Bulls

What we’ve learned from Bulls’ undefeated start to season

Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are off to their first 4-0 start in 25 years — and have looked good doing it.

This time of the NBA season is ripe for overreaction. Small sample sizes and uneven levels of competition can skew perception.

But the Bulls have shown enough to glean some meaningful takeaways from their first week of regular-season action.

Here are four:

The defense has an identity

Through four games, the Bulls rank sixth in the NBA in defensive rating (97.7), first in deflections (20 per game), fourth in steals (10.7 per game), sixth in blocks (6.5 per game), fourth in opponent turnovers (19.5 per game) and third in points off opponent turnovers (25 per game).

Surprised? Billy Donovan isn’t.

“Offense is always more difficult,” Donovan said after the team’s Saturday night win over the Pistons. “I think sometimes people think you throw these scorers in there and they’re just going to score. It never works that way.

“If the group is committed to work defensively, to get over screens, to help each other, to rotate, to scramble, the defense, to me, always comes a lot easier.”

What’s clear is that the Bulls came into this season with team-wide buy-in at the defensive end. Their swarming style, predicated on disrupting opponents at the point of attack, hunting deflections and crisply rotating to contest shots, is a 180-degree turn from their more conservative approach last season — and it’s working.

It’s also clear that skeptical projections of the Bulls’ defense may have underestimated the impact of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Ball is averaging two steals and 1.8 blocks, and has been a force on and off the ball guarding across a spectrum of positions. Caruso, who has closed the Bulls’ two tight contests over Patrick Williams, leads the NBA in deflections (4.8) and is second in steals (3.3) per game while averaging just 27.5 minutes. Nikola Vučević has also provided active hands on the back line, averaging 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks.

 

Between Ball, Caruso, Williams, Javonte Green, Troy Brown Jr., a dash of Ayo Dosunmu and a continually improving Zach LaVine, the Bulls are compensating for their undersized nature---and routine disadvantage on the glass---with length, athleticism and want-to. That’s all in accordance with the front office’s vision.

The offense is taking a different shape

The Bulls rank 13th in offensive rating, scoring 107.8 points per 100 possessions, a figure that would have ranked 26th over the course of the 2020-21 season. And their formula has been different.

Most glaringly: The Bulls are averaging the least amount of 3-point attempts in the league, taking 26 per game. Though they are shooting a third-best 42.3 percent on those looks, their 11 3-pointers made per game ranks 22nd. This trend dates back to the preseason, when they got up 31.8 3s per game, 28th. (Last season, they ranked 17th in attempts with 34 3-point tries per game.)

“Obviously I'd like to take more (3s),” Donovan said before Monday’s game in Toronto, “we're low, bottom of the league (in attempts). But our shooting percentage is very high. So I think when you talk about wanting to take more 3s you gotta make sure they're the right 3s and good 3s. Because I think part of the reason our shooting percentage has been good is we've taken, for the most part, pretty good 3s. 

“If we can generate more I would be totally fine and comfortable taking more, but I don't want to take more at the expense of shots that are just — a 3s not there and we're taking it cause we're trying to get more. I think it's got to be in the framework of what we're trying to do.”

With Ball, LaVine and Vučević the only proven high-volume 3-point shooters in the rotation, it’s an understandable position. Donovan has long been known as a coach that crafts his schemes to personnel rather than the inverse.

Instead, the Bulls have funneled their shot profile to inside the arc. According to Cleaning the Glass, 35.8 percent of the Bulls non-garbage time shot attempts have come at the rim (eighth in the NBA), 35.5 percent have come from midrange (sixth) and 28.7 are coming from 3-point range (30th). The Bulls are shooting 42.7 percent from midrange (11th), but have been awful at the rim, shooting 55 percent (28th).

 

There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to pluck in that last point, and, with figures also courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls have improved in their ball security (their 14.1 percent turnover rate ranks 13th), foul drawing (their 21.2 percent free-throw attempt rate ranks third) and ability to effectively score in transition (their 17.5 percent transition frequency ranks 14th and 139 points per 100 transition possessions third). When firing on all cylinders, this is an unselfish, slick-passing group.

So there’s good to take away. But it’s difficult to field a top-shelf offense in this day and age while taking so few 3-pointers. It’s something to monitor.

Coby White has a role to play

After the Bulls made four-year investments in Ball and Caruso, there was a lot of outside speculation about Coby White’s fit with the new iteration of the roster.

After four games, it’s evident he has a role to play.

The Bulls’ bench, as of this writing, is tied for 26th in the NBA in scoring (averaging 24.3 points) and 28th in 3-pointers made per game (2.5). Caruso, Green, Brown and Alize Johnson — who, along with Dosunmu, have rounded out a nine- to 10-man rotation — all bring it from an energy perspective. But in a halfcourt setting, they're limited as shot-creators and floor-spacers. That has led to some stagnant offensive stretches when turnovers and fastbreak chances aren’t flowing.

Donovan has been able to mitigate this to a degree by staggering the Bulls’ starters with the reserves. DeMar DeRozan-led bench units, in particular, have fared well; the five-man lineup of DeRozan, Caruso, Green, Brown and Johnson has a plus-25.5 net rating in an extremely small sample size thus far.

Now imagine Donovan having the ability to sprinkle White throughout games and unleashing him from the 3-point arc, with enough ball-handling and defense on the floor so as not to overburden him. That’s another high-volume outside shooter (White averaged 6.6 3-point attempts in 2020-21) and dynamic scorer to add to the mix, something the team will need down the line.

The only question is when White will return from rehabbing offseason shoulder surgery. The team’s last update estimated some time in mid-November, which would fall right in the middle of the typical recovery timetable for a torn labrum (four-to-six months).

These Bulls take care of business

The Bulls have given a lot of reason for optimism early in the season. But it is early, and between the Pistons (twice), Pelicans and Raptors, their opponents thus far own a combined record of 2-9.

 

Still, given the depths this rebuild reached, merely taking care of business is a step in the right direction. That the defense looks this solid as the offense finds its footing is better than the other way around. This group has an identity.

And the Bulls did face a bit of adversity on the road against a tough defensive team in the Toronto Raptors. Despite a sloppy fourth quarter, timely defense and the steadiness of DeRozan pushed them to their first 4-0 start since 1996-97. They are the Eastern Conference’s last remaining unbeaten team.

“It don’t mean nothing. We got a long way to go. We got a lot more to clean up, to learn,” DeRozan said of that record after the game. “It’s a long season. It’s great. But we gotta move on to the next game. We can’t carry this record like it’s some type of badge of honor. We have to understand that the next game is going to be even harder.”

He’s not wrong. The Knicks visit the United Center on Thursday, followed by the Jazz, a trip to Boston, back-to-back bouts against the 76ers, home matchups with the Nets and Mavericks, then a grueling West Coast swing that features stops at Golden State, Los Angeles (Clippers and Lakers), Portland and Denver.

In other words, we’re about to find out what this Bulls team is truly made of. Stay tuned.

Click here to follow the Bulls Talk Podcast.

Download
Download MyTeams Today!