The Chicago Bulls opened the season falling far short of their championship expectations. Now, recent signs point toward an imminent, albeit tenuous, turnaround.
Over the first four games of the season, the Bulls were, in a word, awful. They won just one game, and that took a remarkable, challenged game-winning shot from Derrick Rose, which, realistically, had no business going in.
If we look at some of the numbers over the opening stretch, it’s pretty clear the Bulls were losing because they deserved to. Over that time, there wasn’t much to get excited about. Even the Bulls' normally stellar defense was playing below average.
Their defensive rating over that stretch was just 101.5, good for 15th in the league. They were giving up a three-point percentage of 45.2 percent, by far the worst. They were 17th in opponent’s effective field-goal percentage at 50.0 percent.
None of those were what you'd associate with a Tom Thibodeau defense.
Things were even worse on offense. Their offensive rating was a meager 96.3, 28th in the league. They had a team effective field-goal percentage of 44.0, which was dead-last in the NBA. And, they were turning the ball over 19.2 percent of the time. Only three teams were more generous.
None of those things were what you think of with a Derrick Rose led offense.
Obviously, when you’re not putting the ball in the basket, and you’re not keeping your opponent from doing so, you’re not going to win a lot of games. It’s little wonder the Bulls were getting outscored by 7.8 points per game over their first four contests.
Things bottomed out after the Bulls were left a blood-soaked quivering mass of spasming skin bags by the Indiana Pacers. Bulls' fans were in pure pandemonium, pounding the proverbial panic button into a puff of powdered plastic.
Step away from the button.
Since then, things have looked much better. Over the last four games, they’ve had the best defensive rating in the league at just 85.9. While their offense is not “elite,” it’s greatly improved. They have been 7th in the NBA with 103.7 over the span.
They are giving up 15.6 points fewer per 100 possessions, and they are scoring 10.3 points more on the present win streak. They’ve gone from worst in three-point percentage-against, 45.2, to second at just 29.6 percent. Their overall opponent’s field-goal percentage since Nov. 8 is 36.4, best in the league.
And when it comes to the Christmas spirit, the Bulls have gone from Santa to Scrooge, becoming the sixth-best in the league in points off turnovers in the recent span at 20.6 per game.
When we last saw the Bulls, they were leaving the Pacers a blood-soaked quivering mass of spasming skin bags on the floor of the United Center.
So, this leaves two questions. First, why are the Bulls suddenly turning things around? And second, is this trustworthy?
The answer to the first question isn’t singular. There are several reasons they struggled, and the reasons for the turnaround are partly related to that.
Joakim Noah, their most important defensive player, missed the bulk of training camp with a strained groin. While he was playing during the first few regular season games, he was clearly not himself, missing the kind of timing and conditioning that you normally find in training camp.
As a result, uncharacteristically, many of the Bulls' defensive woes were attributable to Noah’s errors. The Bulls' defensive rating with Noah on the court in the early part of the season was a stunningly high 107.8. Since then, it’s 87.7. Noah finding his rhythm on defense is clearly helping.
His offensive numbers were woeful: a mere 5.5 points on 29.2 percent shooting. Over the last four, he’s averaging 11.0 points on 60.0 percent shooting. Obviously, that helps, too.
Another reason is Luol Deng’s shooting. Through his first four games, he was shooting just 38.7 percent from the field and 6.7 percent from three. He’s never been Kyle Korver, but he’s better than that. Over the last four, he’s averaging 18.3 points, shooting 33.3 percent from three and 52.0 percent overall (better than he can sustain).
Derrick Rose was shaking off rust (and still is), but the 6-of-11 three-point shooting was a positive indication that's working itself out. It was also Rose's second consecutive game without a turnover.
Jimmy Butler was learning a new position (and still is). The starting five had never played together and were adjusting to being a unit (and still are). The rest of the starters were re-acclimating to the speed of Rose when the speed of the regular season kicked up a notch.
And all of these struggles had a compounding effect. Correspondingly, as they work out each kink, the other kinks get easier to resolve. The Bulls’ extremely light schedule—two games in nine days—certainly gave them a lot of extra practice time to work and do just that.
That’s not to say that all the problems are now solved and it’s all cookies and candy form here on out. There is another dramatic reason for the improvement. Their schedule got a lot easier in terms of opponents, too.
Prior to the Bulls and Pacers squaring off, the combined record of Chicago's first four opponents was 22-13. The record of their nest three adversaries was 8-22. Obviously, that plays into things, too. Beating up on patsies isn’t convincing proof that you’ve turned things around.
And while all three games were blowouts, there were some “ruh-roh” moments in the fourth quarter where the other team took big chunks out of the lead before the Bulls clamped down and pulled away.
While their defense will contend for the best defense in the league, they’re not going to maintain a defensive rating of 85.9.
The Bulls starters, whether it’s been with Rose or Kirk Hinrich running the show, have been plus-33.3 per 100 possessions over the last four games. While that’s great, it’s a little optimistic to project that through the remainder of the year.
Overall, while they’re good, they’re not really this good. But even within that “not this good,” there are areas where they are still going to get better. Rose will improve. Butler and Deng’s shooting will improve.
Mike Dunleavy, who is shooting 37.9 percent from two, is 10.5 percent below his career average. That’s going to improve.
So, while there’s some fool’s gold to be careful not to bite on, there’s a bit of a pessimist’s paradise to beware of, too.
The truth is that the Bulls have had more transition than is immediately obvious. Everyone has had to adjust to Rose, who has had to re-adjust to everyone. Butler has moved from being a reserve to being a starter. Hinrich has gone from starter to reserve. Dunleavy is a new addition. And, Noah’s injury during camp didn’t help any matters.
So, there are considerable chemistry issues which need to be worked out, and coming out of the gate and playing contenders Indiana and Miami didn’t give them much time to do that. They’ve started working through their problems, but they are still not finished doing so.
The Bulls previously have found their mojo on the so-called “Circus Trip,” as they vacate the United Center when the circus literally comes to town.
Last year, the Bulls started a disappointing 6-7, which included their first game back home, a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. From then until the end of January, they went on a 22-10 run before they started accumulating injuries.
In 2012, there was no such trip because of the lock-out, but in 2011, there was a similar breakout. The Bulls dropped their first couple of games back and were just 9-8 to open the season. They were 53-12 for the remainder of the year.
The prolonged time together has been beneficial to the Bulls in years past and should be again. It’s not just the time on the court that helps, it’s the time spent together on the road, hanging out and bonding.
Look for the team to find some rhythm and consistency during the time away from home. They are already showing signs of gelling, and by the time they return, they should be firing on all cylinders. If they still aren't beating winning teams at that time, resume your panicky pounding.
All stats for this article were compiled form NBA.com/STATS (media account required) and are current as of 11/16/2013.