Throughout the previous three seasons, the Chicago Bulls won the saddest prize in the NBA. The Bulls beat out the Knicks, Cavaliers, and Hawks with a 33.9 winning percentage, making them the worst regular-season squad in the league from 2017 through 2020.
During the middle of last season, Bulls GM Marc Eversley began to remedy the situation by pulling the trigger on a trade with the Orlando Magic sending All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to the Windy City in exchange for Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round picks.
Vucevic was just the ante. Over the summer of 2021, Eversley pushed in all his chips:
- He inked former Lakers super-sub Alex Caruso to a four-year, $37 million contract.
- He landed Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade agreement with the New Orleans Pelicans for $85 million over four years.
- Eversley pulled off another sign-and-trade deal, this time with the San Antonio Spurs to acquire DeMar DeRozan.
After the dust settled, the league let out a collective chuckle, proclaiming the Bulls made little sense on paper, and they’d be lucky to squeeze into the playoffs. Then the Bulls slammed the competition by more than 20 points per game during the preseason while showing off some of the best overall passing chops we’ve seen in the last decade. The league noticed.
Now we’re past the NBA regular season’s infancy stages, and the Bulls sit in second place in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Miami Heat. Nobody’s chuckling now. For the first time since Derrick Rose graced the United Center, there’s hope in Chicago.
Next, we’ll examine what makes this rendition of the Chicago Bulls a legitimate championship contender.
The Chicago Bulls Big 3
The Lakers have a Big-3 consisting of two surefire All-Stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Russell Westbrook rounds out the trio as a solid point guard who doesn’t have much chance of making it into the mid-season dance in the guard-heavy west.
The Bucks also don a Big 3 with two All-Stars forwards, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, along with their own excellent point guard, Jrue Holiday, who’s incredibly valuable, but a tier below his All-Star counterparts.
Throughout the early stages of the 2021-2022 NBA season, it’s become clear the Chicago Bulls have a similar-style Big 3 as the Lakers and Bucks with two All-Stars and an excellent point guard.
Zach LaVine isn’t the leading scorer on the Bulls, but he’s the lynchpin behind their 6-2 start. LaVine is 7th in the league in scoring at 25.8 PPG while chipping in 5.4 RPG and 4.4 APG, and he’s the only member of the Chicago Bulls who is a part of their top four 5-man lineups.
There are 32 players in the NBA averaging 20 points per game, but only a handful of them have the type of gravity that alters their squad’s destiny. Zach LaVine has slowly morphed into the kind of player who soaks up enough defensive attention that he makes opposing teams pick their poison. They can either guard LaVine one-on-one and let him score at will. Or they game plan around “Young Hollywood” and allow the other four Bulls on the court to go to work.
As recently as last season, Portland Trail Blazers management would have scoffed if the Bulls offered LaVine straight up for Damian Lillard. Now, not so much. LaVine’s five years younger, more explosive, and a better defender than Lillard.
After toiling away in San Antonio for the past three years, most of the league had written DeMar DeRozan off. His point totals hovered around 22 points per game while averaging around 6 APG and 5 RPG, but winning is everything in the NBA, and the Spurs only made the playoffs once during DeRozan’s tenure. People ignored the fact that the best player DeRozan played within San Antonio was a past-his-prime LaMarcus Aldridge, who now comes off the bench for the Nets and averages less than 20 minutes per game.
It’s incredible what an offensive weapon like DeRozan can do with other talented players around him. This season on the Bulls, DeMar’s surrounded by LaVine, Ball, Caruso, and Vucevic. Voila, he’s ranked 4th in the league in scoring at 27.0 points per game while hitting 50.6 percent of his field-goal attempts and 38.9 percent from deep.
As Zach LaVine soaks up defensive attention and Lonzo Ball flicks dimes across the court, DeMar DeRozan has finally found the space to work that he sorely lacked in San Antonio. Outside of Kevin Durant, the former Raptor might be the best mid-range player in the NBA. He’s connecting on 50.0 percent of his field-goal attempts from 3 to 10 feet and 51.2 percent of his shots from 10 to 16 feet.
DeRozan knows who he is as a player. The rest of the NBA continues to shift beyond the three-point line. But he’s stuck to what he does best, driving to the rack or pulling up inside the arc for an open jumper.
Lonzo Ball rounds out the Bulls Big 3. He’s averaging 12.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG, and 4.5 APG while nailing 40.7 percent of his shots from deep. Ball’s not an All-Star, but he’s a valuable player.
How do you measure the little things Lonzo Ball does on the court? Sometimes you can’t go by the stats; you have to trust the eye test.
Lonzo Ball pushes the pace, making life difficult for opposing defenses. We currently don’t have hockey-assist numbers available to the public, but he’d be in the top five if we did. Ball swings the rock with the best of them, and his initial pass consistently leads to open shots down the line for the Bulls.
Lonzo Ball’s a high IQ player who sees the game better than most player’s and now that he’s turned into a top-shelf long-distance threat, he’s a significant contributor for the Bulls.
A Top-5 Defense
Going into the 2021-2022 season, nobody believed the Bulls would be an elite defensive team. We’re eight games in, and the Bulls are fifth in the association in defense with a 102.6 mark.
Watch the Bulls, and it quickly becomes apparent that their improved team defense isn’t due to early season wonkiness. Chicago’s head coach, Billy Donovan, and new imports, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have changed their culture. Watch the Bulls, and you’ll see every player flying around the court, giving it 100 percent.
Last season Alex Caruso finished 8th in the league in defensive rating at 101.7 (minimum 15 MPG) for the Lakers. He built that defensive rating, taking on a gauntlet of top-tier point guards that his head coach, Frank Vogel, tasked him with slowing down. Even as excellent defenders, Anthony Davis and LeBron James went down with an injury. The Lakers ranked first overall in defense last season, primarily because of how Alex Caruso could bother opposing 1’s.
This season, Alex Caruso’s giving the Bulls 27.9 minutes of hard-nosed- 110%-high IQ-put your body on the line basketball. He’s lowered his defensive rating to 101.5, and he’s second in the league in deflections at 4.5 per game.
Lonzo Ball’s been Caruso’s equal on defense. He’s holding his assignments to an excellent 5.9 percent lower than their normal average, and his defensive rating comes in at under 100.
Like Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball’s a disruptor on defense. He jumps passing lanes as well as any point guard in the league, and at 6-6, 190 pounds, he’s capable of switching onto wings and bothering them on the block.
Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan carry most of the offensive load for Chicago. Still, they’re going hard on the less glamorous end. Look close throughout a Bulls game, and you’ll see they’re not saving their legs for their next jumper. Both players have shown dedication to guarding their man heads up and rushing open shooters from beyond the arc. DeRozan’s hard work has paid off. He currently ranks 17th in the NBA in defensive rating at 94.5, and while LaVine doesn’t find himself inside the top 100 in DEFRTG, he still has a solid mark of 103.8.
Attention To Detail
There are many teams with talented rosters throughout the NBA. Still, often that skill doesn’t add up to wins. Ask any NBA aficionado, someone who really understands the ins and outs of the game, and they’ll tell you the squads that have talent and do the little things well usually end up on top.
Last season, with Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, and Thaddeus Young, the Bulls had the talent to make the playoffs. But throughout each game, they made minor mistake after minor mistake, and in the end, those little miscues turned into losses.
This year, no more.
The Bulls are cutting down on the mistakes that haunted them in the past.
This season the Bulls rank 5th in the association in turnovers at a slim 13.3 per game. Among Chicago’s four primary ball handlers—Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, Alex Caruso, and DeMar DeRozan—none are averaging over three turnovers per contest. Compare that to the star-studded Lakers with LeBron James averaging 4.2 TPG and Russell Westbrook at 4.8 TPG, and you can see the Bulls have made a commitment to holding onto the ball, which trickles down to the defense, by giving teams less easy fast-break opportunities.
Going beyond the numbers, every Chicago Bulls player is fighting over screens with energy for the first time in a decade. They’re leaving their hands up on defense and launching themselves at three-point shooters. They’re doing the little things on defense that take opposing players out of their comfort zone.
The Bulls don’t have Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert manning the middle and making up for their perimeter mistakes on defense. The Bulls have the more offensive-minded Nikola Vucevic. So, every Windy City player must commit to fighting outside and hampering their assignments from waltzing into the lane. So far, their effort and attention to detail have paid off.
The Bulls sport a top-10 defense and offense, and as new players like Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Alex Caruso continue to acclimate to the rest of the roster, the few miscues they’ve made so far should wither away. The 2021-2022 Chicago Bulls aren’t going anywhere. They’re for real.