Strength of schedule offers explanation for Chicago Bulls’ slow start

Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

For those of you that have tuned in closely during the last two seasons, I wouldn’t blame you if you felt a little disappointed about how things are going so far. After all, the Chicago Bulls got off to a red-hot 12-5 start to the season last year, a mark that would currently be good enough for 3rd place in the East and 1st in the West. Things haven’t gone nearly as well this time around, however, as the Bulls currently occupy 11th place in the East with a 7-10 record.

There are a multitude of factors that help explain why Chicago seems to have taken a precipitous step in the wrong direction, including most notably the absence of their floor general, defensive stalwart, and 3-point specialist Lonzo Ball. That being said, the one thing I haven’t seen nearly mentioned enough is the tremendous uptick in the quality of opponents Chicago has faced in the early goings of their schedule this year.

Through 17 games, the Bulls have played the NBA’s second-most difficult strength of schedule, according to ESPN. Their opponents have achieved a winning percentage of .529, which eclipses every other team in the league with the exception of the 8-8 Philadelphia 76ers.

11 of their 17 contests have come against playoff teams from last year, while an additional 3 were against teams that qualified for the 2022 NBA Play-In Tournament. The Wizards, Pacers, and Magic have been the only relatively ‘easy’ opponents the Bulls have played all year. It’s important to keep this in mind when considering past results, as last season’s 12-5 start comes in direct contrast to this year’s early goings.

Things are only set to get easier from here for the Chicago Bulls, who have endured the NBA’s second-most difficult strength of schedule to date.

The Bulls were allowed the chance to build positive momentum and gel as a unit early on last year, with their first four games all coming against bottom-feeding lottery teams from the previous season. Starting the season with a 4-0 record allowed the Bulls to control the narrative and be seen as a serious threat right from the jump. This season, however, the Bulls are 17 games deep and have still yet to face four actively tanking teams, as they did right from the start last year.

Despite their poor record this season, the Bulls have actually struggled the most to win the presumed ‘easy’ games on their schedule. They’ve battled hard against better teams, achieving a 5-6 record against playoff teams from last season and notched two wins over the NBA-leading Celtics. It’s the lottery-bound teams that have Chicago struggling, as they are only 2-4 in those matchups.

Considering ESPN had the Bulls projected to win just 8 of their 17 matchups thus far, they actually aren’t severely underperforming against the odds, despite what it may look like at a first glance. Then again, ESPN also predicted the Bulls to take a small step back and win 44 games this season, so we’d like to see Chicago outperform these projections, if anything.

If the Bulls get the version of the team we saw out there last night, I’d like to think it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll win more often than not. If this was just a fluke victory and their slump continues any longer, however, we may witness some major shakeups to this team sooner than expected. With the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz next up on the schedule, the Chicago Bulls will have ample opportunity to prove their legitimacy as contenders this week.

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