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We’re About to Find Out Whether the Bulls Are for Real

Chicago is off to its best start in 25 years and remains the only undefeated team in the Eastern Conference. Now the real test begins.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One week into the 2021-22 NBA season, there’s only one team in the East without a loss on its ledger. After surviving some miscues to avoid blowing a 20-point lead against Toronto on Monday, the Bulls stand atop the conference at 4-0. It’s the best start for Chicago in a quarter century—just what the doctor ordered after a summer that saw the Bulls wheel and deal to acquire DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and others to remake their roster in hopes of building a sustainable winner.

Chicago hasn’t had hopes this high since April 2012, when Derrick Rose tore his ACL during a playoff series against the 76ers. The Bulls managed to stay competitive for a while after Rose’s devastating injury, but things fell apart. Joakim Noah started to feel like he “had needles underneath [his] feet.” Tom Thibodeau finally lost his power struggle with Gar Forman and John Paxson. The “Three Alphas” experiment didn’t pan out; GarPax blanched at giving Jimmy Butler the supermax; Bobby Portis started a fight club; and years of first-round picks, several of them in the lottery, turned out to be of little consequence. There was, reportedly, a near-mutiny. There was, definitively, a punch clock.

All of those L’s aggregate on a long enough timeline. A half-decade of dings had relegated the Bulls—the team of Michael and Scottie and two three-peats, the NBA’s fourth-most valuable franchise, the team in the nation’s third-largest media market—to the dustbin of irrelevance, with the league’s worst record since trading away Butler. A curdled franchise has been crying out for change.

The new regime brought in to provide it—former Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas, ex-76ers exec Marc Eversley, and head coach Billy Donovan—has worked to reboot the team in just a year and a half, splashing cash and draft capital to surround All-Star shooting guard Zach LaVine with enough talent to meaningfully compete. So far, so good: Chicago’s 4-0 start marks the first four-game winning streak of LaVine’s NBA career, which now spans eight seasons and 415 games.

Coming into the season, many expected a Bulls rotation tilted toward offense-first types like LaVine, DeRozan, and 2021 trade deadline addition Nikola Vucevic to struggle mightily to get stops. Through the first four games, though, it’s been Chicago’s defense leading the way, holding opponents to 97.1 points per 100 possessions—fourth best in the NBA—despite conceding the league’s largest share of shots at the rim. That’s in front of a center, Vucevic, who allowed opponents to shoot better than 60 percent at the basket in seven of the past eight seasons.

One way to build a stout defense with an iffy back line? Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt:

Ball and Caruso give Chicago a pair of excellent point-of-attack defenders, with both the quickness to slither around screens and the size to defend across the positional spectrum. (Rookie Ayo Dosunmu has also shown flashes of being able to avoid screens, stay connected to his man, and generally muck things up.) Sophomore forward Patrick Williams (who is still finding his sea legs after missing the bulk of preseason with an ankle sprain) and former Celtics reserve Javonte Green bring the kind of fly-around-the-court athleticism and weak-side rim protection that can help cover for Vucevic, who has averaged fewer than one block per game in his career. Everybody, including the stars, is showing a renewed commitment to the Little Things™—getting over screens, maintaining ball pressure, keeping your hands up, being on time with help rotations—that every coach will tell you aren’t really all that little.

The result: The Bulls are tied for the NBA lead in deflections per game. Caruso is tied with Dejounte Murray and Fred VanVleet for the top spot among players, Vucevic (who has great hands and timing reaching around post players to knock away entry passes) is tied for fifth, and Ball and Green also both rank in the top 50. Chicago also sits third in steals and seventh in blocks, forcing turnovers on 20.4 percent of its opponents’ offensive plays—a monster number that has fueled a dynamic transition attack, which is led by hit-ahead heat seeker Ball, who hunts opportunities to hit the gas to get early baskets:

The up-tempo approach marks a significant shift from last year’s model—one that, thus far, appears to be paying off.

Bulls on Parade

Season Pace (Seconds per Offensive Possession) Transition Frequency Points Per Transition Play Fast Break Points per Game
Season Pace (Seconds per Offensive Possession) Transition Frequency Points Per Transition Play Fast Break Points per Game
2020-21 14.5 (16th) 12.9% (26th) 1.298 (5th) 11.5 (20th)
2021-22 13.3 (3rd) 17.5% (12th) 1.39 (T-2nd) 16.0 (T-6th)
League rankings in parentheses. Pace statistics via Inpredictable. Transition statistics via Cleaning the Glass. Fast break stats via NBA.com.

While the Lonzo-led speed game helps produce easy scores, the arrival of DeRozan brings another high-efficiency, low-turnover wing creator capable of generating tough buckets late. With Chicago’s offense bogged down against a tough Toronto defense on Tuesday, the former Raptors legend took over down the stretch, scoring 11 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter to keep the hosts at bay:

DeRozan’s ability to carry more of the scoring and playmaking load late into games means that LaVine—who trailed only Joel Embiid and Stephen Curry in fourth-quarter usage rate last season, and finished second in “clutch” usage—won’t have to shoulder so heavy a burden. The (slightly) reduced workload seems to do right by him: LaVine’s true shooting percentage, player efficiency rating, and assist-to-turnover ratio are all up over last season’s All-Star numbers. And when his teammates don’t have it going, he’s still capable of stepping into the phone booth and coming out wearing a cape, as he did in a 23-point second half to help secure a win on opening night.

Bulls fans saw a lot of those sorts of performances from LaVine last season. What they didn’t see, though, were many nights when Chicago won despite him having an off night. The 2020-21 Bulls went 11-18 when LaVine shot under 50 percent from the field. The 2021-22 version—even with Vucevic struggling to get his shot on line—is already 2-0.

That was kind of the big idea behind the Bulls’ big offseason: make moves to import talent and show LaVine that he can not only win in the Windy City, but do it without needing to be Superman every single night. Doing so required Karnisovas and Co. to take the calculated—and very, very large—gamble of using Chicago’s cap space to sign Ball, DeRozan, and Caruso rather than inking the extension-eligible and interested LaVine to a new long-term deal by renegotiating his 2021-22 salary up to the max.

LaVine was coming off his first All-Star berth and a gold medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. The Bulls top brass bet that Chicago being legitimately good would be an even more powerful draw in unrestricted free agency than Chicago being able to offer him the richest possible contract: a five-year deal worth more than $200 million. (Though, y’know, he probably wouldn’t mind getting both.)

“This is the most excited I’ve ever been here,” LaVine recently told Chris Herring of Sports Illustrated. “To understand that we’re going to be out here really competing, with goals set? It’s a good feeling.”

Through four games, you can see the vision that Chicago’s front office had for this roster: how the pieces fit together on defense, how more rim pressure and shooting could generate more reliable offense, and how a refurbished and replenished rotation could speed things up and reduce heavy legs late in games. But one strong week by itself does not necessarily make a compelling case—especially when it comes against teams that have opened the season a combined 2-9, with three of the four worst offenses in the NBA, and with key pieces (Zion Williamson for New Orleans, Pascal Siakam for Toronto, no. 1 pick Cade Cunningham for Detroit) missing the games due to injury.

Starting Thursday against the 3-1 Knicks, Chicago’s next 14 games will come against teams that made the playoffs or the play-in tournament last season, including a five-game West Coast road trip that will see them take on Steph Curry’s Warriors, Paul George’s Clippers, LeBron James’s Lakers, Damian Lillard’s Blazers, and Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets in the space of a week. Gauntlets like that are the NBA’s version of truth serum; we’ll know soon enough just how sustainable this start really is. For now, though, you can forgive Chicagoans for being bullish on these Bulls, and for feeling for the first time in a long time that one of the NBA’s sleeping giants has finally woken up.