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Good News: The Bulls Are Getting Off to Better Starts

Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls have not left much room for criticism over their first 15 games of the season. A 10-5 start has far exceeded expectations, especially when we consider their record includes victories over some of the league’s most established playoff threats (i.e. Jazz, Nets, Lakers, Clippers). With that said, nobody is perfect, and the Bulls have made sure to remind us of that fact in the first quarter of many games early on this season.

Despite racking up wins, Billy Donovan’s crew found themselves playing the role of comeback king more often than they’d like. While it was fun to watch the Bulls erase an 18-point deficit against the Jazz and a 19-point deficit against the Boston Celtics, no one could pretend this was a sustainable recipe for success, especially Donovan.

“These guys battle and fight, they don’t give up. I have great respect and admiration they have fought their way back. But, like I said, it’s hard to live like that,” Donovan told reporters after the Bulls 103-98 loss to Philly on November 3rd. “You talk about a 19-point comeback, and I thought it showed great resolve to come back and do that, but boy is that a tough way to live every night if you’re gonna sit there and say we have to come back from that kind of deficit.”

The Bulls matchup with last year’s top team in the East, the Philadelphia 76ers, was the first time this team struggled to overcome their slow start. They found themselves down 18, and while they were able to tie the game with roughly 6:40 to go, the 76ers stepped on the gas. It was a reminder that, while the Bulls’ resilience should be admired, the amount of energy expelled in these comeback efforts can oftentimes prove fatal.

Notably, defense wasn’t necessarily the Bulls’ problem. While they did allow teams to grab early-game momentum, the Bulls still held the 8th-best 1st quarter defensive rating. Instead, the issue rested on the other side of the ball with the team’s 6th-worst first-quarter offense. Chicago shot just 43.1 percent in the opening frame over the first nine games of the season. That’s what I call … “ew.”

Fast forward six games, however, and the Bulls have completely flipped the script. Since the November 8th victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago’s first-quarter shooting clip sits at a league-high 53.6 percent. The team has walked into the 2nd quarter with a lead in five of the last six games, and this has come despite losing their All-Star center and playing much fiercer competition (Opponents: Nets, Mavericks, Warriors, Clippers, Lakers, Blazers).

The Bulls now currently hold the NBA’s 4th-highest net rating in the 1st quarter after 15 games, which is a pretty impressive turnaround considering where things stood. And while everyone deserves a round of applause for turning the tide, Zach LaVine should get the biggest.

Before the previous six games, LaVine sat 4th on the team in first-quarter points per game (3.6). Jump ahead to today, and the All-Star averages the 7th-most points to start the game in the NBA (8.5). Part of this has just been a clear emphasis on LaVine’s part to start faster and play downhill. However, the absence of Nikola Vucevic has also likely been a driving force. No, the team isn’t better without him on the floor, but the Bulls’ urgency to get him going from opening tip pulled away from LaVine’s early-game opportunities. Vucevic averaged the most 1st quarter field goal attempts on the team over his first 11 games of the season, per NBA Stats. Not only do we know how rocky his shot was to start the year, but this signals the Bulls were starting the game off playing at a bit of a slower pace.

Again, none of this is to say the lack of Vucevic leads to better starts, but rather an aggressive LaVine is a key. Head coach Billy Donovan told reporters last week that this stretch without the big man would be beneficial for the team long term, per Cody Westerlund. I think learning how to get off to strong starts could be one of those long-term benefits. Perhaps when Vucevic returns, we will continue to see a more aggressive LaVine and more fast-paced Bulls offense right out of the gate. I’m sure there will still be a plan to get Vucevic going in one way or another, but maybe that can be a more gradual in-game process.

Regardless of what approach the team takes upon Vucevic’s return, it’s encouraging to see one of the bigger early-season concerns mellow out over the past handful of games. I think it’s just another example of how Donovan and this roster can show steady improvement as the season goes on. Now … let’s just hope blowing 20-point leads doesn’t become the new trend.



Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is a writer for Bleacher Nation and a human being. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.