NBA

3 takeaways from the Bulls’ inconsistent start to the 2022-23 NBA season

3 takeaways from the Bulls’ inconsistent start to the 2022-23 NBA season

After seven games last season, the Chicago Bulls went 6-1 with back-to-back wins over then-Western Conference powerhouse Utah Jazz and eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

That this latest win ultimately turned out to be last season’s only in 15 tries against the conference’s top four couldn’t ruin an electrifying start. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso both forced turnovers. DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine scored in bunches. And Nikola Vučević manned the boards as the Bulls owned the top seven offensive and defensive ratings and fourth-best net rating in the league.

After seven games this season, the Bulls are 3-4 with impressive wins over the Miami Heat and Celtics, but disappointing losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs.

Ball is sidelined indefinitely after knee surgery. LaVine is not playing in back-to-back sets following his own knee procedure. The Bulls rank 21st in offensive rating, 14th in defensive rating and 16th with a minus-0.4 net rating.

Seven games don’t make a season, as last season so painfully proved. But nevertheless, they provide some evidence to analyze. Here are three top takeaways:

Slow startups are a problem

The Bulls have lost five first quarters and trailed by double digits in three. Their defensive rating of 131.1 is the worst in the league by nearly three points behind the Indiana Pacers.

After another slow start in Saturday’s home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, coach Billy Donovan said he and his staff will “look at everything,” but also made it clear the problem isn’t due to a player but how the group has worked.

“We’re playing on the rebound and using so much energy to get back into the game. Part of that is offensive execution. Defensively, we’re not as tight and physical as we need to be. We’re just letting teams play the way they want,” Vučević said. “Once we wake up and focus a little more and get physical, we make stops. But it has to happen from the beginning. Otherwise, it’s going to be a struggle every night.”

In fact, the Bulls’ 3-point defense has been a problem in every quarter, which is why they rank 28th in allowing 43.2 percent from that distance. But first quarters are especially problematic as the Bulls struggle to dominate the game plan, rotations, or both.

The Bulls are allowing opponents to shoot an astounding 57.6 percent on a whopping 9.4 3-point attempts in the first quarter alone. The 29th-ranked team, the Sacramento Kings, is shooting 48.3 percent.

“We are good enough to return to the games. But your luck will run out. Your energy, shots, drive, whatever it is, it’s going to wear off over time,” LaVine said. “Obviously when we’re down, you’re fighting for your life to get back in the game. We have to get out this way.

“Since those first few games, that’s been our MO. Let’s go to the first unit. The second unit usually comes in and saves our asses and plays better.”

The depth is legit

As LaVine said about this second unit…

The Bulls’ bench ranks 14th in scoring, fourth in assists and seventh in rebounds. The reserves have been consistent enough to field an 11-man rotation from Donovan when everyone is available.

Goran Dragić seems to have chemistry with everyone, but Andre Drummond in particular. Drummond, a longtime elite rebounder, is averaging a career-high 36 minutes per rebound. Javonte Green and Caruso rank first and second in the league in deflections. And Derrick Jones Jr., an intriguing combination of athleticism and activity, is why Donovan uses 11 players.

“With our second unit, it’s pretty much like a starting lineup,” Drummond said.

That’s helping Donovan’s goal of keeping players like Caruso fresh for the long term. The defensive-minded guard, in a bigger role last season, battled nagging injuries before his inevitable broken wrist on a flagrant foul by Grayson Allen. Caruso averaged 28 minutes last season, but has dropped to 25.3 so far this season.

LaVine isn’t LaVine yet

The two-time All-Star has produced plenty of flashes through his first four appearances, including a blistering 46.4 percent on seven 3-point attempts per game. He also gets to the line 6.3 times per game.

But even with an improved showing against the 76ers, LaVine has yet to show his typical finisher ability. His 50 percent shooting from 3 feet inside is a career low 65.3 percent shooting at the rim. He’s also connecting on just 16.7 percent of his shot attempts between 3 and 10 feet.

This will change. What might not be LaVine’s inconsistent availability. Neither Donovan nor LaVine have made much clear whether their management plan for the knee that currently sidelines him for a game every back-to-back, including one this week, is temporary or a season-long situation.

Playing more will not only improve LaVine’s timing and rhythm to help him regain his typically elite finishing skills, but it could also benefit his decision-making. The 76ers attacked DeRozan in the second half, forcing the ball out of his hands and forcing LaVine and others to make decisions.

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