Bulls players want the front office to bring this group back next season

The DeRozan household has a tic-tac-toe prodigy in it.

Who knew?

According to DeMar DeRozan, one of his daughters taught him an unbeatable strategy in tic-tac-toe, guaranteed to win games and frustrate opponents.

A skillset that the Bulls veteran had no problem adding to his offensive repertoire off the court this season. In one case, on a team charter and against teammate Zach LaVine.

“I remember we played tic-tac-toe on the plane, and I kept beating [LaVine],” DeRozan said. “He wouldn’t leave me alone until he beat me. And that’s just him on the court as well. Him being the ultimate competitor outside of being just a helluva individual outside of basketball. We short it? One of the most fierce competitors I’ve ever played with.”

And one that DeRozan felt deserved to be a max contract player this offseason.

Sounding somewhat like a close friend turned agent, DeRozan obviously felt like LaVine not only outplayed the four-year, $78 million contract he signed back in 2018, but put himself in position to be paid like league royalty.

“Max player, max talent, max everything,” DeRozan replied, when asked about LaVine’s pending unrestricted free agency this summer. “He’s one of those players in this league that you don’t see too often. I tell him all the time how envious I am of the things he’s able to do. He deserves everything that’s coming to him for sure.

What’s immediately coming LaVine’s way first is a surgical procedure on his left knee, which was expected to happen very quickly with the Bulls eliminated from the first round of the playoffs in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.

If that surgery goes as expected and there are no lingering concerns, then comes the LaVine pay day, with the Bulls saying all the right things about keeping the two-time All-Star in the red, white and black.

There is an argument to be made that LaVine has only taken the Bulls to the playoffs once in his career, and that came this season when he wasn’t even the best player on the team. Maxing out a guy who played on a No. 6 seed and was eliminated in the first round isn’t always good business, especially when that player is a guard that often focuses on just one side of the ball.

What the Bulls will be investing in, however, was what they saw from LaVine in the summer with Team USA, and then the first six weeks of the regular season, before his left knee started betraying him.

That LaVine averaged 25.5 points per game on 48.1% shooting and posted an eye-opening 105.1 defensive rating in October, and then followed that up with 25.3 points per game on 48.9% shooting with a 112.8 defensive rating in 16 games through November.

LaVine was asked by the Sun-Times in late November about being worthy of the max contract status, as well as his new-found attention to playing defense, and said, “How’s my defensive rating now? It’s better. What does that tell you?”

A lot.

The numbers obviously dipped drastically for LaVine on the defensive side when the knee started bothering him, but the Bulls sound willing to give him the pass on that.

They may be willing to give passes to a good part of the roster and actually run a very similar looking cast of characters back next season, plus some much needed tweaks. Nikola Vucevic indicated that on Thursday, discussing his exit meeting with the front office and coaching staff.

“They want to have continuity, that’s for sure,” Vucevic said. “As far as moves they can make, I don’t really know that. That’s their job.”

The one concern to come out of the player exit meetings?

Lonzo Ball admitted that his surgically repaired left knee was still giving him pain and he was scheduled to meet with another specialist next week. Ball also didn’t take another surgery off the table.

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