The NBA is wide open. Can the Bulls take advantage?

Two key metrics suggest the Bulls are a real contender to battle among the best in the Eastern Conference going forward.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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The NBA isn't always about super teams, especially this season with something of a superstar diaspora, LeBron in LA, Curry in San Francisco, Durant in Brooklyn, MVP candidates like Embiid, Jokic and Luka without their partners and just trying to keep their teams in the top eight in the conference. Kyrie with no shot, Ben Simmons dreaming of other venues and Beal and Dame finding things aren't the same.

The NBA is cookin', but it's looking in many places more like a standings upside down cake.

Which is why the path may be clear for the 2022 version of the Phoenix Suns, who went from missing the playoffs to the NBA Finals last season.

You see where I'm going here with the Bulls playing the Brooklyn Nets Saturday? With a chance to get less than a game from leading the Eastern Conference against a team the Bulls already defeated by 23 points.

So why not them?

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are both in the Top 8 in individual scoring leaders so far this season.

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are both in the Top 8 in individual scoring leaders so far this season.

If there's a season to go from nowhere to somewhere, it may well be this one perhaps as much as any in recent memory with losing, playoff drought teams like the Cavaliers, Hornets and Timberwolves having their best seasons in years. And, yes, the Bulls as well, who at 31-41 last season missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season and fifth in the last sixth.

But like the Suns last season from 10th to the NBA Finals by adding a veteran future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul to stabilize a team with talented scorers, the Bulls similarly signed veteran All-Star DeMar DeRozan to join high scorer Zach LaVine. But also filling around the edges with the defense of players like Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

It's actually a reasonably common pattern in NBA history and not that unusual for a team, primarily with the offseason addition of All-Star or all-league players, to experience a substantial one season turnaround.

Some examples:

2020 Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. It was the infamous "bubble" summer with the first NBA Finals ever between two teams that failed the make the playoffs the previous season, the Lakers adding LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the Heat Jimmy Butler.

2008 Boston Celtics. Going from 24-58 to winning the NBA championship after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

2002 New Jersey Nets. From 26-56 to two consecutive Finals appearances after trading Stephen Marbury for Jason Kidd.

1977 Portland Trailblazers. Never making the playoffs or having a .500 season in their six NBA seasons to winning the Finals after signing Maurice Lucas to support a healthier Bill Walton.

1977 Houston Rockets. Never being above .500 in their nine-year history and coming off a non playoff season to losing in the conference finals after adding Moses Malone and John Lucas.

1956 Philadelphia Warriors. Coming off three straight years out of the playoffs and then adding future Hall of Famer Tom Gola and winning the championship.

There were other such immediate turnarounds as well, like when LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2015 and the Cavaliers went from out of the playoffs to a title and the expansion Milwaukee Bucks who went from last in the league to winning the title in his second season after drafting Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

This has occurred in Bulls history, if not quite in such an immediate way. Though the 1966-67 expansion team made the playoffs, the only expansion team to do so in league history, the Bulls were a losing team until acquiring Chet Walker and Norm Van Lier and beginning a five-year run of averaging more than 50 wins and losing in the conference finals twice in a conference with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

It's a simple formula if not easily carried out: exchange your players, especially if they are young and inexperienced, for veterans who have been All-Stars and with winners. And then you have an opportunity to surprise the doubters and critics and delight your fans and supporters on the way to the destination that usually requires considerable explanation.

If you like statistics, this is your era for sports. There are statistics for almost every circumstance. Some of the most important in basketball are offensive and defensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and turnover ratio. The Bulls rank in the league's top 10 in every one of those measures and in the top five in shooting and offense.

So the Bulls 15-8 record is no fluke.

Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine

The Bulls starting backcourt of Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine.

There also are two statistical markers that have been measures to correlate NBA success long before this analytics heavy era. They are point differential, a team's scoring against how many points it gives up. And the difference between road wins and home losses. Combining those two throughout the league's history generally has been a guide to identify the best teams.

The Bulls this season now passing the first quarter mark rank at or near the top of the Eastern Conference in both.

Eastern Conference Margin of Victory:

The Chicago Bulls lead the Eastern Conference so far in average margin of victory.

The Chicago Bulls lead the Eastern Conference so far in average margin of victory.

The most unexpected is the Cavaliers, who despite predictions of being at the bottom of the conference have honestly played to their 13-10 record. Two teams whose success seems ephemeral are the Wizards and Hornets. Both have plus-.500 records, but their differentials are minus. That suggests their talent and performance has not matched their record and they could experience a decline.

Eastern Conference road win/home loss:

The Chicago Bulls are tied for second in the East for road win/home loss differential.

The Chicago Bulls are tied for second in the East for road win/home loss differential.

The Hornets and Wizards do have positive road results, which suggests playing better than expected. Because of the disparity between the two measures, their focus will become clearer with more games. Which at least in this early sample at least suggests the teams that have consistently played the best are the Nets, Bulls, Heat and Bucks. Preseason predictions favored the Nets, Heat and Bucks in the Eastern Conference. The 76ers are just behind that group because of the Simmons absence.

But the one other team that has consistently rivaled the East favorites has been the Bulls, both in the standings and the measures of ultimate success.

Why not? It's happened before. More often than many believe. Is this the Bulls' time?

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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