The Bulls have been the biggest puzzle in the NBA. Widely regarded as a fringe playoff team to start the season after years of irrelevance, they are definitely better than anyone expected. But how good are they, really?
The numbers speak for themselves. As of January 5, the Bulls are in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 25-10 record. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model has them scheduled for 53 wins and an 18 percent chance of reaching the Finals. That puts them in a tie with the Bucks for the highest final odds in the conference. According to statistics from Cleaning the Glass, they are the No. 5 offense and No. 10 defense in the league.
Typically those types of numbers would be in line with title contender status. They’re right where last season’s finalists, the Bucks and Suns, were at this same point last season. However, the Bulls have been redirected to the children’s table, while the Suns, Nets, Bucks, Jazz and Warriors take their seats in the contenders’ dining room. That could be a mistake.
NOH: Why did I join The Sporting News
The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too much on the first information given to us about a topic. Think of the Suns from last year: Treated like a good story but scrapped during the playoffs because they were chosen to win just 38 games at the start of the year.
Those preseason expectations are the anchor that hangs over miles of subsurface glaciers: The Bulls have a legitimate shot out of the Eastern Conference, and they’re a little far from a chance to win it all.
Preseason analysis for this team was always going to be particularly useless because of how difficult it was to predict how an entirely new roster would play. Eighty-one percent of the minutes this season have been played by the 16 (!!!) Bulls that weren’t on last season’s Opening Day roster. The pieces fit together better than anyone expected, and the Bulls have shown they can beat anyone on any given night.
Need more proof that the Bulls’ winning percentage is legitimate? They’ve intimidated teams likely to make the playoffs, as evidenced by their best conference winning percentage against teams above .500. They have been even better against the top tier. They have yet to play the Suns or Bucks, but against the Nets, Warriors and Jazz are 3-1 combined.
As good as the Bulls have been in the regular season, they could be even better in the playoffs.
There’s a no-brainer in the NBA that the isolation score becomes more valuable in the playoffs. In fact, teams attend isolation plays more often in the playoffs. That bodes well for the Bulls, who are by far the best isolation team in the league. Of the players with at least 100 isolation possessions, no one is more efficient than DeMar DeRozan. Zach LaVine is not far behind, ranking fourth in points per possession.
The Bulls also count on the perimeter defenders to stop other teams when they go on isolation plays. Alex Caruso has been a terror at the end of the games, dominating the matches one on one. If it’s not the best perimeter insulation in the league, it’s top-three insurance.
Will Barton tried to take Alex Caruso.
That was not a good idea. pic.twitter.com/8cTjd19aMD
– Steph Noh (@StephNoh) November 20, 2023
Man, Caruso’s defense here. pic.twitter.com/gczX5SJTk0
– Steph Noh (@StephNoh) October 29, 2023
Another saying about playoff basketball is that the game slows down, which makes the midfield offense more important. That’s another area where the Bulls are built to succeed. They are the fifth best midfield offense, according to Glass Cleaning. With DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, they have three players who have made All-Star teams based primarily on their ability to get buckets. Coaches plan more in the playoffs to take away their best option, but the Bulls have too much in the pot.
The Bulls also have arguably the best closer in the league in DeRozan for when playoff games get tight. He has always been a very good clutch actor. Surrounded by the best shooting and scoring teammates he’s ever had, he’s gone to another level at critical times this season. He earned the nickname “King of the Quarter” by leading the NBA in scoring in the fourth quarter, hitting a staggering 53 percent of his shots in that final frame. To top it all, he became the first player in NBA history to hit winners on consecutive nights.
MORE: Every winning shot of DeMar DeRozan’s career
As good as these Bulls have been, there is still even more potential for this team. They have rarely been in full force. Only the Celtics have been hit harder by COVID as measured by total player days in protocols. Every rotation player on the roster has tested positive for COVID since the season began. That has forced the team to look for different ways to win throughout the season. That honing of their versatility should serve them well in the playoffs.
The other obvious way for this team to improve is to add one more piece to the aftermarket. His best chip, former 2020 No. 4 draft pick Patrick Williams, and the expiring contract of Derrick Jones Jr., have already been suggested as enough to land a deal for the Pistons’ Jerami Grant by John Hollinger of The Athletic, Athletic Pistons beat ESPN writer James Edwards and Zach Lowe. The Bulls still lack a mobile player on the front court that allows them to play more versatile defensive schemes, and Grant is a solid two-way forward who could play a small 5 when needed.
The Bulls are very interested in Williams, and there is certainly risk in trading him. This could end up being a poor man’s cut from the George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard trade 10 years ago between the Spurs and Pacers. That move looked great for both teams, but it became more obviously a win for the Spurs with each subsequent year. But it has been almost 24 years since the Bulls were last in the NBA Finals.
MORE: Team-by-team list of NBA players in COVID protocols
The Bulls thought it would be easy to get back to the top of the mountain when they defeated their 1998 champion team. They have learned the hard way that, if you’re lucky, you have a chance to appear in a Finals series every few decades.
This team is already right on the precipice of the championship contest. DeRozan and Vucevic are at points in their careers where most players start to decline rather than improve. The franchise may not have another such good opportunity for another 24 years. It is time for you to take your chance.