Are the Chicago Bulls back?
A 4-0 preseason, and 4-0 start to the regular season, added to that sentiment — though critics pointed to a plush early-campaign schedule.
But now, sitting 10-4 and second place in the Eastern Conference, the time has come to take these Bulls seriously.
Start first by investigating the team’s statistical profile. With the NBA’s 11th-rated offense (scoring at a rate of 108.9 points per 100 possessions), fourth-rated defense (103.0) and fourth-best net rating (+5.9), they have the surface-level profile of a true contender.
Could that be in part a product of small-sample-size smoke and mirrors? Perhaps. But that sample grows every day, and the foundation of this group, which has flipped multiple weak spots that plagued the 2020-21 Bulls, points to something sustainable — and a front office vision steadily coming to fruition.
Buoyed by DeRozan’s responsible playmaking and rule-change-proof foul-drawing, the Bulls are eighth in the NBA in turnover rate (13.5 percent) and 10th in free-throw attempt rate after ranking 27th and 30th in those categories last season.
Ball and Caruso have been transformative on the perimeter, resuscitating a defensive unit that was oft-flimsy at the point of attack last season into a scheme-versatile, turnover-forcing engine of chaos.
Remember the Bulls’ fourth-quarter foibles a year ago? They’re now the NBA’s second-best fourth quarter team, outscoring opponents by 13 points per 100 possessions in the final frame.
Better yet, the Bulls have established all of the above against quality competition. They’ve held the Jazz and Nets under 100 points in impressive home victories. They’ve trounced the Lakers and Celtics with second-half outbursts on the road. They’ve held down offensive forces of all shapes and sizes in Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic and Paul George.
While the Bulls combined to go 11-53 against teams with .500 or better records over the past two seasons, this year, they’re 6-4 against those squads.
That doesn’t mean all has been perfect. Billy Donovan will tell you that freshly-constructed NBA teams typically see their offense round into form after their defense. The Bulls are an example of that.
Still, they’ve survived (and even thrived) with All-Star center Nikola Vucevic badly struggling to start the season, then interned in COVID-19 protocol, and Coby White sidelined for the first 13 games. When or if each of them find their footing, there is plenty of room for improvement for a team that is 30th in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game and 28th in bench points per game.
Credit much of the team’s relative success, though, to DeRozan and Zach LaVine, the league’s most potent scoring duo as of this moment.
DeRozan is averaging 26.9 points per game, the second-highest mark of his career, while shooting 51 percent from the field, a career-best 37.1 percent from 3-point range and 87.3 percent on 7.9 free-throw attempts per game. He’s been a stabilizing shotmaker in high-leverage moments, the league’s leading fourth quarter scorer (105 total points) and an early MVP candidate.
LaVine, meanwhile, is happily averaging 25.9 points as the team’s 1-A or 1-B option — depending on the night — with the second-highest true shooting percentage (60.1) of his career despite a nagging thumb sprain and a slow start shooting from the outside by his lofty standards.
With those two on the floor together, the Bulls are outscoring opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions, a staggering rate. They’re the league’s third- (DeRozan) and seventh- (LaVine) leading scorers as of this writing, and the only pair of teammates to each average over 25 points per game.
That Ball shooting a career-high 44.4 percent from behind the arc, Caruso ranking third in the league in steals and Donovan deftly navigating rotations and maximizing this group’s defensive potential amid injury and COVID-19 churn didn’t receive mention until now says something about the state of this team. They’re really, really good — as good as their 10-4 record — and positive storylines abound.
Now, 14 games does not always make a contender. The Bulls still have work to do to solidify themselves among the NBA’s elite, a fact they are well aware of.
But for the time being they’re off to a heck of a start. And that start shows plenty of signs of being sustainable.