In an offseason where many Eastern Conference teams upgraded their rosters via trades and free agency, the Chicago Bulls saw it fit to maintain their core and bank on continuity and growth from their younger players.
And after a year where said core brought them a 46-36 record and their first playoff berth since 2017, who could blame them?
But unfortunately, this team has underperformed expectations, with things hitting rock bottom after a 150-126 loss to the depleted Minnesota Timberwolves pushed their record to 11-18, and reports surfaced that their star players were having difficulty meshing on the court.
The sluggish start has led many to speculate about whether or not it’s time for the Bulls to begin anew once again. However, after stumbling through their first 29 contests, the team has emerged victorious in five of their last seven, giving those with a vested interest in the team optimism that they aren’t dead just yet.
The Three-Headed Monster is Back
When this team was originally designed around Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic, the blueprint intended that they would be an offensively orientated team. So far this year, this vision has not played out as expected, with the team sitting at 20th in offensive rating.
A big reason for their lackluster standing is that one of their three offensive pillars (LaVine) has spent most of the season regaining his form after offseason knee surgery. Emphasis on the word “most” here because after a sluggish October and November, LaVine has been absolutely dealing since the start of December.
He finally has trust in his surgically repaired knee, and it has coincided with the return of his speed and explosiveness. Over the last 15 games, LaVine is converting on 74 percent of his shots at the rim, which puts him in the 84th percentile for his position (per Cleaning the Glass). In just the last week alone, he’s used his superhuman athleticism to author not one, but two late-quarter alley-oop finishes:
LaVine performing like a top-20 offensive player in the world again has bolstered the team’s overall offensive rating. After spending the first two months of the season sitting at 22nd in the NBA with an offensive rating of 110.4, the Bulls posted a 113.9 rating in December – good for 14th in the association in that time.
If you isolate only the last seven games, Chicago’s offensive efficiency is at 116.7. The same exact rating as the second-best offense in the league (the Denver Nuggets).
Outside of LaVine, DeRozan has managed to somehow replicate his monstrous offensive impact from last season, averaging 26.2 points on 60 percent true shooting (+2.3 percent better than league average).
And after receiving a ton of criticism for trading him for Wendell Carter Jr. and draft capital, Nikola Vucevic has had an under-the-radar offensive campaign. He’s averaging 16.3 points while rediscovering the outside shooting touch that was lost on him last year, canning 52 percent of his midrange jumpers (85th percentile) and 37 percent of his three-pointers (60th percentile).
Having their dynamic three-headed monster back to being fully functional gives this Bulls team a prolific halfcourt attack with multiple options defenses need to account for as they map out their gameplan.
Any given possession could include any (or all) of the following actions: a LaVine or DeRozan pick and roll, Vucevic or DeRozan post-up (the Bulls are second in the NBA in post-up efficiency), Vucevic pick and pop, LaVine coming off a handoff or screen, DeRozan isolating in the midpost, etc. The trio that was struggling to synergize is figuring things out, and it shows when you look at their halfcourt offensive rating, which is the fourth-best in the NBA in the month of December.
A Top-10 Defense?
With the roster intended to be geared toward offense, a 14th overall defensive rating may seem like a pleasant surprise, but there is still fat Chicago can trim to climb even further up the leaderboards.
The bedrock of their defense lies on timely rotations and forcing turnovers. The Bulls’ big men defend pick and rolls at the level of the screen. One could argue that this is the best type of coverage – because it incorporates many of the positive features of the other ballscreen coverages without dealing with their drawbacks – but it is also probably the hardest to execute correctly.
At the level ballscreen coverage requires pristine timing and communication on their rotations, something the Bulls lacked in the early chapters of the season. Through their first 29 games, they gave up the third-most opponent assists per 100 possessions (opponent assists are generally a good barometer for measuring a defense’s aptitude for rotating).
But since that embarrassing defeat to Minnesota, Chicago has tightened up the screws on their rotations, giving up the ninth-fewest opponent assists per 100 in the last seven games.
Last year, when Chicago got off to their surprisingly solid start defensively, it was the defensive diligence of point-of-attack stoppers Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball that led the way.
A team like the Cleveland Cavaliers can afford to have defensive breakdowns on the perimeter because they have Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley on the backline to clean up any spills.
Unfortunately, Chicago doesn’t have the luxury of premier paint protection, so they need to set the tone defensively at the point of attack. And because today’s offensive players are better pull-up shooters than ever, the best practice for stopping them is playing aggressive, turnover-seeking defense and denying them the opportunity to launch those shots entirely.
Caruso has done his best to hold down the playmaking fort while Ball is on the mend, and to his credit, Chicago is 8th in forced turnover percentage, but their last two games (ironically, one of which was against the Cavaliers) showed us that they have the personnel to mime his lost defensive impact.
Friday and Saturday’s home back-to-back marked the first time in weeks that Caruso, Ayo Dosunmo, and Javonte Green were all healthy. Dosunmu (who has looked awesome since he stymied Jalen Brunson before Christmas) and Green can’t match Ball’s shooting and transition wizardry. But they are both stout perimeter defenders with a knack for forcing turnovers. And when you pair one of them with Caruso, you create a terrorizing frontline, capable of omitting opponent shot opportunities from the boxscore all together.
In the last two games, the Bulls have an opponent turnover percentage of 19 percent. This mark would be the best in the league if it extended out to the entire season. Maintaining this rate is highly improbable, but if they can vault themselves into the top-5, or even top-3, in this statistic, it adds a few more points to their overall net rating (remember, every point/possession matters).
One last note worth mentioning. Chicago has had some poor opponent shooting luck to start the season. For the season, opponents are shooting 40.4 percent on wide open three-pointers (closest defender is 6+ feet away), which is the fifth-highest mark in the NBA (per NBA.com). This type of datapoint typically tends to regress to the mean as the season progresses, so the Bulls can expect to get a few points back there as well.
If they sneak into the Playoffs, they could make some noise
If LaVine can continue to play like the All-Star he’s been for the last month, and the Bulls’ defense continues to buckle down in their pursuit of well-timed rotations and forcing turnovers, reasonable pathways exist to this team being above league average on both sides of the ball.
If that happens, a repeat playoff appearance as a low-seed team is likely. And while the prospect of not hosting a playoff series again this year may seem grim to some, there is reason for optimism.
The top-3 teams in the East right now are the Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks. Coincidentally, our friends in Chicago currently tout a 5-1 record against this bunch, with their one loss being a four-point defeat to the defending conference champions (and title favorite this year). And don’t forget the playoffs is a game of matchups more than anything else.
Another factor working in the Bulls favor is that they have a great halfcourt offense, which becomes an even more valuable tool in the playoffs when the game slows down.
There’s a chance that this Chicago team continues to right the ship, sneak their way into the playoffs, and upset one of these juggernauts in the first round.
The chances of this happening are still slim, but the potential reward of the franchise winning its first playoff series since 2015 makes it worthwhile. And if the last seven games are any indication, the Bulls haven’t lost hope yet, and neither should you.