L.A.’s best NBA team might be east of the Mississippi

Bulls players, from left, Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan
Bulls players, from left, Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have a distinct L.A. connection, as does Alex Caruso, not pictured.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Among the free agents pursued by the Chicago Bulls last summer were DeMar DeRozan, the Compton born-and-raised former USC star, and Alex Caruso, the Lakers guard whose rise from the NBA’s minor league to an invaluable contributor on its biggest stage left him so beloved in Los Angeles that even before the Lakers’ 2020 championship run, his face had been painted on a mural on Melrose Avenue.

Both felt a pull to play this season in L.A.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I wanted to come home,” DeRozan said last month in an interview with Golden State’s Draymond Green, hinting at interest from both the Lakers and Clippers. “I did try to make it happen.”

So did Caruso. Even after the Lakers had offered a deal well below his market value — two years and less than $15 million, according to Caruso’s comments on a recent podcast with former NBA guard JJ Redick — and Chicago swooped in to offer $37 million over four years.

“We got that offer, went back to L.A., asked if they could do the same, [Lakers] said no,” Caruso told Redick. “Asked for something else that was a little less, [they] said no.”


Instead, he and DeRozan wound up together in Chicago, where the same L.A. connections that nearly kept this Bulls roster from coming together have since fueled a start that is one of the NBA’s hottest.

Bulls guard Alex Caruso picks up a loose ball after disrupting the dribble of Mavericks guard Trey Burke.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, the big man from Montenegro who attended high school in Simi Valley as a senior, were in the same USC recruiting class. Lonzo Ball, the Chino Hills-raised guard, was recruited to UCLA by the same staff that, three years earlier, signed Zach LaVine, Chicago’s future All-Star guard, and Ball later overlapped two seasons with the Lakers alongside Caruso.

The dynamic feels like a Second City revival of L.A. characters.

DeRozan and Ball know the spotlight from teenage celebrity. Vucevic played the fish-out-of-water role as a college freshman. LaVine’s athleticism made him a must-see box-office attraction as a Bruin. Caruso embodied the archetypical character of the striver who moved to Los Angeles with big dreams.



In a league that views Southern California as its unofficial offseason capital, ties to a region that has become the mecca for second houses of the NBA are the rule, not the exception. Yet those connections are particularly strong within the Bulls, whose roster has more L.A. sightings than a bus tour through Hollywood.

“They’re the Chicago-L.A. Bulls,” said David Grace, who coached LaVine and Ball as a UCLA assistant. “It’s been great to watch. And I’m sure the Chicago natives don’t mind.”

Not when those five account, in one combination or another, for Chicago’s top five in scoring, minutes and assists. Four rank among Chicago’s top five in rebounding and steals. Through Wednesday, before Vucevic entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols, the lineup of Ball, Caruso, LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic had outscored opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions — the NBA’s fourth-best lineup, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Caruso leads the NBA in steals in a career-high 27 minutes per game off the bench and it was his sixth steal Wednesday night that started a sequence that was quickly posted across social media: a diving interception underneath Dallas’ hoop that was quickly passed to Ball, whose one-handed bullet pass up court found a streaking LaVine behind the Mavericks’ defense for a 360-degree dunk.

Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan tries to score against 76ers center Joel Embiid.
Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan tries to score on a drive to the basket against 76ers center Joel Embiid.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

When the Bulls arrive for games Sunday and Monday at Staples Center against the Clippers and Lakers, their reliance on their former L.A. products might allow them to lay claim to the title of the city’s third basketball team, and for now, maybe its best.

“Being someone from L.A., obviously the Lakers are the talk of the town and the Clippers are trying to do their thing,” said Keith Wilkinson, who was Trojan teammates with Vucevic and DeRozan before becoming JSerra High’s boys’ basketball coach. “But to see a bunch of guys who have that L.A. connection, whether it be UCLA, USC or Caruso even made his name out here, it’s pretty special.”


One rival NBA player said he was impressed by Chicago’s hot start despite missing injured guard Coby White (shoulder) and promising second-year forward Patrick Williams, who suffered a potential season-ending wrist injury. The player, who asked for anonymity, believed the Bulls had the makeup to advance to at least the Eastern Conference’s semifinals. He added its defensive personnel had benefited from a change in officiating emphasis that has been more permissive of physical play.

Chicago, which was 31-41 last season and failed to make the postseason, started 4-0 for its first time since 1996 and is now 8-4 after a loss at Golden State on Friday night, with a signature win against Brooklyn and the league’s third-best point differential. Caruso downplayed common L.A. ground as a factor in such quick chemistry, instead citing teammates’ underlying unselfishness and willingness to work.

Yet when Grace, Wilkinson and former USC assistant Gib Arnold watch the Bulls, they see success sparked by times in Los Angeles that were both challenging and electrifying. LaVine came off the bench as a Bruins freshman. The Lakers traded Ball after three years and held Caruso at arm’s length in free agency less than a year after he helped raise a championship trophy.


L.A. was the first place that DeRozan dealt with what he termed culture shock, amid his move from Compton to USC, where the basketball staff never worried about DeRozan getting into trouble, Arnold said, because the quiet star spent most of his weekends at home with family. His understated nature earned respect and made him something of a “pied piper” among teammates, Arnold said. Wilkinson, who was an upperclassman during DeRozan’s and Vucevic’s lone USC season together, in 2008, said DeRozan’s seriousness on the court was apparent immediately during workouts.

Bulls center Nikola Vucevic grabs a rebound against Jazz center Hassan Whiteside.
Bulls center Nikola Vucevic beats Jazz center Hassan Whiteside to a rebound.
(Matt Marton / Associated Press)

A language barrier, and the presence of starting upperclassman Taj Gibson, left Vucevic both reserved and a Trojans reserve at the start of his college career. He developed into an all-conference post player who Arnold remembered becoming literally a big man on campus known for a large circle of friends.


“Nikola, when he got off the plane, was a skinny kid that didn’t speak very good English and wasn’t sure what was going to happen in life,” Arnold said. “He gained his confidence in Los Angeles and he gained his friendships and his basketball circle in America in L.A.

“And he still comes back in the summers and works out. Two totally different stories, two kids from totally different parts of the world, but L.A. most definitely played a major role in their basketball life.”

Ball and LaVine left college as first-round picks whose pro careers didn’t stabilize until reaching their second teams. In Chicago, LaVine is known as a microwave scorer. Since being traded by the Lakers to New Orleans, Ball has shot better than 37% from deep since 2019. This season, he’s making 44% of his three-pointers, and Grace called it the first time since UCLA that he’s seen Ball having as much fun.

“He’s smiling, just more comfortable and talking to him, he’s more relaxed,” Grace said. “I think people need to write about it is, the year before Lonzo gets to UCLA we weren’t very good. He comes in and changes the whole culture with the pass.

“… We ran basically the same plays from the year before and it just goes to show you what can happen when you bring a person in and he cares more about his teammates and about passing the basketball. That’s what I think is happening now with the Bulls.”

The Bulls' Lonzo Ball makes a pass while under pressure from Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, left, and forward Kyle Anderson.
Bulls point guard Lonzo Ball makes a pass while under pressure from Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, left, and forward Kyle Anderson.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Some of that might have to do with familiarity.

When Caruso agreed to terms with Chicago on Aug. 2, it was Ball, having joined the Bulls only days earlier in a sign-and-trade deal, who called the guard the “perfect teammate.” When DeRozan committed one day later, Vucevic tweeted a 12-year-old picture of the two together at USC. And after LaVine returned from the Tokyo Olympics, where he won a gold medal with the U.S. men’s team, he worked out at times alongside Caruso — in Southern California, of course.

“I think the Bulls are legit,” Arnold said. “If people aren’t talking about them as one of the best teams in the NBA, then they haven’t been watching.”

Bulls guard Zach LaVine drives around a screen by teammate Nikola Vucevic to get past Nets guard Bruce Brown.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)