Many predicted the Chicago Bulls becoming a playoff team in 2021-22. Few expected them to lead the Eastern Conference several days into the new year.
Chicago is a convincing 26-10 following Friday’s win over the Washington Wizards. Led by two potential All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, the Bulls’ year-to-year improvement is reminiscent of last year’s Phoenix Suns team that shocked the world en route to the NBA Finals. In fact, former NBA sharpshooter JJ Redick recently discussed the numerous ways the Bulls of this year remind him of the surprising Suns of last year.
The Chicago Bulls are riding a nine-game winning streak
As teams like the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks remain hot on their tail, the Bulls are continuing to lead the Eastern Conference pack.
After back-to-back losses in early December, Chicago has won its last nine contests. Four of those games ended with the Bulls scoring 130 points or more, one of which was Friday’s 130-122 win against Washington. Several of the victories have been blowouts, but Chicago has also been on the winning end of a few nail-biters. Just ask DeRozan, who made NBA history by hitting game-winning threes at the buzzer in back-to-back games.
The winning streak is Chicago’s longest of the year, but it’s hardly a flash in the pan. The Bulls have never lost more than two games in a row as they inch toward the halfway point of the season. For the year, their 112.7 offensive rating is the fourth-highest in the league, while their 108.8 defensive rating is 13th. Not bad for a team whose offensive rating was 19th last season and 27th the year prior.
Arturas Karnisovas, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, has overhauled Chicago’s roster since coming aboard in the spring of 2020. Since taking over, Karnisovas has acquired Nikola Vucevic, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and DeRozan, helping the Bulls right the ship after four straight losing seasons.
JJ Redick compared the Bulls to last year’s Phoenix Suns
On the latest episode of The Old Man and the Three, Redick led off with interesting similarities between this year’s Bulls and last year’s Suns. But first, he admitted his mistake of doubting the Bulls to his co-host Tommy Alter.
“I’ll eat my crow here Tommy, you were right about the Bulls last summer,” Redick humbly stated. “I made fun of you for thinking the Bulls won the offseason. … I will admit, I was wrong.”
Redick, the 15-year veteran who retired last September, then guided listeners through a thorough comparison of the Bulls and Suns, starting with franchise cornerstones LaVine and Devin Booker.
“Prior to [Chris Paul] going to Phoenix, Devin Booker had never played in the playoffs. And there was a lot of noise about whether or not he could be a great player on a great team,” Redick explained. “Clearly, that was wrong. And I think there’s a decent comparison there between Devin and Zach LaVine.”
LaVine, as Redick later noted, has yet to appear in the playoffs since entering the NBA in 2014. But the two shooting guards weren’t the only coincidence he discovered.
“Similar points in their career, the Suns sign CP [and] the Bulls sign DeMar,” Redick said. “The Suns sign a hard-nosed, winning-play-type mentality guy in Jae Crowder, the Bulls do that with Caruso. If you look at numbers, there’s a similarity between Deandre Ayton and Nikola Vucevic.”
“There weren’t great expectations about the Suns last year. … I don’t think anybody envisioned the Suns making the Finals and I don’t think anybody envisioned the Bulls, now  games into the season, being in first place in the East.”
Alter also referenced the head coaches when discussing similarities. Before Billy Donovan joined the Bulls, he coached the Oklahoma City Thunder for five seasons. In 2015-16, his first year on the job, Donovan’s top assistant was none other than Monty Williams, who’s now in his third season with Phoenix.
Could the Bulls meet the Suns in this year’s NBA Finals?
Clearly, Redick is onto something. After years of losing, both the Suns and Bulls entered their respective seasons with playoff expectations. But thanks to key veteran additions and a well-respected head coach leading the way, both exploded past what most people reasonably anticipated.
So is there a chance we could see these two teams meet in the NBA Finals? At this point, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Entering Saturday, the Bulls and Suns lead their respective conferences. Phoenix’s 1-2 punch of Paul and Booker is one of the best in the league, as is Chicago’s DeRozan-LaVine combination. There’s also a level of playoff know-how each team now brings to the table, with Phoenix fresh off of the Finals last year and DeRozan and Caruso giving Chicago much-needed experience.
Both teams are also neck-and-neck in field-goal and 3-point percentage, sitting within the top five of the league for both. Additionally, each club has held things down at home, dropping just four games each within its own building.
Of course, the Bulls will face plenty of competition for a spot in the NBA Finals, as will the Suns. But these teams facing off in the championship would be the perfect symbol of how they took similar paths to contention.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.