LONZO BALL WINDS up and unleashes an overhead pass down the court.
Just moments before, Alex Caruso had hit the floor underneath the basket to secure another steal, feeding Nikola Vucevic, who quickly found the Bulls point guard. The baseball-esque throw finds its mark as the ball hits Zach LaVine, who takes two dribbles and throws down a 360-degree dunk with authority as a sold-out United Center crowd of 20,910 works itself into a frenzy in the Bulls’ win against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.
The Ball-to-LaVine combo has become a near nightly connection in Chicago; “Chi Slama Jama” color commentator Stacey King has dubbed this new era of Chicago Bulls’ basketball. Ball has collected 10 assists to LaVine in transition this season, trailing only Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges of the Phoenix Suns (11) for the most frequent passer-to-scorer combination.
“We just got a totally different energy with the team,” LaVine said during the opening week of the season. “We expect to play this way. … This is the most excited I’ve been playing basketball.”
It has been years since the Bulls have provided reasons to muster this much excitement. No team in the NBA had a worse winning percentage (.339) over the past four seasons than Chicago. But after an aggressive offseason to overhaul the Bulls’ roster in free agency — bringing in four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, a defensive specialist in Caruso, who leads the league in steals per game, and the ever-crafty Ball to pair alongside All-Stars Vucevic and LaVine — they are already reaping the benefits.
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) November 11, 2021
The Bulls are off to an 8-3 start, their best since 2012. They are one of four teams (Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, Miami Heat) that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency during this young season, a surprise for even their most optimistic projections.
It’s the first time the Bulls have been over .500 at any point during a season since March 2017, during the short-lived “three Alphas” era, featuring Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. That alone has brought back the packed houses that became routine on the heels of the 1990s dynasty. The Bulls were first or second in home attendance percentage during every season from 2011 to 2017 before dipping to 24th during the 2019-20 season (the Bulls only admitted fans into the final four home games of the 2020-21 season because of the coronavirus pandemic).
Their new-look team and capacity for highlight reel alley-oops has brought the fans back into the arena, where the Bulls are in the top 10 in attendance and the atmosphere is so jubilant the crowd routinely breaks into “MVP” chants for Caruso. The Bulls haven’t raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy since 1998, haven’t won a playoff series since 2015 and haven’t been to the postseason since 2017.
But this Bulls team has re-engaged a city starving for a winner.
“Growing up and maturing in the league, you’re at a certain point, or at least I am now — I’m willing to do anything to win,” LaVine told ESPN. “Obviously, what I was doing before, it didn’t have a track record.”
Whether Chicago can sustain its early-season success is being tested in mid-November, and so far it is thriving. Even opposing players are noting how the “Bulls are back.”
The Bulls are playing 14 straight games against teams that were in the playoffs or play-in tournament and have started this grueling stretch 4-3. They begin a five-game West Coast trip, tied for their longest stretch of road games this season, against the Warriors (10-1) on Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The team’s additions are paying off, and perhaps it will help Chicago secure its biggest gamble of the summer.
The Bulls’ flurry of offseason moves to improve their team prevented them from having space to offer LaVine a long-term contract extension before the season began. LaVine, 26, was clear during the summer he believed he had outplayed his last contract and “wanted his respect” for the next one. With one season left on his deal at $19.5 million, LaVine can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and would be, perhaps, the best player on the market.
However, LaVine has reiterated often during his five-year Bulls’ career how badly he wants to win. This is the first time Chicago has surrounded him with the talent ready to do so.
“I think the main thing, I’m going to play this year out and just have extremely fun with it,” LaVine said. “Contract-wise, I’ll let my agent handle it. Obviously, I want to be here. We have a really good team. … But as of right now, I’m extremely happy where I’m at and I want to help this team win.”
A COMMON THEME emerges when Bulls players talk about sharing the court with Ball. It’s clear they’re all having a blast.
“It’s like he’s drunk six energy drinks before the game,” LaVine said. “Like, how did you get the ball there?”
“Hell of a player, talent, IQ,” DeRozan said. “It’s fun; he makes it easy.”
“I really haven’t had a point guard in my career thus far that can just throw the ball up to the rim to me,” Bulls forward Derrick Jones Jr. said.
Since the Derrick Rose era ended in Chicago in 2016, the Bulls haven’t had success finding a point guard who is capable of consistently producing. They’ve shuffled through a list of uninspiring options, including Rondo, Jerian Grant, Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne — before his breakout with the Suns — Tomas Satoransky and Coby White, who could make his season debut during this West Coast trip after missing the start of the year because of offseason shoulder surgery.
Ball was the Los Angeles Lakers’ No. 2 overall draft pick in 2017, but at 24 is now playing for this third team in five seasons. The New Orleans Pelicans let him go in a sign-and-trade — a move still under investigation by the NBA for potential tampering violations — for veterans Satoransky, Garrett Temple and a second-round draft pick.
The Bulls needed a lead guard and Ball needed a home after being the odd man out with two franchises, so perhaps that helps explain why Ball and Chicago have been a perfect match thus far.
“He’s incredible. He’s one of the highest IQ guys I’ve played with,” LaVine said. “This dude is the real deal. He affects the game in so many different ways. Obviously, people try to figure out what you can’t do and you don’t appreciate all the good things that you do do.”
Ball’s scoring is down (12.6 points per game) and his assists (4.5 per game) are at a career low, but he has been the engine that drives the Bulls’ transition offense. Chicago is averaging 1.41 points per possession in transition this season, the second best in the NBA behind the Philadelphia 76ers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Ball has 21 assists in transition this season, tied for the third most in the NBA (his brother, LaMelo Ball, is first with 26 for the Charlotte Hornets). Ball ranks eighth in points per possession among players who have brought the ball up in the court in transition (minimum 35 times), per Second Spectrum’s tracking data.
“He’s finally flourishing into the player he knows he can be and he just has that confidence in himself that goes a long way,” Caruso told ESPN. “Being able to come to a situation where you’re embraced and given the green light to go play your game is what everybody hopes for.
“He’s just a catalyst. I have a saying, ‘Guys are either energy-giver or energy-sucker.’ Lonzo’s an energy-giver, the way he plays, pushing the tempo, being really unselfish. … It lets other guys enjoy the ball because they’re getting it on the wing for layups and easy buckets.”
Ball likes to show up to the gym to put up some extra shots at night after practice, a routine that developed years ago playing alongside his brothers, LaMelo and LiAngelo. Those extra shooting sessions have been credited with helping Ball improve his accuracy — his 3-point shooting percentage has improved in each of his five seasons.
Now LaVine and DeRozan have started joining him for some of those late-night sessions.
“It’s been really refreshing to see people in here working on their game and to have that same drive that you do,” LaVine said. “The main thing is having that camaraderie, we’re all in the gym, we’re all working.”
DeRozan said after the Nov. 8 victory over the Brooklyn Nets: “It’s a constant understanding of, it’s bigger than just winning a game. Or losing a game. Understanding it’s the long run. And to be a good team you gotta understand you gotta work at it every single day.”
THE BULLS HAD attempted to overhaul their roster on the fly during the NBA’s trade deadline in March, adding Vucevic to push the team into the playoffs, but they finished 12-17 and didn’t qualify for the play-in tournament. On Sept. 6 and more than two weeks before training camp began, the Bulls arrived in Chicago to work out at the Advocate Center. The players, encouraged by coach Billy Donovan, were eager to get to work.
Caruso and DeRozan, during the offseason, had each found time to meet up with LaVine to work out together. Donovan, the first Bulls coach LaVine has had for two consecutive seasons, flew to L.A. to spend time with LaVine after he returned from Tokyo with Team USA.
Donovan harkened back to his five-year tenure in Oklahoma City, when the Thunder brought together the trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for the first time in 2017. After seeing how long it took those bonds to form, he wanted the Bulls to spend as much time as possible with each other, playing pickup basketball to learn each other’s tendencies on the court and going out to dinners to get to know each other off the court.
“These guys are all coming from situations where they’ve been the guy,” Donovan said last week. “I don’t know what it was like for Vooch in Orlando, and I don’t know what it was like for DeMar in San Antonio, but I know how much we relied on Zach last year. Now you’re bringing players in, not only Vooch and DeMar, but [an entire new rotation]. They’ve got to play with each other and get familiar and have these conversations. I was just trying to, more so than anything else, expedite some of that.
“When you put players like that together, you can’t just expect it just to mesh and gel, it takes a little bit of time.”
Those preseason workouts are what Bulls players have mentioned as the reason for why this team has meshed so quickly. Both DeRozan (26.0, sixth) and LaVine (25.9, seventh) are top 10 in the league in scoring and they became the second pair of Bulls teammates to score 20 points in seven straight games, a feat not accomplished since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
DeRozan is off to one of the most efficient starts of his career, shooting 48.8% from the field, mixing in a few 3-pointers (2.4 attempts per game) and hitting a few (34.6%), and still getting to the free throw line frequently (7.5 attempts per game, fourth in the NBA) to add to the second-highest effective field goal percentage (50.9%) of his career.
Ball is shooting a career-best 44.7% from 3, and he and Caruso have led the charge defensively, pestering teams in the backcourt. They are getting contributions from high-energy role players such as Jones Jr., Javonte Green and rookie Ayo Dosunmu, another crowd favorite who played high school basketball in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois. Their efforts have lessened the blow, for now at least, of losing Patrick Williams to a potentially season-ending wrist injury.
The Bulls still have issues to work out: Their depth remains thin, they take the fewest 3-point attempts in the league (27.3 per game), they are getting consistently outrebounded by teams punishing them for their lack of size in the frontcourt and they will be without Vucevic for at least 10 days after he tested positive for COVID-19 and entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols Thursday. But these growing pains have been masked by a team willing to sacrifice to win.
“As far as people — DeMar, Vooch, Zach — the three All-Stars, they’re three of the most low maintenance, unselfish guys of that caliber in the league,” Caruso said. “Guys who [score] 20-25 points per game, but are OK passing to the open guy if it’s the right play.
“There’s just a common goal. Zach hasn’t won a lot in his career. Vooch hasn’t won too much in his career; been to the playoffs a couple times. DeMar’s had some success, but I think they’re all kind of hungry to get back to playing really good basketball. And you couple that with me and some of the other guys chasing that success as well, we’re all just kind of moving in the same direction.”
LaVine is in his eighth season, which began as a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014, and he has never played in the postseason. He has never experienced a winning season and until the Bulls started this season 4-0, he’d never been a part of a four-game winning streak during his NBA career.
The excitement has returned to Chicago, but how far can that carry this team?
“You can’t be scared to play some of these teams because you want to be playing them later on in the season,” LaVine said. “It’s a challenge to see where you are as a group and how much you can get better. I look forward to playing these teams. I think that’s the mentality you have to have.”