Ten games into the 2021-22 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls optimist has a lot of positive talking points to parrot.
A 7-3 record, which puts the team on a 57.4-win pace over an 82-game slate. An offense ranked seventh in the league in points per 100 possessions, even while still finding its way. A fourth-ranked defense playing to an identity on a nightly basis. A net rating of +6.9, which ranks fifth in the NBA and completes the profile of a true contender.
Plus, there has been appreciable improvement in a number of key areas: The Bulls finished Monday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets first in the NBA in turnover rate, fifth in free-throw attempt rate and first in fourth-quarter net rating after struggling in each of those facets in 2020-21. They’ve notched quality wins over the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets early on, even holding the latter two high-powered offenses under 100 points.
The Bulls pessimist? Not heard from as much of late.
But the season remains young, and the sample size small, facts the team is well aware of. And the schedule isn’t getting any less stiff. After hosting the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, a West Coast swing featuring stops at the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets will ensue; then, back home for the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers.
The next time the Bulls face a team that didn’t qualify for at least the 2021 play-in tournament will be at the Houston Rockets on Nov. 24, ending a streak of 14 consecutive contests dating back to a 104-103 loss to the Knicks on Oct. 28 (all but the Warriors and Pacers were full-fledged playoff teams).
“You play the teams that are on your schedule,” Zach LaVine said of the grueling stretch after Monday morning shootaround. “You can’t be scared to be playing these teams. Because you want to be playing them later on in the season. It’s a challenge to see where you are as a group and how much you can get better. I look forward to playing these teams. I think that’s the mentality you have to have.”
In years past, such matchups spelled doom for the Bulls more often than not. So far in this one, they’ve mostly proven up to the task, going 3-3 in a recent stretch against the Knicks, Jazz, Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Nets, holding four games over-.500 after taking care of business against the Pistons, Pelicans and Raptors to open the season.
“Everybody resilient. Everybody want something out of this. Everybody put the work in. It's just not us talking about it. It's us doing all the physical things as well. Taking every single day serious,” DeMar DeRozan of the team’s 7-3 start. “It's a constant understanding of: It's bigger than just winning a game or losing a game. We understanding it's the long run. And to be a good team you gotta understand you gotta work at it every single day.”
By the time the Bulls visit Houston, 18 regular-season games will have passed, close to the quarter-mark of a pivotal campaign. The Bulls are off to the right start, but as Billy Donovan notes, by then we’ll know even more about the makeup of this group.
“The schedule is what it is. There’s always gonna be times I think in the schedule where there’s a lot of games clumped together in a short period of time, there’s tough road trips, or there’s just a bunch of teams right in a row that are really really good teams,” the Bulls head coach said. “[We’re] gonna play all 82, but this stretch I think we’re gonna find out a lot more about ourselves and what we gotta do. I think these situations do help you get better as a team.”