Bulls midseason superlatives: Best win, top performer, more originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
the Chicago Bulls reach the midway point of this confounding season following Monday’s game in Boston on pace for either 38 or 40 victories, depending on that outcome.
They own the second-easiest remaining schedule by current opponents’ winning percentage, so they could better that projection.
It has been a wild season, to be sure.
The Bulls are 6-1 against the top-three teams in the Eastern Conference in the Celtics, Bucks and Nets and 1-6 against teams that are under .500 at the time of their meeting. It makes little sense.
Let’s try to restore some semblance of sanity to the first half of the season with some awards:
Given the gaudy record against the conference’s top-heavy teams, there are myriad choices. But the Nov. 21 home victory over the Celtics stands out.
Boston entered riding high with a nine-game win streak. The Celtics played their regular rotation, with stars like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown having strong games.
But the Bulls proved their first victory in the season series and competitive loss in Boston was no fluke. In fact, the Bulls match up well against a Celtics team that often had Marcus Smart guarding Nikola Vučević. Smart is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s a guard. Vučević ate with 12 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
The Bulls placed all five starters in double figures. DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine combined for 50 points, and as a team, they posted 26 assists while even sinking an atypical 14 3-pointers for good measure. A quality win.
Like the above category, this is a crowded field.
With no ties allowed and with apologies to allowing 150 points for the first time in 40 years during an awful road loss in Minnesota, the Dec. 26 home loss to the Houston Rockets prevails.
Here’s why: The Bulls responded to that Timberwolves debacle and stories of internal tensions with three straight gritty road victories in Miami, Atlanta and New York. Surely, a home meeting against the team with the Western Conference’s worst record and NBA’s worst road record would continue the good vibes.
Instead, the Bulls fell behind 23-5. Let’s repeat that: 23-5.
That they righted the ship to lead at halftime and then ultimately lost 133-118 may be more galling. The Bulls allowed the Rockets shoot 55.6 percent, sink 17 3-pointers and place all five starters in double-figures. Head shaking.
Best first half by individual
DeMar DeRozan is having another All-Star caliber season. He’s averaging 26.4 points on 50.4 percent shooting and getting to the free-throw line 8.2 times a game, which he converts at an 88.7 percent clip.
DeRozan has 14 games with 30 or more points, tied for 11th in the league. This helped sustain the Bulls’ middling offense as LaVine rounded into form.
It will be intriguing to watch moving forward if DeRozan can take a step back offensively to have more balanced scoring.
Most disappointing first half by individual
Patrick Williams has had moments, including a season-high 22 points in a strong, all-around game in the recent home victory over the Brooklyn Nets. But he still has far too many games where he’s not making enough of an impact to be noticed.
His scoring, rebounding and assist averages all are near those from his first two seasons. He will never become a dominant scorer playing alongside DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević, and at least he has proved to be a reliable 3-point shooter. But he still has too many games where he doesn’t cut with enough force or rebound well.
Defensively, the third-year forward above average in an offense-driven league and has the ability to guard multiple positions. But again, he doesn’t have consistent signature performances at that end yet in a season that was tabbed as a potential breakthrough.
Most improved individual
LaVine split the Bulls’ first three back-to-backs as part of a knee injury management plan, and was noticeably limited in the games he did participate in for the first month-and-a-half following offseason knee surgery.
All along, he vowed that it was only a matter of time before he returned to past form.
Of late, those words have come prescient. In 14 December games, LaVine averaged 24.5 points with 52.1/42.9/82.8 percent shooting splits, including 74.1 percent in the restricted area. Coming off a back-to-back in which he scored 77 points and shot 17-for-25 from 3-point rage, he’s off to a scalding start to January as well. And he hasn’t missed a game since Nov. 6.
LaVine playing like an All-Star obviously drastically changes the Bulls’ ceiling. Even if a third career selection is unlikely, that is exactly what he is doing as the season hits its midway point.
Most promising statistic
Scoring 119.2 points per 100 possessions, the Bulls own the fourth-best offensive rating in the league over the last 11 games. Those games have featured more balanced scoring and more games where DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević play well simultaneously.
This is the offensive vision that head coach Billy Donovan desires, although it mostly has been defined by — probably — unsustainable shooting. The Bulls rank 30th in assist percentage over that same stretch.
Least promising statistic
The Bulls attempt a league-low 28.7 3-point attempts per game. No wonder Donovan said he’d “love” to see LaVine attempt 10 to 15 3-pointers per game moving forward.
Lonzo Ball’s absence certainly impacts this category. But the Bulls’ roster simply doesn’t feature enough 3-point threats, a vital weapon in today’s NBA. Goran Dragić, the team’s only offseason addition in this department, has played well in his reserve minutes and is shooting 39.2 percent from beyond the arc. But it’s clear the Bulls are keeping his minutes down.
In most of Donovan’s closing lineups, only LaVine and Vučević represent legitimate 3-point threats.
Biggest odds of first half
Technically, this is from the preseason. But it’s so depressing and so important to the franchise that it gets the knot. It’s from Lonzo Ball on Sept. 27, the day before he faced his second surgical procedure in eight months for his balky left knee.
Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play.
And Ball still can’t play — with no timeline for his return — even though the Bulls are nearing the one-year mark since he last took the court.
The Bulls went 21-14 in Ball’s first 35 games with the franchise, playing with pace and selflessness and 3-point shooting and defensive tenacity that fueled the team’s attack at both ends. But Ball hasn’t played since Jan. 14, 2022, against the Golden State Warriors. Almost in a cruel coincidence, the Warriors visit on Jan. 15, 2023, with Ball still sidelined.
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