When national writers and broadcasters were asked for their preseason predictions, most of them didn’t have the Bulls among their eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. The reasoning was pretty consistent: A lack of 3-point shooting threats would allow opposing defenses to pack the paint against Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, making it tough for the Bulls to score against the better teams in the league. Plus, many national observers wondered how much Wade had left in the tank at age 34 and if he would be able to hold up physically throughout the 82-game NBA marathon.
Well, through the first three games of the season, the Bulls are showing detractors just how productive their offense can be, leading the league with an average of 113.7 points a night. With Rondo pushing the pace, the Bulls are getting easy baskets in transition and creating wide-open opportunities for their 3-point shooters by making the extra pass. They’re averaging more than 28 assists a game, compared to 14 turnovers, and they’re also controlling the boards, grabbing an average of 53 rebounds per game.
Granted, they caught the Celtics and Pacers on the second night of back-to-back games, and Brooklyn might just be the worst team in the league. But we should learn a lot more about the Bulls over the next few nights, when they face rematches against Boston and Indiana on the road plus a home date against Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the Knicks on Friday night. No one should ask the Bulls to apologize for taking advantage of their favorable opening-week schedule, and their style of play should translate against tougher opponents to come.
It’s obvious Fred Hoiberg took the lessons learned from his first season as an NBA head coach and came back with a new approach for Year 2. Hoiberg was much more demanding during training camp, only giving the players a couple days off during October while insisting on proper execution and practice habits. Butler commented Tuesday in Boston about the changes in Hoiberg’s approach and how he probably made a mistake in judging him too quickly last season.
The changes to the roster are even more significant. It became clear last season time had run out on the Bulls’ core group, so Rose was traded to the Knicks for Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant, Mike Dunleavy was dealt to Cleveland to free up cap room to sign Wade, and Noah, Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks were allowed to leave in free agency. The Bulls drafted a versatile college star in Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, then added accomplished veterans Wade and Rondo in free agency, the two of them combining for four NBA championships and 16 All-Star game appearances in their careers. And just before the season began, the Bulls acquired former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams from Milwaukee for Tony Snell, who had completely fallen out of the rotation. Carter-Williams will miss the next four to six weeks after suffering a left knee bone bruise in the win over Brooklyn but should return in plenty of time to be a valuable contributor this season.
All of the roster changes made the Bulls a younger and more cohesive team. Already, players are talking about the great atmosphere in the locker room and how much fun the guys are having playing with their teammates. Never underestimate the value of team chemistry over the course of a grueling six-month schedule. The Bulls lost too many games to sub-.500 teams a year ago, ultimately keeping them out of the playoffs. The unselfish play we’ve seen so far should help them avoid some of those head-scratching losses and give them the 45-plus wins they’ll need to finish among the top eight teams in the East this season.
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It’s been a fascinating opening week in the NBA, starting with Chicago native Anthony Davis dropping 50 and 45 points in his first two games for the Pelicans. And how about Russell Westbrook’s one-man show in Oklahoma City? The Thunder have won all three games so far, with “Angry Russ” averaging 38.7 points and 11.7 assists. Westbrook & Co. will be in Oakland on Thursday for their first look at long-time Thunder star Kevin Durant in a Warriors’ uniform. Durant says he still considers Westbrook to be a friend and believes they’ll talk through any issues that might exist over the way he left Oklahoma City in free agency, but I’m still looking for Russ to try to put up one of those 50, 15, 15 stat lines against the Warriors. Don’t be surprised if Westbrook becomes the first player to lead the league in scoring and assists since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-73 for the old Kansas City Kings.
In the East, the defending NBA champion Cavs look as strong as ever with LeBron James taking dead aim at a fifth MVP trophy. J.R. Smith is back in the starting lineup after finally signing a new contract late in training camp, and Dunleavy should provide another capable 3-point shooting threat off the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Cavs also add a veteran backup point guard at some point like James’ former Miami teammate, Mario Chalmers, who’s working his way back from an Achilles' tendon injury last season.
Atlanta lost Al Horford to Boston in free agency and traded point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana, but Mike Budenholzer is one of the best coaches in the league and he’s got the Hawks off to a fast start with Dwight Howard anchoring the middle and Dennis Schroder running the point. Power forward Paul Millsap figures to put up big numbers in a contract year, and the Hawks still have plenty of 3-point shooting in Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. It’s probably safe to pencil Atlanta in for another trip to the playoffs.
The Bulls will play against Rose and Noah for the first time Friday night when the Knicks invade the United Center. Noah only averaged 20.5 minutes over the first two games, with Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek choosing to go small with either Kyle O’Quinn or Kristaps Porzingis at center. You have to wonder how long it will take Phil Jackson to regret giving Noah a four-year, $72 million contract over the summer. Rose is averaging 31 minutes and scoring 15 points a game, but only two assists, despite the fact he says he’s now a mature, pass-first point guard.
Toronto and Boston are expected to battle it out for the No. 2 seed in the East behind Cleveland, and after that it figures to be a log jam with the Bulls competing against the likes of Atlanta, Detroit, Indiana, Charlotte, Washington and possibly the Knicks for spots three through eight. But as we’ve learned over the years, injuries and the emergence of young players can dramatically change the fortunes of any team. At this point, the Bulls will try to stack up as many wins as possible while monitoring Wade’s minutes to put themselves in the best possible position for the stretch run.