After DeMar DeRozan’s heroic back-to-back buzzer-beaters to end 2021 and begin 2022, I doubt many here will forget just how memorable last New Year’s was for the Chicago Bulls. While it may be a difficult act to follow up on, the Bulls will get a chance to once again deliver their own NYE fireworks as they close out the year against their divisional rival Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bulls can’t get too far ahead of themselves, however, as they’ll have to take on the Detroit Pistons first tonight. The Pistons have had just about as bad of a season as anyone this year, but the constantly rising tide of young talent means you can’t overlook anyone in today’s NBA — as Chicago recently learned in their meeting with Houston on Monday.
Detroit has lost six of their last seven contests while Cleveland is on a three-game losing skid of their own, meaning Chicago will have plenty opportunity to take advantage of these teams looking to find a foothold in the standings.
While we know what to expect from DeRozan and Zach LaVine at this point, I believe the Bulls’ chances at enjoying a successful end to their 2022 will ultimately hinge upon the performance of three particular players.
These three players will each have a big impact on how the Chicago Bulls close out December and perform in this back-to-back to end the year.
1. Nikola Vucevic
Believe it or not, the Chicago Bulls are a much better team when their third All-Star is actually playing like one. In their last 11 games, the Bulls have gone 5-1 in games Nikola Vucevic has scored 20 or more points, and have a record of 1-4 in games in which he misses that mark.
It should come as no surprise then, that the Bulls are trending up at the same time Vucevic has been. Despite posting averages of 14.9 points on 50.3% from the field and 33.3% from deep in November, Vucevic has improved on all accounts in December with averages of 18.4 points on 54.7% shooting and a lights-out 42.2% from beyond the arc.
Whether or not Vucevic has gotten involved and performed well has been a very reliable barometer for Chicago’s odds of winning as of late, so make sure to follow Vooch’s play closely the next two nights.
2. Alex Caruso
Speaking of solid and dependable play, the Bulls have relied heavily on Alex Caruso in December for his consistent defensive presence on the perimeter. Since being promoted to the starting lineup on December 2, the Bulls have had a defensive rating of 115.6. In the last three games without Caruso, however, Chicago’s defense has been a whole four points worse with a defensive rating of 119.6.
Extrapolated over the course of an entire season, that mark would be bad enough to become the worst defense in the entire NBA, surpassing even San Antonio’s awful 118.5 defensive rating. The Bulls have been fortunate to split the four games Caruso has missed 2-2 in December, but they’ll absolutely need him down the stretch if they wish to remain in the playoff conversation.
3. Andre Drummond
With Derrick Jones Jr. sidelined due to injury, Andre Drummond has found his position in the rotation revitalized with increased minutes. He’ll be absolutely essential this weekend, pitted against his two former teams. This much is especially true since he’ll be competing with the likes of up-and-coming young stars Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, and Jalen Duren this weekend.
All three of these players have proven to be monstrous in the paint in their relatively young careers, each with legitimate All-Star potential in their future. It will be up to Drummond to flex his veteran experience and put these young guns in check. Last year with the Nets, Drummond posted a 14-point and 13-rebound game against the Pistons as well as a 15-point, 12-rebound game against the Cavaliers, so he very clearly still has it in him. If Drummond shows up ready to dominate the boards, Chicago’s odds of emerging 2-0 after this weekend will increase dramatically.