The Chicago Bulls may be back.
Few teams look more different at the start of 2021-22 compared to the start of 2020-21 than the Bulls do after they traded for two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic last season and added Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso during the offseason.
The result is a team that could make a push for a playoff berth, which would be its first since the 2016-17 season.
Here is a look at the schedule Zach LaVine and Co. will have to navigate as they push for that postseason spot.
2021-22 Bulls Schedule Details
Season Opener: Oct. 20 at Detroit Pistons (7 p.m. ET)
Championship Odds: +7000 (via FanDuel SportsBook)
Full Schedule: NBA.com
New York Knicks (First matchup: Thursday, Oct. 28 at United Center)
Last season's New York Knicks may be something of a blueprint for this season's Bulls.
After all, the 2020-21 Knicks made the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13 and brought the excitement back to Madison Square Garden that was missing for so long. While they ultimately lost in the first round, there was reason for New York fans to feel optimistic for the first time in years with Julius Randle and a solid supporting core.
Perhaps this year's Bulls can do the same at the United Center.
A run to the playoffs should be the minimum expectation in Chicago this season with LaVine leading the way, and the Knicks may just be one of the teams in the way.
New York earned the No. 4 seed last season and figures to be part of the middle group in the Eastern Conference behind the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. That is likely where the Bulls will find themselves as well, so these games represent an opportunity to pick up critical head-to-head wins that could determine home-court advantage in a series.
There is also the backdrop of history whenever these two teams play, as memories of Michael Jordan dunking over Patrick Ewing and playoff battles of the past serve as context for the new generation of showdowns.
How the Bulls handle them could determine their fate in the middle of the Eastern Conference's pecking order.
Milwaukee Bucks (First matchup: Friday, Jan. 21 at Fiserv Forum)
Even the most optimistic Bulls fan wouldn't dream of suggesting the team is competing at the same level as the defending champions.
Rather, the games against the Bucks stand out this season as something of a measuring stick for a franchise looking to turn the corner as a playoff contender. While asking Chicago to consistently defeat Milwaukee will likely be too much, it will signal a new era if it can remain competitive and perhaps steal a win or two along the way.
The two teams are also regional rivals in the Central Division, and the crowds in both stadiums figure to be fired up for these matchups.
Throw in the star power that Milwaukee brings with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, and the foursome of LaVine, Vucevic, Ball and DeRozan will have the chance to prove themselves against one of the league's best trios.
These games may even be a second-round preview, as it is not much of a stretch to suggest the Bucks could be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the Bulls could land in the Nos. 4 or 5 range.
The days of championship-or-bust mentality in Chicago with Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson are well in the past. Frankly, so are the days of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah battling LeBron James in the playoffs.
Instead, this season may be the first competitive one of a transition into a new era with vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas leading the way in the front office and head coach Billy Donovan directing things from the bench.
The Bulls don't have to battle for an NBA Finals spot for this season to be a success. Rather, the talent has to come together for a playoff berth and perhaps a first-round victory.
Between LaVine emerging as one of the better scorers in the league, Vucevic as a multi-time All-Star in the frontcourt who can score down low or stretch his game to the outside, DeRozan as a veteran leader who can hit from mid-range and attack and Ball as a facilitator who can set them up, there are enough pieces in place.
Throw in Cody White providing a scoring spark, Caruso's perimeter defense and Patrick Williams coming into his second season with a high ceiling, and Chicago should be competitive every time it steps on the floor.
Defense may still be an issue, as Caruso can only cover so much ground and likely won't be in the starting lineup. DeRozan may be somewhat past his prime, and LaVine is an offensive force who isn't asked to do as much on that side of the floor.
The top of the Eastern Conference is also loaded with that Bucks, Nets and 76ers trio on top, and the Knicks, Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets as realistic playoff contenders leaving only so many spots up for grabs.
Still, the Bulls have enough talent to grab one of those postseason berths.
Record Prediction: 45-37
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