Feeling Bullish: How Chicago Have Defied Expectations
The Chicago Bulls made waves over the summer.
They completed the "worst signing of 2021" in handing DeMar DeRozan and a three-year $85 million deal. They signed an unwanted former Laker in Alex Caruso and tampered their way to a Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade deal worth $85 million over four years.
Add Tony Bradley, Javonte Green, Alize Johnson and Devon Dotson to a team headlined by Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic and you've got a squad most people predicted would miss the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
At a championship contention level, the Stats Insider Futures Model put the misfit Bulls amongst 'The One-Percenters'alongside the Atlanta Hawks (6-9), New York Knicks (8-6), Portland Trail Blazers (7-8) and Toronto Raptors (7-8).
However, the Bulls have separated themselves from the group to be 10-4 for 2nd in the Eastern Conference.
They're equal with the Brooklyn Nets, ahead of the Miami Heat and miles in front of a slow-starting and injury-ravaged Milwaukee Bucks.
Humble pie has been dished up and already eaten. The Bulls aren't missing the playoffs. They might not be genuine championship contenders just yet, but the right moves could get them there later in the season if the opportunity arises. At the very worst, this is the first year of a promising period for the once-feared franchise.
Apology letters are being written and tweets have been deleted following DeRozan's start to the season. Considered a poor fit for the roster, he has tipped things off by averaging 26.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.
He's doing it in typical DeRozan fashion, too.
DeRozan has attempted 112 shots from mid-range this season. Durant, second on the list, has attempted just 85 shots from mid-range. It has always been a safe haven for DeRozan and he is making it work alongside LaVine in Chicago.
DeRozan's addition has taken the pressure off LaVine. A one-man band for so long, the 26-year old finally has somebody that can create their own shot and take the attention of the defence away from himself.
Just 43.5% of LaVine's shots were taken either open (closest defender is 4-6 feet away) or wide open (6+ feet) throughout the 2018-19 season.
That number has slowly crept up to 47.9% in 2019-20, 52.6% in 2020-21 to 55% alongside DeRozan so far this season. As a result, LaVine is averaging 25.9 points per game and is in the 82-percentile scoring 121 points per 100 shot attempts.
Strangely enough, DeRozan's value looked especially evident when missing a shot to win at the buzzer.
DeRozan probably should have dropped the ball off to LaVine for a shot above the break. Nonetheless, he got himself to a spot on the floor he's comfortable and created the space for a decent shot thanks to the split-second of confusion between the two defenders as they navigated the switch.
LaVine is shooting a contested jumper with few other options available to him in previous seasons.
DeRozan and LaVine have the creativity and shot creation for the Bulls to dominate with the ball. Their 110.6 offensive rating ranks 8th in the NBA per Cleaning The Glassand that's with Nikola Vucevic missing time and Coby White just starting to return after missing the first 13 games of the season.
Most importantly, DeRozan and LaVine do enough to make up for Caruso and Ball who struggle at times offensively but make up for it with an elite defensive presence.
The Bulls have played with a defence ranked in the top half in the NBA just once in the last four seasons (12th - 2019-20). It was only two seasons ago that they spent back-to-back seasons in the bottom five in the league. But with the addition of Caruso and Ball along with a fresh focus on possessions without the ball, the Bulls currently rank 5th in the NBA in defensive rating to give up just 103.7 points per 100 possessions.
What Caruso and Ball lack with the ball, they more than makeup for it in defence.
Caruso is in the 97-percentile in steal percentage. His 4.3 steals per 100 possessions is the third-best mark in the NBA. Always active and looking for his moment, the Bald Mamba is second in deflections per game (4.2), third in deflections per 36 minutes (5.3) and only Nikola Jokic, Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green are ahead of him in defensive box plus-minus.
Ball has always been considered a top tier defender. His instincts are off the charts and a 6'6" and 190lb frame provides him with the size and strength to cause havoc on the defensive end.
He doesn't quite have the individual numbers that Caruso does, but one sticks out: -8.76.
The Bulls allow 8.67 fewer points per 100 possessions with Ball on the floor. Their 101.7 defensive rating in the minutes Ball plays is good for 2nd in the NBA. Meanwhile, their 110.5 defensive rating in the minutes he sits drags the Bulls all the way down to 24th.
There is a lot more to the Bulls defence than Caruso and Ball, but they're the key cogs on the perimeter. They're the first line of defence and it's not often that the offence gets past them. Chicago gives up just 13.4 shots per game in the paint (fifth-fewest) where they're keeping shooters to an NBA-low 31% shooting.
Caruso and Ball are the perfect pair to complement the offensive talents of DeRozan and Lavine. Put it all together and you get this:
An Alex Caruso deflection and steal into a three-quarter court Lonzo Ball assist to a 360-spinning Zach LaVine.
Things are looking up for the Bulls. They're playing an attractive and effective brand of basketball and doing it consistently. Every team will have a bad night and the Bulls had one of theirs in a 119-93 loss to the Golden State Warriors. However, unlike Bulls teams of the past - and a trait of genuine playoff contenders - they backed up that shocker with two big wins over the Clippers and Lakers.
Their current five-game road trip was circled as a test to determine whether or not this start to the season is real. Now 2-1 with the Trail Blazers and Nuggets to come, the Bulls look set to return home with at least an 11-5 record and confirmation that, provided they're healthy, they will feature in the post-season.
Championship contention does however still feel a long way off. The Stats Insider Futures Model still puts the Bulls in the one-percent group despite their hot start. But this season was never about competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. It's about transitioning into becoming a consistent franchise, one that makes regular trips to the playoffs and gives themselves an opportunity to make a run at the title when it opens up. It's about winning more than before, and right now, Cleaning The Glass has their expected wins after 82 games set at 58.1 - their most since 2010-11.
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