Going back to last season’s trade deadline, the Chicago Bulls have re-tooled almost their entire roster. The second half of last year wasn’t promising, and plenty of questions surrounded head coach Billy Donovan’s team heading into 2021-22. But a handful of those new faces are playing meaningful roles for one of the best teams in the NBA.
Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, and Zach LaVine have been Chicago’s leaders thus far. Nikola Vucevic, Alex Caruso, and Javonte Green have all chipped in.
But Donovan is the head of the snake. The way he’s managed the roster he’s been given, specifically on the defensive end of the floor, has been the most significant reason the Bulls have been one of the best teams in the league to start the year.
The Chicago Bulls are the fourth best team in the NBA by record
The Bulls have a record of 10-4 through the first 29 days of the season. That includes wins over the Utah Jazz, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, and LA Clippers.
DeRozan has gotten off to one of the best starts in a career that will likely land him in the Hall of Fame. The 32-year-old leads Chicago in scoring at 26.9 points per game. He’s shooting 37.1% from three, by far a career-high. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2:1 as he’s also been a playmaking force for the Bulls’ offense.
LaVine is scoring 25.9 points a game, Ball is shooting a career-high 44% from deep, and Caruso is handling the best perimeter defenders and doing all the little things that matter.
As a team, Chicago is third in field-goal percentage and fourth in 3-point percentage. Defensively, however, is where the team has shone brightest.
With a starting lineup that has included poor career defenders DeRozan, LaVine, and Vucevic, it would be understandable for the Bulls to be average at best on that end of the floor. Instead, Donovan’s team has the fifth-best defensive rating in the league.
Chicago is fourth in plus-minus as a team (5.9) and plus-12.9 in victories.
The season hasn’t come without its challenges. Still, the Bulls’ head man has rolled with the punches.
Billy Donovan is pushing all the right buttons
Second-year forward Patrick Williams was expected to be the team’s ace on defense. He’s out for the season.
Vucevic — Chicago’s third-leading scorer — entered the league’s health and safety protocols before the team’s road game against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 12. The Bulls proceeded to get smoked by Stephen Curry and the NBA’s best team.
With a back-to-back against the Clippers and Lakers coming, Donovan needed to make a change. Again, he made the right call. Caruso came in to start as a fourth guard in place of Green. Chicago ended Paul George and the Clippers‘ seven-game winning streak.
Caruso and Ball got a chance at revenge against their former team the following night, and the Bulls blew out Anthony Davis and the Lakers. Donovan threw 15 double teams at Davis, and the star took only nine shots, per the Los Angeles Times.
“I like some of the adjustments we made,’’ Caruso said via The Chicago Sun Times before the win over the Lakers. ‘‘We had some sacrifice from some guys, changing their minutes, changing their roles a little bit to help the team win. In that aspect, just adapting to our current situation without [Vucevic] and trying to find ways to win, it was just a good response.”
Donovan is being forced to alter his lineups on the fly, and right now, it feels like whatever string he pulls seems to work.
The Bulls appear to be headed for a deep playoff run
Chicago hasn’t been a great rebounding team this season, even with their starting center in the lineup. The Bulls have games against Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers, as well as Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on the Horizon.
An inter-division rivalry game against Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, and the Indiana Pacers looms as well.
The former University of Florida head coach will have to continue to play his cards right with a small lineup against some of the best big men in the league.
But he’s excited about the challenge, he said via Yahoo News:
“I think this is good for us,” Donovan said of the Vucevic injury. “Because it’s going to force us to have to get better as a group under these circumstances.”
It will also force Chicago’s head coach to dig even deeper into his bag and look even further down his bench for answers. But Donovan has already proven he’s up to the challenge, which bodes well for his team come postseason time.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.