One week into the 2021-22 NBA season, and the Chicago Bulls couldn’t have asked for a better start, opening the year with a 4-0 record, the league’s fourth-best point differential, and fourth-best net rating.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that two of those wins came against the not-good Detroit Pistons — who were without top pick Cade Cunningham — and the others against the New Orleans Pelicans sans Zion Williamson and the okay(?) Toronto Raptors, but considering the expectations most fans and analysts (not all) have for this team, seeing them handle mediocre-at-best competition was an encouraging sight.
While the Bulls have defended at an unsustainably great pace — their defensive rating (fifth in the NBA) is currently 8.8 points per 100 possessions better than the league average, which would make them one of the greatest defenses of all time when extrapolated to a full-season sample size — the offense has surprisingly lagged behind (15th in offensive rating). Among that mediocrity, though, the Bulls have found success in one area.
The Chicago Bulls have looked impressive thus far, and their ability to score in transition has been a key component of their success.
The Bulls are currently second in the league with 1.25 transition points per possession, taking advantage of the turnovers they’ve generated (third in takeaways per 100 and steals per 100) and the bricks their opponents have thrown up (10th in defensive field goal percentage).
With the team bringing in ballhawks like Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso through free agency (not to mention Javonte Green, who came over last year as part of the Daniel Theis trade), last year’s conservative-but-not-as-bad-as-you-remember defense has become more aggressive in forcing ill-advised passes and swiping at uninspiring dribblers.
Take this sequence, for example. Here, rookie Ayo Dosunmu plays free safety and intercepts this pass. Zach LaVine streaks down the floor and the young man makes a nice pass to set up the easy layup.
Here, Caruso gets his hands in the cookie jar, and the ensuing fast break led to free throws for Nikola Vucevic:
What about off of missed shots, like, say, an errant Devonte’ Graham 3? Well, if you have a guard like Lonzo Ball who can (surprisingly, given that he isn’t a great rim finisher) command some attention from the defense and make great passes, an athletic swingman like DeMar Derozan, and a bad defender like Graham — who took a bad angle to cut off this DeRozan cut — you get this:
Yes, it’s only three games. Yes, those four games came against three teams that aren’t that good. And yes, even with Ball, Caruso, and several other young players with active hands on the team, the turnover numbers aren’t fully sustainable (Chicago is averaging 19.6 opponent’s turnovers per 100; the highest mark in the league last year was 16.2).
Most of these numbers will level out a little when the Bulls play superior teams with defter ball handlers. But a team with this much talent on offense probably won’t average a meager 0.80 PPP in the pick and roll nor rank 22nd in isolation PPP, either.
Eventually (hopefully), the team will generate more catch and shoot looks and get more chances at the rim (22nd in the league in attempts per game in both categories). If this team wants to cement its place as a legitimate playoff contender, it will have to. Those things will factor into how successful this offense is more than depending on getting a bunch of turnovers every game.
But even if the steals taper off (Vučević’s career-high 2.3 steals per game will almost certainly regress to the mean, for example) and teams key in on the Bulls’ more dubious defenders (looking at you, Vučević and DeMar DeRozan), Ball and Caruso’s presence — alongside the other lanky rotational players — should ensure that the dropoff won’t be too steep, which means the Chicago Bulls will have a viable way to produce points whenever the half-court attack is lacking.