bulls and DeRozan have failed to this point to follow through on season-long vows to continue their relationship.

As recently as mid-April, in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago following the morning shootaround in Detroit before the third-to-last game of the regular season, listen to how emphatically DeRozan said he wanted to return.

“I love ownership. I love everything about the city and the franchise, top to bottom---the front office, the staff we have,” he said. “It’s one of those places that gives me motivation to see everybody get what they deserve and feel what winning is like again.

“You watch me, how hard I play, how hard I want to give success to this organization, this city, that’s my main focal point. I always want to finish a job. The last couple years have been tough with injuries and so many ups and downs. But I always want to weather the storm and stick through whatever situation it is to make the most out of it, to make it even better. That’s always been my mindset and it’s my mindset going forward. How can I be here and make this a winning organization like when I first came?

“The feeling, the vibe, the energy that was around when we had that run (in 2021-22), I want the city and all these players to experience that again---and for myself too. It’s always easy to complain and say what’s not. But I made it clear this is where I want to be and ride it out. I don’t want to go nowhere.

“They know it. Everybody knows my stance. I lay it down from this perspective: I want to come back. Everybody else figure out what you need to figure out. And that’s just how I look at it so I don’t stress or worry about what’s what. I made it clear this is where I want to be. The powers that be just need to figure out what needs to happen. Everybody knows my mindset.”

Management and coach Billy Donovan, for their part, consistently praised DeRozan’s leadership with the Bulls’ young core and lauded his steady personality through trying times. Following a season in which DeRozan led the NBA in minutes played and fourth-quarter scoring, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas reiterated his stance of wanting to re-sign DeRozan.

“DeMar’s been great for us for three years,” Karnišovas said in mid-April. “He’s been invested in the city of Chicago and has been really great to our young guys. So both sides are interested in continuing.”

By NBA Draft night late last month, that public stance changed dramatically.

“As I said before, we're gonna look at everything,” Karnišovas said on June 26. “Everything is on the table. And you know, it’s still an option.”

Karnišovas spoke that night after drafting a 19-year-old in Matas Buzelis and days after trading 30-year-old Alex Caruso for 21-year-old Josh Giddey. But the breakdown between the Bulls and DeRozan goes beyond a youth movement.

After all, the Bulls have praised DeRozan’s veteran leadership and mentorship of players like Coby White and Patrick Williams. Instead, the breakdown is multifaceted and stemming from both sides.

While acknowledging he was speaking with raw emotions following a season-ending loss in the Play In Tournament to the Miami Heat, DeRozan offered a first clue that mid-April night.

“At the end of the day, I hate losing. I hate missing opportunities. It really hits you after the season when you look up and the last seconds run off. You don’t have another game. The next time I play a game will be my 16th season. You realize the window closes for you personally,” DeRozan said. “I ain’t trying to play 25 years. You just want to have the opportunity to give everything great in you.

“My stance on wanting to be here is still the same. But I just want to win. Seeing the first round of the playoffs, the second round of the playoffs is frustrating.”

Asked what he’d like to see management do this offseason, DeRozan didn’t hesitate.

“A competitive team. A team that gives us a chance to make a run,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve dealt with a lot. My first year was a team that we planned on being with. But to lose a star point guard in Zo (Lonzo Ball), Zach (LaVIne) getting hurt later that year, we had all the pieces in play. I don’t know if a black cat ran in front of us or we broke a mirror. But giving us a chance to be competitive and not just a team that fights for a play-in game.”

This is why the Caruso-for-Giddey trade offered a second clue. DeRozan consistently praised Caruso, almost projecting a sense of awe when discussing his team-first mindset and defensive prowess.

DeRozan also was close with assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, whom the New York Knicks hired, and some behind-the-scenes staffers who have quietly been let go.

From the Bulls’ perspective, there’s no doubt DeRozan outperformed his three-year, $81.9 million deal while making two All-Star appearances in Chicago. It’s why internal discussions during the season initially centered on offering DeRozan a two-year deal at a high annual salary, perhaps nearing $40 million.

But that was also when more internal optimism existed for a trade of Zach LaVine. And while that always stood as management’s preferred first order of business, retaining Williams also served as a priority.

And it’s been reported for months that re-signing Williams and keeping both LaVine and DeRozan would push the Bulls into luxury tax territory, an area the franchise historically has avoided.

Williams has verbally agreed to a five-year deal worth $90 million. LaVine’s trade market remains challenging. And with the Bulls roughly $13.3 million below the luxury tax line and 14 players under contract (Onuralp Bitim’s isn’t fully guaranteed yet), DeRozan, who was working during the season under the impression that he'd be re-signed, is the odd man out.

The third and perhaps biggest clue came when the Bulls didn’t negotiate with DeRozan during their exclusive negotiating period between the end of the NBA Finals and start of free agency. Faced with a similar situation last offseason involving Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls worked to sign their starting center to a three-year, $60 million deal before he hit free agency.

Then there’s the matter of style of play. With the additions of Giddey, Buzelis and Jalen Smith to Williams, White and Ayo Dosunmu, it certainly looks like the Bulls and Donovan will want to try to play faster. DeRozan can play that way, but it’s never been his first choice. And, like Giddey, he needs the ball in his hands to be most effective.

So what now?

The Lakers’ interest is genuine, and the Bulls are open to sign-and-trade possibilities, sources confirmed. But any sign-and-trade would have to be for at least three years and at less annual salary than what DeRozan wants.

Thus, a potential scenario is DeRozan playing next season---possibly with the Lakers---on the $12.8 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception and then re-entering unrestricted free agency next offseason.

In 2021, DeRozan thought his boyhood dream of playing for his hometown Lakers---and with LeBron James---was all but guaranteed. Then the Lakers pivoted and traded for Russell Westbrook and the Bulls pounced on the opportunity, acquiring DeRozan in a sign-and-trade transaction from the Spurs.

Perhaps some similar surprise still is in store for DeRozan. But for now, the season-long stance from both DeRozan and the Bulls of continuing their relationship isn’t coming to fruition.

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