The Bulls have been the biggest puzzle in the NBA. Widely thought of 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 Jan. 5, the Bulls have found themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 25-10 record. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model has them slated for 53 wins and an 18 percent shot at making the Finals. That puts them in a tie with the Bucks for highest Finals odds in the conference. Per stats at Cleaning the Glass, they’re the No. 5 offense and No. 10 defense in the league.
Normally, those types of numbers would be in line with title contender status. They’re right around where last season’s finalists, the Bucks and Suns, were at this same point last season. Yet the Bulls have been redirected to the kiddie table while the Suns, Nets, Bucks, Jazz and Warriors take their seats in the contender dining hall. That might be a mistake.
The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that causes us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information that we are given about a topic. Think of last year’s Suns: treated as a nice story but discounted throughout the playoffs because they were picked to win only 38 games at the start of the year.
Those preseason expectations are the anchor that is weighing down miles of glacier under the surface: The Bulls have a legitimate shot to come out of the Eastern conference, and they’re a bit of tinkering away from having a chance to win it all.
The preseason analysis for this team was always going to be particularly useless because of how difficult it was to predict how a completely new roster would play together. Eighty-one percent of the minutes this season have been played by the 16 (!!!) Bulls who were not on last season’s Opening Day roster. The pieces have fit better than anyone expected, and the Bulls have shown that they can beat anyone on any given night.
Need more proof that the Bulls’ winning percentage is legitimate? They’ve bullied the teams that will likely make the playoffs, as evidenced by their conference-best winning percentage against teams above .500. They’ve been even better against the top echelon. They have yet to play the Suns or Bucks, but against the Nets, Warriors, and Jazz they are a combined 3-1.
As good as the Bulls have been in the regular season, they might be even better come playoff time.
There is an NBA truism that isolation scoring becomes more valuable in the playoffs. Indeed, teams do go to isolation plays more frequently in the playoffs. That bodes well for the Bulls, who are far and away the best isolation team in the league. Of players with at least 100 isolation possessions, nobody is more efficient than DeMar DeRozan. Zach LaVine is not far behind, ranking fourth in points per possession.
The Bulls also have the perimeter defenders to stop other teams when they go to isolation plays. Alex Caruso has been a terror late in games, dominating one-on-one matchups. If he’s not the best perimeter isolation in the league, he’s a lock for top-three.
Another saying about playoff basketball is that the game slows down, making half-court offense more important. That’s yet another area where the Bulls are built to succeed. They are the fifth-best half-court offense, per Cleaning the Glass. With DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, they have three players who have made All-Star teams based mostly on their ability to get buckets. Coaches game plan more in the playoffs to take away your best option, but the Bulls have too much in the well to go to.
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 performer. Surrounded by the best shooting and scoring teammates he’s ever had, he’s gone to another level in crunch time this season. He’s picked up the “King of the Fourth” nickname by leading the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, hitting an astounding 53 percent of his shots in that final frame. To top it off, he became the first player in NBA history to hit buzzer-beating game-winners on consecutive nights.
As good as these Bulls have been, there is still even more upside left for this team. They’ve rarely been at full strength. 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 started. That has forced the team to find different ways to win all season. That honing of their versatility should serve them well in the playoffs.
The other obvious way for this team to get better is to add one more piece in the trade market. Their 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 get a deal done for the Pistons’ Jerami Grant by The Athletic’s John Hollinger, Athletic Pistons beat writer James Edwards, and ESPN’s Zach Lowe. The Bulls are still missing a mobile front-court player who would allow them to play more versatile defensive schemes, and Grant is a solid two-way forward who could play some small-ball 5 when needed.
The Bulls are high on Williams, and there is certainly risk in trading him. This could end up being a poor man’s redux of the George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard swap of 10 years ago between the Spurs and Pacers. That move looked great for both teams but became more obviously a win for the Spurs with each subsequent year. But it’s been almost 24 years since the Bulls were last in the NBA Finals.
The Bulls thought that it would be easy to get back to the mountaintop when they tore down their 1998 championship team. They’ve learned the hard way that if you’re lucky, you get a shot to appear in a Finals series every few decades.
This team is already right on the precipice of championship contention. DeRozan and Vucevic are both at the points in their careers where most players start to decline rather than improve. The franchise might not have another chance this good for another 24 years. It’s time for them to take their shot.