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Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ fast start is in for some regression

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The Chicago Bulls entered this season with mixed expectations from fans and experts alike. The addition of nine new players added some optimism, but most of that positivity was undone when considering the fit, or lack thereof, throughout the roster.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pegged the Bulls for 11th in the East with just 37.8 wins. ESPN’s Summer Forecast outlook wasn’t much better, projecting the Bulls for 40 wins and ninth place in the East.

Through three games, not even the most optimistic of analysts or fans could have expected the Bovines to look like this:

 

This play pretty much sums up Chicago’s start to the season. Taj Gibson starts the play by collecting the board. He then quickly passes it off to Rajon Rondo in transition.

Rondo, instead of holding onto the ball as he’s done in the past, immediately executes a pinpoint outlet pass to Dwyane Wade. Wade finishes off the play with a beautiful lob pass to Jimmy Butler for the finish. Four Bulls touched the ball on the play in five seconds with three of them being the dubbed “Three Alphas.” They have been anything but alphas so far.

The Bulls are gelling under Fred Hoiberg better than anyone could’ve expected. Chicago is 3-0 and ranks second with an average point differential of 17.3 points per game. The Bulls rank near the top in the league in several statistics. Let’s take a look at how sustainable the Bulls’ early success is the rest of the season.

The Bull rank No. 1 in offensive efficiency: NOT SUSTAINABLE

Chicago is leading the league scoring 114.7 points per 100 possessions. Sorry Bulls fans, but this is certainly not sustainable. For one, the Bulls are coming off playing the Pacers at home on the second of a back-to-back and the lowly Brooklyn Nets.

More importantly, Chicago ranks third with a 42.5 three-point percentage and sixth in makes. There’s no way a team that starts Rondo, Wade, and Butler is going to keep that up.

Wade has already made two fewer three-pointers than all of last season, and he’s connecting at a 55.6 percent clip. Although he’ll continue to do much better than last year from behind the arc, that number will drop considerably.

Butler, who is a career 33.1 percent shooter from the three-point line, is making two three-pointers a game at a 54.5 percent clip so far this season. Butler is the most sustainable of the two from behind the arc, but expecting him to continue shooting even over 40 percent for threes is unfair expectations.

Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, and Isiah Canaan will shoulder most of the Bulls perimeter shooting in the future. The Three Alphas will eventually cool off. Even if the Bulls aren’t necessarily the top offense in the league, a couple of different categories will ensure they’re still an above-average offense moving forward.

The Bulls rank No.1 in rebound rate and offensive rebound rate: SUSTAINABLE

Chicago lost prolific rebounders in Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol this offseason from a team that ranked 12th in rebound rate. Gasol, who averaged 11 rebounds per game, is, in reality, a poor rebounder because of a penchant to not block out. Robin Lopez is the exact opposite.

Lopez averages 5.4 rebounds per game for his career but annually ranks among the top players in the league in contested rebound percentage. He ranked first in the NBA at 52 percent last season and frontcourt mate Taj Gibson wasn’t far behind at 42.5 percent (min. 65 GP).

The Bulls also have Rondo and Wade in the backcourt who are both above-average (especially Rondo) at rebounding for their positions. Butler is a solid rebounder as well, giving the Bulls an elite rebounding starting five.

Butler and Lopez are elite offensive rebounders for their positions (both ranking top-ten at their respective positions in offensive rebound rate a season ago). There’s no reason why the Bulls shouldn’t continue to dominate opponents on the glass.

The Bulls rank No. 2 in assist ratio: SUSTAINABLE

Here’s an offensive statistic for the Bulls that is somewhat sustainable. Only the Hawks, who are notorious for ball movement, rank ahead of the Bulls so far in assist ratio. The additions of Rondo and Wade into the backcourt make this statistic not even all that surprising.

Consider the Bulls ranked a solid 13th in assist ratio last season with ball-pounder Derrick Rose at point guard. Rondo, who led the league in assist ratio last season, was added as his replacement. The Bulls ball movement has been excellent so far. Wade and Butler are also well above-average passers for their positions. Although Lopez and Gibson aren’t, neither of them holds onto the ball for long stretches like Gasol did last season.

Wade, in particular, has shown a willingness to pass that has been contagious for the Bulls early on this season:

 

Wade doesn’t get the assist on this play, but his slick pick-and-roll feed set up Cristiano Felicio for an easy set-up for McDermott. Michael Carter- Williams (when he returns from his knee sprain) and Nikola Mirotic are also willing distributors coming off the bench. Passing will be a strength of the Bulls throughout the season.

The Bulls rank No. 7 in defensive efficiency: NOT SUSTAINABLE

This team isn’t going to rank this high in defensive efficiency by season’s end. Far too many players who struggle defensively play rotation minutes to maintain being an elite unit.

Rondo and Wade are infamous gamblers who’s effort on the defensive end has gotten worse every year. McDermott and Canaan offer next to nothing on the defensive end. Mirotic’s defensive struggles are overblown but he’s bullied down low in certain matchups.

The Bulls are subject to getting embarrassed on the defensive end anytime Butler, Gibson, or Lopez leaves the floor. Butler is the team’s only above-average defensive wing. MCW is capable of defending wing players, but he’s also a negative on the offensive end whenever he’s on the floor and currently injured.

Lopez is a great defensive rebounder and rim protector, but his lateral quickness prevents him from being a difference maker as a pick-and-roll defender.

Chicago’s opponents are also shooting 27.8 percent from behind the arc, a number that will rise as the Bulls play better teams.

The Bulls will be better defensively than last season because of their ability to dominate the boards, but staying inside the top ten is asking a lot from this unit.

Nonetheless, most people had the Bulls on the outside looking in this postseason. Even after just three games, the postseason looks like a safe bet for the Bulls, even if they’re not leading the league in offense.

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