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 were in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 25-10 record. ELO Model by FiveThirtyEight He 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 finals odds in the conference. By statistics in Clean the glassThey are the No. 5 offense and No. 10 defense in the league.
Typically those types of numbers would be in line with the status of the title contenders. They’re right where last season’s finalists, the Bucks and Suns, were at this point last season. However, the Bulls have been redirected to the children’s table as the Suns, Nets, Bucks, Jazz and Warriors take their seats in the contenders’ dining room. That may be a mistake.
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The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that causes us to depend too much on the first information we receive about a topic. Think of last year’s Suns: Treated like a good story, but discounted 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 weighs miles of glacier below the surface: The Bulls have a legitimate shot at getting out of the Eastern conference, and they’re a little off from having a chance to win it all.
Pre-season analysis for this team was always going to be particularly futile given how difficult it was to predict how an entirely new roster would play as a whole. 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 have fitted together better than anyone expected, and the Bulls have shown they can beat anyone on any 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 highest echelon. They have yet to play the Suns or the Bucks, but against the Nets, Warriors and Jazz they are 3-1 combined.
As good as the Bulls have been in the regular season, they could be even better when it comes to the playoffs.
There’s a no-brainer in the NBA that the isolated scoring becomes more valuable in the playoffs. In fact, teams go to isolation plays more often in the playoffs. That bodes well for the Bulls, who are by far the best isolation team in the league. From 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 have 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 one-on-one matches. If it’s not the best perimeter insulation in the league, it’s top-three insurance.
Another saying about playoff basketball is that the game slows down, which makes the offense in the middle of the court more important. That’s another area the Bulls are designed to succeed in. They are the fifth best midfield offense, by cleaning the glass. With DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, they have three players who have made All-Star teams based primarily on their ability to hit baskets. Coaches plan more in the playoffs to take away your best option, but the Bulls have too much in the pot to go.
The Bulls also have arguably the best closer in the league in DeRozan for when playoff games get tough. He has always been a very good clutch player. Surrounded by the best shooting and scoring teammates he has ever had, he has gone to another level in the defining moment of 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 off, he became the first player in NBA history to score game winners on consecutive nights.
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As good as these Bulls have been, there is still even more advantage left for this team. They have rarely had their full strength. Only the Celtics have been more affected by COVID measured by the player’s total days in the 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 commercial market. His best chip, former 2020 draft pick No. 4 Patrick Williams, and Derrick Jones Jr.’s expiring contract, have already been suggested as enough to close a deal for the Pistons’ Jerami Grant. Athletic’s John Hollinger, Athletic Pistons beat writer James Edwards, Y ESPN’s 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 little 5 small ball when needed.
The Bulls are excited about Williams, and there is certainly a risk in trading him. This could end up being a poor 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 obviously turned into a win for the Spurs every year after. But it’s been almost 24 years since the Bulls were last in the NBA Finals.
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The Bulls thought it would be easy to get back to the top of the mountain when they brought down their 1998 champion team. They’ve 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 on the brink of the championship fight. DeRozan and Vucevic are at the 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. Time for you to take your shot.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.