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The Bulls Are Fun Again, and It’s No Mirage

We can scream “small sample size!” and “regression!” all we want, but Chicago has the foundation for a real Eastern Conference competitor

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Bulls weren’t supposed to be good this season. There’s zigging when everyone else is zagging, and then there’s adding Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo, and Michael Carter-Williams in a league where 3-point shooting is more important than ever. The sportsbooks in Las Vegas set Chicago’s over/under win total this season at 38.5, tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference, while Bovada gave Fred Hoiberg the best odds for being the first head coach fired this season. They seemed destined for a year of trying to grind out wins in brutal slogs, a far cry from the change of pace Hoiberg was supposed to provide after taking over for Tom Thibodeau.

Instead, they have come out on fire, storming out to a 3–1 record with an offensive rating of 111.4, third in the NBA. The most stunning reversal of the conventional wisdom has been the 3-point efficiency of Wade and Jimmy Butler. Butler, a career 33.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc, is shooting 50 percent from 3 on four attempts a game, while Wade, a career 28.6 percent shooter from deep, is shooting 41.7 percent on three attempts a game. It’s hard to believe those two have turned themselves into a bigger and stronger version of the Splash Brothers, but even if their percentages start to regress, there are still plenty of positive signs for the Bulls to build on.

All the offseason concerns about how well Butler and Wade would fit together overshadowed the fact that they are two of the best wings in the NBA. Butler, at 27, is in the prime of his career, and he is a tank of a human being. He doesn’t need a lot of space to take the ball into the chest of his defender and get to the front of the rim. Once he gets there, all opposing teams can do is foul him, and he is averaging a career high 7.5 free throw attempts a game. It’s easy to forget after all that has happened in Chicago since 2015, but Butler actually made LeBron James look human in the playoffs that season, holding him to 26.2 points on 39.9 percent shooting in their second-round series in a postseason in which LeBron averaged 31.7 points on 42.5 percent shooting in the Cavaliers’ other three series. Butler is one of the only players in the league who can handle LeBron man-to-man, and very few players can do the same with him.

Wade is almost as big of a mismatch problem, and he showed he still has plenty left in the tank in last year’s playoffs. Wade averaged 21.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists a game on 46.9 percent shooting in the postseason, and he carried an undermanned Heat team to Game 7 of the second round, often looking like the best player on the floor. At age 34, his explosiveness is mostly gone, but he has become one of the smartest players in the game. He knows exactly where his spots on the floor are and how much space he needs to get his shot off. His 6-foot-11 wingspan allows him to play much bigger than his size, and he can fill out a stat sheet even on nights when his jumper isn’t falling.

In Wade and Butler, the Bulls have two primary options who can create in isolations, in the pick-and-roll, and in the post for themselves or someone else at any point of the shot clock. There have been moments where Wade and Butler have gotten in each other’s way, but they are also playing as much apart as they are together. Wade has already played 75 minutes without Butler this season, while Butler has played 52 without Wade. Hoiberg has done an excellent job of staggering their minutes and mixing and matching with his rotations, ensuring that at least one of his two best players is on the floor at all times, allowing him to get the most out of some of his more limited players.

Hoiberg usually brings Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott off the bench midway through the first quarter, and they provide a much-needed dose of spacing to the lineup. Mirotic is averaging 8.1 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of playing time, while McDermott is averaging 4.9. Whether or not Wade’s and Butler’s shooting percentages come back to earth, the Bulls will have Mirotic and McDermott firing away from deep all season, and both have the ability to attack closeouts and score from a variety of different angles. The green light they are getting from Hoiberg seems to have freed them up to be the best versions of themselves. Both are in their mid-20s playing in their third season, so this spike in offensive productivity could be their new normal, especially if the ball continues to move as well as it has.

The two players who are bound to slip under the radar this season are Taj Gibson and Cristiano Felicio, who have been the glue to the Bulls lineups. Gibson has been the most complete big man on the Bulls roster for years, and the departures of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol have given him the room to showcase that. He’s a good pick-and-pop player who can also put the ball on the floor and score in traffic, and he can defend in the lane and out on the perimeter. Felicio, an undrafted free agent whom the Bulls signed out of Brazil last season, is a surprisingly mobile bowling ball at 6-foot-10 and 275 pounds. He is a solid positional defender with quick feet who can extend out on pick-and-rolls and bother opposing ball handlers. Hoiberg usually has one of the two on the floor for most of the game as anchors for an aggressive, switching defense that is much improved from the season before.

The Bulls have two elite scorers, two versatile frontcourt shooters, and two mobile big men. The team can slide any combination of them in and out of the lineup all game long. The Bulls are a deep team with a diverse collection of talents, giving Hoiberg a lot of flexibility in setting his rotations. That doesn’t even take into account Chicago’s promising young players at the end of its bench, particularly Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine, which should allow the team to withstand some of the inevitable injury issues they will face. Chicago is playing a fun brand of basketball for the first time in years, and the team is taking advantage of the things it does well. The Bulls are attacking the offensive glass, averaging nearly 15 per game with a 33.7 offensive rebounding percentage that towers over the rest of the league. They are pressing up on defense, zipping the ball around the floor, and getting out and running off misses, something they didn’t do a great job of in Hoiberg’s first season.

The Bulls look unburdened this season, and it could have as much to with what they’ve lost as what they have gained. Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol have been conspicuous in their absence. Rose and Gasol were two of the best players in the NBA earlier in their careers, and despite their declines in recent years, both still carried themselves like the All-Star-caliber players they once were. But something was missing by the end of their time in Chicago. Rose refused to push the pace and single-mindedly attacked the rim without ever drawing fouls; Pau demanded the ball, clogged up the offense, and didn’t play much defense. For all the worry about the Bulls’ shooting issues this season, it’s not like those two were providing much floor spacing, either. Taking them out of the mix has meant removing two ball stoppers on offense; on defense, it has allowed Chicago to play more versatile lineups with players who can guard multiple positions.

It’s still far too soon to get carried away by what the Bulls have done, and they have benefited from an easy schedule to start the season. They played a Celtics team on the second night of a back-to-back in their first game, blitzed the Pacers and Nets, who have both looked really shaky so far, and then lost a rematch with the Celtics, this time without Al Horford and Jae Crowder, who severely sprained his ankle in the second quarter of their matchup on Wednesday. It takes a few weeks for schedules to start to equalize around the league, and we should get a better idea of whether the Bulls can compete with the best teams in the NBA when they embark on their first West Coast road trip in the middle of November and play the Blazers, the Jazz, and the Clippers in consecutive games. Chicago’s style of play requires a lot of energy, which could wane over the course of the season — especially for Wade, who has played more than 70 regular-season games only once in his past five seasons. The Bulls don’t have a huge margin for error, especially if you believe their sweet shooting is due for a regression.

Looming over everything is the play of Rajon Rondo, who, over the past few seasons, had the least promising track record of the “Three Alphas,” and has had the worst net rating of the three in the team’s first four games. It’s a rather ridiculous label, in the vein of ¡Three Amigos!, the Steve Martin comedy about three aging actors who think they’re playing the role of gunfighters in a movie when they’re actually being hired to be the real thing. Wade and Butler, at least, are legitimate stars, and any team with them on it won’t be an easy out in the playoffs. There was legitimate concern for the Bulls coming into the season, but the presence of those two alone should allow them to exceed expectations in a conference that, after the Cavaliers, is still wide open.