Bulls’ downward spiral could lead to an entirely different offseason

The Bulls’ core three looked to be a lock to build around a few months ago. But as this season has started to unravel, might plans change with an early playoff exit?

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DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are considered part of the Bulls’ core. But the team’s late-season collapse might prompt the front office to make some changes.

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are considered part of the Bulls’ core. But the team’s late-season collapse might prompt the front office to make some changes.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

CLEVELAND — Forward DeMar DeRozan had no problem playing sideline therapist for guard Zach LaVine during the Bulls’ latest loss.

As the game Thursday against the Pelicans in New Orleans was slipping away, DeRozan knew LaVine had reached a boiling point of frustration and tried to calm him down — or at least get him refocused.

LaVine claimed DeRozan’s talk worked, but it didn’t change the outcome.

With only nine regular-season games left and the Bulls in jeopardy of losing their grasp on the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, it might take more than Dr. DeRozan to right this ship.

‘‘It’s frustrating,’’ LaVine said of the Bulls’ recent dismal play. ‘‘Obviously, we’re trying to figure out just how to get back in a rhythm. No one is going to help us. We’ve done enough trying to pep-talk and rally, get guys’ spirits up. Stop talking and get it done. Start playing the right way to win these games.’’

LaVine has been around long enough to know what’s at stake. In the short term, the Bulls are eyeing a strong finish and a playoff push, then will watch where the chips fall. In the long term, however, how these final few weeks play out might dictate the future of the roster, not to mention LaVine’s future.

If LaVine & Co. can get back to the identity they showed in November and December, make a playoff push and be a tough out, it will be much easier for executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas to look at the games the core group played with one another, determine that injuries dictated some results and run it back next season.

But if the Bulls exit in the first round or, even worse, slide into a play-in game that leads to an early exit, Karnisovas really would have to rethink what the offseason needs to look like.

The good news is that Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley have shown a creativity that the Bulls’ last regime couldn’t even fathom.

That might be tested this summer. A continued downward spiral obviously would lead to questions about the three core pieces in LaVine, DeRozan and center Nikola Vucevic.

Vucevic might be the most likely piece to move because his deal goes from $24 million this season to $22 million in the last year of his deal. If the Bulls could land a more defensive-minded center, such as the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert, or even make a play for Suns restricted free agent Deandre Ayton, such a move seemingly would fix a lot of their defensive issues.

Ayton can switch on anyone, and Gobert would give the Bulls the rim protection they need defensively.

Gobert is locked into a max contract that runs through the 2025-26 season. Its value will hit an eye-opening $40 million-plus a year in 2023-24, but he’s still only 29 years old.

There have been rumblings in Utah that the relationship between Gobert and star guard Donovan Mitchell might be starting to rot, so maybe trading Vucevic and guard Coby White for Gobert would be possible.

But what about LaVine? He’s due the max this summer, putting him in the five-year, $200 million zone if he re-signs with the Bulls and in the four-year, $160 million area if he goes elsewhere. Might the soreness in his left knee be a bigger deterrent than expected? Maybe Karnisovas will decide to go the sign-and-trade route with LaVine.

Either way, the Bulls’ poor play in the last month has raised more questions about the roster than was expected when the team sat atop the Eastern Conference earlier in the season.

‘‘Obviously, teams start buckling down and looking at what you do and don’t do, and we’ve gotta start getting back to our brand of basketball,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘It’s frustrating, but we’ve gotta start figuring out what our weaknesses are and cover them up.’’

The future of this roster might depend on it.

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