A look at the Bulls early stats and breakdown of their play in the first five weeks of the 2010-11 season.
The Bulls went 9-6 in the first five weeks of the season. They're a half-game in front of the Indian Pacers (9-7) and fourth in the Eastern Conference -- behind the Boston Celtics (13-4), Orlando Magic (13-4), and Atlanta Hawks (11-7).
Chicago's 60% winning percentage is fourth in the conference, so the seeding isn't just by the product of leading the division. The Pacers are fifth in the East at 56.3% and two other East teams have ten wins -- Miami Heat (10-8) and New York Knicks (10-8) -- but the Bulls are still third in the more important loss column.
Compartively, the Bulls winning percentage would be eighth in the Western Conference, as would their position in the loss column.
How the first 15 games look on paper
The Four Factors via Hoopdata (click to enlarge):
Per game stats via Basketball-Reference (click to enlarge):
Advanced Stats via Basketball-Reference (click to enlarge):
The Bulls defense has really been their best offense. The halfcourt offense isn't producing easy buckets. Even when Derrick Rose takes over, he uses so much energy and a lot of minutes to do it. The long-range shooting has made the inside-out game struggle and the entry passes have ranged from ugly-sloppy to taking apart defenses with a scalpel. To make up for that, the Bulls have relied on putting the ball on the floor very well and running the fast breaks off of rebounds and turnovers.
Before the season, Coach Tom Thibodeau said he wanted the offense to think: layups and duns first, inside-out second, halfcourt shooting sets near the bottom. And that's refreshing because it's the order that reflects the team's strengths best, as we've seen.
The team defense is more stifling than the early season rank tells us. Turnovers have handed opponents easy buckes, periodical fatigue and slow starts from the frontcourt have opened up driving lanes, and some streaky three-point shooting has inflated what's been an excellent team help defense in the final 18-to-20 minutes of just about every game. They still haven't found a way to execute their rotating zones in the first halves without forcing turnovers, but when they rotate well enough to contest shots, they've looked impenetrable.
We've learned this team is full of willing students. Zach Lowe notes the Bulls defense is more efficient on paper than any team was last season and -- though three-point efficiency is low -- the Bulls are easing away from the tendency to resort to long twos, instead turning those opportunities into three-point attempts:
The way the Bulls are doing this is also encouraging. Defensive guru Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls defending wonderfully. They are allowing only 102.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks sixth and would have topped the league last season. The stat-tracking service Synergy Sports has the Bulls ranked as the second-stingiest team defending pick-and-rolls where the ball-handler finishes the play, and Chicago ranks at or above the league average in every situation other than defending fast breaks. The Bulls are also forcing more turnovers and fouling a bit more -- both expected effects of Thibodeau's system.
We all knew Chicago had the talent, with Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, to become an elite defensive team eventually. But it's already there.
Its offense is a work in progress, but there is reason to hope the progress will continue. Chicago is scoring 106.0 points per 100 possessions, just 18th in the league but still much better than its 103.5 mark from last season, when it ranked 27th. Plus, Thibodeau is a better offensive coach than most folks knew, and he is instilling some good habits. Though the Bulls still take too many long two-pointers, they're attempting nearly four fewer per game than last season.
A related trend: Thibodeau is allowing Deng and Rose to test themselves as three-point shooters, a test that, if even moderately successful, would benefit Chicago in the long run. Deng is attempting 4.1 threes per game, double his previous career-high rate, and has hit 34.4 percent. That's below the league average, but the Bulls are right to hope Deng can boost that percentage as he finds his comfort spots and Boozer provides better spacing. Rose will blow past his three-point attempts total from last season by the end of this week. He's hitting only 32.7 percent, but Thibodeau is right to encourage Rose to refine this part of his game.
It's not just the redistribution of Chicago's shots. Thibodeau has added some creativity the team lacked under Vinny Del Negro. The Bulls are running Boston's old "rugby scrum" play, in which two big men run out and set a double screen for Rose, and a second-unit group featuring Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer is running all sorts of fun off-the-ball stuff.
The 500 lb. gorilla in the room is of course the soon-coming debut of Carlos Boozer. Early, I thought this would take Omer Asik out of the nine-man rotation and create a three-headed monster in the frontcourt -- especially with Taj Gibson's great improvements in the posts and on the baseline. With Taj's wheels acting up and Noah's plantar fascitis history, they've both been playing a high volume of dangerous minutes. So, expect a ten-man rotation with minutes from James Johnson when foul trouble becomes an issue and the sucessful smaller lineups with Deng at the stretch-four.
Ronnie Brewer should get to the starting lineup with Boozer. He's been the most disrupitive perimeter defense player and will be needed to get out of the gates fast and aggressive without getting into foul trouble. If a guy loses minutes, it'll likely be Keith Bogans -- only coming off the bench for defensive assignments and in blowout situations.
Early, it was believed Boozer and Deng would Rose's options #1 and #1A, but Deng's inefficient shooting has him putting the ball on the floor more often. It isn't a bad thing, but the long two and three-point attempts will either go down or become wide open looks with Boozer as Rose's #1 option.
As I've stressed before, the two biggest factors with Boozer will be: (1) a no-longer anemic halfcourt offense and (2) a legit go-to guy for the bench unit against other bench units in Taj that will open up the driving lanes for C.J. Watson to become effective and give Kyle Korver more open looks to shoot.
Defensively, the Bulls have a nasty guy who'll be the physical partner Noah needs. He's one of the best low post scorers in the game and has some of the best face-up skills of any big man. Rose's security blanket has been Noah and Taj hitting that high post jumper and now he'll have one of the best post players in the game.
Most important, the Bulls can finally manufacture easy buckets in the first quarter without depending on relatively infrequent fast break turnovers. The post-repost game with Boozer combined with Noah's much-improved entry passing will establish Thibs' first offensive objective to open up the inside-out game and adjust to the weaknesses of opponents' defensive adjustments.
The Bulls' very impressive win in Dallas has me definitely writing this team in pen as a 50-win team. It isn't good to see them down so often, but the fight has one believing they're capable of beating just about everyone in the league. They'll look even better with the post presence that prevents those negative deficits that create the need for comebacks. With that comes blowouts and with blowouts come home court in the playoffs for maybe two rounds.
The Bulls still probably couldn't beat Orlando in a seven-game series, but Orlando has a tougher schedule in that division with Atlanta and Miami. Blowouts and not getting blown out could sneak the Bulls into a #2 seed, up from my earlier ceiling of a #3 seed.