With a retooled front court and additions at every spot on the floor, the Chicago Bulls are 4-1, sitting squarely atop the Central Division and tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference.
While most of the conversation has been about injury-prone Derrick Rose’s comeback, holistically this franchise has upgraded. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s barking orders are at an all-time high and Pau Gasol’s primal screams seem to be as great for morale as Carlos Boozer’s were (I heard both in action Wednesday night in Milwaukee and my ears are still ringing). Moreover, this team has started the year better than both the 2013-14 and 62-20 2010-11 teams (Rose’s MVP season). Just five games into the season, it’s impossible to project whether or not this Chicago club will finish the last two months of the regular season on a 21-3 streak, as the 2010-11 team did, but they’ve certainly started the year more efficiently.
Gasol has scored more than 15 points per contest in each of Chicago’s first five games and the Bulls have won with three different starters inactive for two games — Rose, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler. That’s even a conservative estimate given that Rose was out for nearly the entire fourth quarter and overtime of Chicago’s game against Cleveland.
Chicago is turning the ball over 3 percent less, scoring 12 more points per 100 possessions, slowing its pace and are getting to the free throw line and converting more than it did a season ago. Team averages in rebounds, assists and steals have dipped, but those numbers (and mostly everything) will be more indicative with a larger sample size, particularly because Thibodeau’s matrix of a defense hasn’t played with all five projected starters yet this season.
The Bulls haven’t ranked in the top 10 in free throws attempted in more than 15 years. They currently rank sixth, averaging 28.8 free throws attempted per contest. Gasol ranks No. 14 in free throws attempted this season and Butler — despite having only played three games — is No. 18, averaging 10 per game. The team is second in the NBA in blocked shots (7.6 per game), with both Gasol and Noah averaging more than 2.5 per game. Even though it likely won’t last at the same pace, it’s still a 47 percent improvement from a season ago.
Most notably, the Bulls finished last in scoring the past two seasons and haven’t ranked in the top 10 in the category since 2008. They currently are No. 10 — averaging 102 points per contest — while giving up the seventh-fewest points of any team in the league. And only Chicago, Golden State and Houston rank in the top 10 in both total offense and defense.
The 2010-11 Bulls had the best regular season record in the NBA and while this season is still young — and even though the team is being manhandled on the offensive glass (down 24.7 percent from a season ago in offensive rebounds per game) — Chicago looks like they’ll have few regressions in 2014-15. They might be just as good as advertised when the starting lineup is full strength.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Rivals, Denver Post, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He currently writes for Wall Street Journal Sports, the ESPN TrueHoop Network and The Cauldron. He loves interacting with readers via Twitter (@JPlanos).