‘Continuity’ the buzzword, but is this Bulls core worth bringing back?

The small sample size before injuries hit was impressive, but the Bulls have one major shortcoming when compared to the East’s better teams: They lack an elite two-way player. The front office wants to maintain the core. Will that be good enough next season?

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DeMar DeRozan

Coach Billy Donovan knows little is promised in the NBA from season to season.

That’s especially true when a team goes from afterthought to sitting atop the Eastern Conference like the Bulls did for weeks in the middle of the 2021-22 season.

But with the season ending poorly after a first-round exit against the Bucks in five games, Donovan wasn’t assuming anything.

“We’ll actually have to work harder going into this offseason and next year to get back to [the postseason],’’ Donovan said. “I think a lot of people were uncertain of what our team would look like, and I think as [they] started to go through the year, they earned and gained more respect around the league. I think it will be a lot harder next year.

“Because we got to this point, there’s nothing guaranteed next year. What our approach and mentality will be next year going into training camp will be critically important for us to build off some of the positive things that happened this year.’’

And continuity is the strategy the Bulls believe will enable a return to the postseason.

Continuity was the buzzword tossed around for days during the exit-meeting interviews, and it sounds like the formula executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas is banking on.

“Not the way we wanted to finish, but we got back to the postseason, and we have time now to figure it out, what we’re going to do this summer,’’ Karnisovas said. “I hope for continuity because we’re constantly competing against teams that have been together for three, four, five years. Results come obviously when you keep the same group longer. We’ll figure out what additions we need. Is that shooting, is that defense, is that size, athleticism? We’re going to sit down and figure it out with the group.’’

Is it the right plan, though?

The Heat finished atop the Eastern Conference standings, and their core will return. The Celtics have their “Big Three’’ of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart locked in, along with Robert Williams and Al Horford. And the Bucks aren’t moving off Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday anytime soon.

The 76ers will be intriguing with James Harden’s player option, but as long as they have Bulls killer Joel Embiid, they should be a threat.

Those four teams finished in front of the Bulls and went a combined 14-1 against them. And all four have elite two-way players, which the Bulls lack.

Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic are all great scorers, but they aren’t defensive stalwarts by any means, and Patrick Williams has a long way to go offensively and defensively. Lonzo Ball is the best two-way player in the starting lineup but is a fourth option offensively and remains an injury concern.

So while continuity sounds good, Karnisovas was asked if the makeup of the team was flawed and if the core was worth bringing back.

“The small sample we had at the beginning of the season was pretty good,’’ Karnisovas said. “We understand our roster and any shortcomings. I think it’s also a long season, lots of lineups, so it’s very hard to find your identity defensively when your lineup is constantly changing.

“There’s definitely a lot of room to improve. For us to compete, we have to be top 10 in offense and defense. We’ll try to figure out how to get there. I think another year under the belt will serve them well.’’

BULLS FREE AGENTS

Zach LaVine (SG, unrestricted, 27) — The two-time All-Star is seeking a max deal after outplaying a four-year, $78 million contract he signed in 2018.

Derrick Jones Jr. (SF, unrestricted, 25) — The former dunk champion played a key role in the first half of the season but often had to play out of position.

Troy Brown Jr. (SG, unrestricted, 22) — He lost playing time to rookie Ayo Dosunmu and fell out of a regular rotation spot.

Tristan Thompson (C, unrestricted, 31) — The veteran was a needed frontcourt body, but he didn’t have the impact the Bulls were counting on.

Tyler Cook (PF, unrestricted/two-way contract, 25) — Played in 19 games before the All-Star break when the Bulls were short-handed and had a few moments.

Matt Thomas (SG, restricted, 28) — Was supposed to give the Bulls an outside threat off the bench but barely played in the second half.

Malcolm Hill (F, restricted/two-way contract, 26) — Hill saw playing time when the Bulls were short-handed before the All-Star break.

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