The Chicago Bulls have been one of the early surprises of the 2016-17 NBA season, winning their first three games by a combined 58 points,
While the season is still young, it’s been an unexpected result for the new-look Bulls.
The Bulls underwent a radical transformation this offseason, trading Derrick Rose to the Knicks, and letting Joakim Noah (signed with the Knicks) or Pau Gasol (signed with the Spurs) walk in free agency. In the process, they also signed Rajon Rondo and, to the surprise of much of the NBA, Dwyane Wade.
While they’re an outfit with splashy names, there were questions about how the trio of Rondo, Wade, and Jimmy Butler would fit together. All three are ball-dominant players who lack the outside shooting to properly space the floor. With rim-bound Robin Lopez at center and Nikola Mirotic as the only big capable of spreading the floor, the NBA world projected the Bulls to be a grinding, clogged offence that would mash awkwardly on the floor.
Instead, the Bulls are playing exactly how many didn’t think was possible for them. Through three games, the Bulls have the best offence in the NBA, scoring 114 points per 100 possessions and boasting a 57.8% True Shooting Percentage (field goals, three-pointers, and free throws combined), fourth-best in the NBA. Additionally, they’re knocking down 42% of their three-point attempts, having hit 31 threes already. They’re also averaging the second most assists per game and have made the second most total passes in the NBA.
Monday night, in a 118-88 win over the Brooklyn Nets, the Bulls racked up 26 assists on 45 made field goals. They hit 11 of their 27 three-point attempts, setting a franchise record for most made three-pointers in the first three games of the season.
To the surprise of everyone, the Bulls offence has looked crisp, like on this play, where the ball didn’t even touch the floor.
Some of their offensive success has been taking and making the looks that opponents grant them. Defences are still laying off Wade and Rondo on the perimeter, daring them to shoot three-pointers (both are just 28% career three-point shooters). Notice here how the Pacers still don’t contest Wade’s corner three-pointer:
If Wade, in particular, can continue to hit these shots, it will only open up more driving lanes as defences play up on him on the perimeter.
There are reasons to still approach the Bulls bandwagon cautiously, however. The Bulls schedule hasn’t been a cake-walk, but it hasn’t been stacked either. They have beaten the 2-1 Celtics, the 1-2 Pacers (who lost to the Nets), and the 1-2 Nets.
Similarly, three games is a tiny sample size. Wade is on a three-point shooting hot streak, having made 17 of his last 32 three-pointers, dating back to the beginning of last season’s playoffs — a striking number, considering he shot only 7-of-44 last season. He’s never posted a season where he shot above 33% from three-point range in his career.
Rondo, meanwhile, has shot 35% and 36% from three-point range in his last two seasons, but prior, had never topped 33% over a full season. Additionally, teams lay so far off of him that the looks he gets are akin to target practice. It’s unclear how he would shoot if teams began to play up on him. His lone made three-pointer this season was not exactly contested.
The Bulls three-point shooting will surely regress from 42%, but how much will be the question.
What looks more sustainable is the passing and chemistry between Rondo, Wade, and Butler. Perhaps overlooked in bringing these three together was the benefits of having three deft ball-handlers and passers sharing the floor at once. While they may not create large amounts of space for one another, they’re all capable of moving off the ball and making smart reads off the dribble. With other shooters and capable finishers around them, the Bulls have thus far been able to get into the teeth of the defence and make plays for each other.
Certainly, the Bulls offence will regress to some degree, but the early returns are both surprising and encouraging. If all three players can continue to thrive off the dribble and hit a respectable amount of three-pointers, the Bulls might have the makings of a stronger playoff team than previously thought.
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