The Chicago Bulls made two offseason splashes by signing Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. With Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic already on board, the offense figured to be explosive. That’s held true. Entering play on Thursday, the Bulls’ 110.5 offensive rating ranks sixth league-wide.
The surprise is the defense holding the same No. 6 position, giving up just 103.3 points per 100 possessions. Do the math, and that’s a plus-7.2 net rating, fourth-best in the league, as Chicago has raced out to an 8-3 start heading into a marquee matchup against the 10-1 Golden State Warriors on Friday.
Where is the defense coming from? Everywhere, really. But at the center of their active defensive attack is Ball and Alex Caruso, the latter of which drew more headlines for the Lakers letting him go than for the Bulls actually getting him. Caruso has been awesome: he leads the league with 2.6 steals per game and his 4.3 deflections per game rank second.
This is how the Bulls protect the paint (eighth fewest paint points allowed per game) without an elite rim protector. They sink down on drivers and go after the ball as an active swarm while still being able to recover to run shooters off the 3-point line (just 29 percent of the shots the Bulls surrender are 3-pointers, the second-lowest mark in the league, per Cleaning the Glass).
Ball is right there with Caruso at the heart of all this activity. Together, they produce just under seven deflections and over four steals per game. Add it up, and the Bulls create a turnover on 16.4 percent of their opponents’ possessions, the seventh-best mark in the league, per CTG, and score 20.5 points per game off those turnovers, the third-best mark in the league.
For your viewing pleasure, Caruso to Ball to LaVine:
All told, when Ball and Caruso are on the court together, the Bulls are outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions. When Caruso flips with Javonte Green and plays with the other four starters (Ball, DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic), they’re plus-16.2 points per 100 with a positively smothering 95.4 defensive rating.
And it’s not just the defense. While LaVine and DeRozan — who look like All-Star locks so far — have almost flawlessly balanced a “your turn-my turn” relationship as Chicago’s primary playmakers, Caruso and Ball have slotted as textbook secondary creators who space the floor while also being empowered to initiate off the dribble. Caruso is shooting 41 percent from 3, while Ball has caught fire from downtown as of late.
Over his past five games, Ball, who is at 45 percent from 3 for the year, is shooting 56 percent from deep on almost seven attempts per game. On Wednesday, he finished one off his career high with seven 3-pointers (7 for 10) in Chicago’s win over Dallas.
There are some odd on-off stats happening in Chicago. LaVine, for instance, is minus-18.1 during his minutes for the season, while Caruso is minus-seven. Chalk that up to small-sample deception and some different lineup handicaps. But you can take Ball’s plus-minus at face value, as the Bulls are 11.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Ball has been terrific. I’d still love for him to find some kind of ability to score inside the arc, but at this point, he knows who he is and sticks to his strengths.
Even accounting for the requisite “it’s still early” qualifier, the Bulls have looked fantastic. Ball and Caruso appear to be in the perfect situation, their best traits unleashed while DeRozan and LaVine handle the star stuff. And to think, Vucevic, who unfortunately will be out for a while with COVID-19, was only just starting to get going. When and if he clicks, the Bulls are going to be an even taller order to go against.