Analyzing the Bulls’ lukewarm start to the 2023-24 season

Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Alex Caruso, Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images) /

Two blowout losses and two clutch wins have the Chicago Bulls sitting at an oddly respectable .500 after a week of this new NBA season. The 20- and 16-point losses are not ideal, but close, gritty wins are a welcome sight for a Bulls organization that went 15-23 in clutch games a season ago. Fortunately, we don’t have to take shots in the dark to assess this current roster, as the following statistics help tell a more well-rounded story of the Bulls’ opening four games of the 2023-24 season.

Chicago’s effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) of 46.5% and 51.0% respectively are each dead last in the NBA. In fact, no team has shot the ball worse for an entire season since the 2015-16 Lakers, who won a miserable 17 games.

Granted, four games is a minimal sample size for a Bulls team that brought back the majority of last year’s core that finished with a 55.0 eFG% and 58.7 TS% (both 12th in the NBA), yet the most convincing factor that the shooting is bound to improve is again how the team has performed in the clutch.

Historically, shooting percentages in clutch minutes — when the score is within five points with five minutes or less remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime — drop due to higher defensive intensity, but the Bulls have posted a 65.6 eFG% and 71.6 TS% in the clutch, both top six in the NBA. Improving shooting efficiency so drastically in the toughest moments bodes extremely well for the rest of the season, and it’s already shown it can lead to wins.

As the NBA continues to evolve into a 3-point shooting game, the Bulls obviously didn’t get the memo.

The Bulls have made 9.3 three-pointers per game on 31.5 attempts for a 29.4% shooting percentage. These three marks are all bottom five in the league. However, the Bulls have perhaps shown the blueprint to generating wins while not shooting particularly well from distance or taking as many shots.

Of the 54 games taking place before Wednesday’s 13-game slate, five teams came away with a win while making less than nine threes. Both Bulls’ wins fall within those five. During the last two seasons, teams came away with a win while attempting 17 or fewer three-pointers a total of five times. The Bulls became the first to join that club this season Monday in Indiana.

Rather than heaving shots from long distance at a low percentage, the Bulls are finding other ways to win. Chicago has drawn 22.5 fouls per game (3rd in the NBA) and scored 17.8 percent of their points from the free throw line (4th in the NBA). The Bulls have scored the lowest percentage of their clutch points from the three-point line of every team that has made at least one clutch three this season, but they have offset that by scoring 36.4 percent of their clutch points from the stripe.

This migration to the free throw line is being led by the Bulls’ big three, who combined for 25 free throw attempts Monday in Indiana, a feat they only accomplished three times all of last season, including an early-November tilt against Boston in which DeMar DeRozan got to the line 22 times on his own.

Alex Caruso continues to prove why he was chosen to his first NBA All-Defensive First Team last season. He leads the NBA with 20 pass deflections through four games and fuels a Bulls defense that generates 9.5 steals per game (3rd in NBA). Caruso is a solidified piece on a closing lineup that boasts a 95.7 defensive rating in clutch minutes (6th in NBA), and he hit the game-winning three to beat Toronto in overtime for the Bulls’ first win of the season. Perhaps even more impressive, Caruso finished with a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double in a one-point win in which Chicago outscored Toronto by 29 points while Caruso was on the floor.

Zach LaVine has been somewhat of a roller coaster so far this season. In the Bulls’ third game, a loss in Detroit, LaVine shot 12-for-20 from inside the arc and 7-for-13 from beyond the arc for a new career-high 51 points. In the three other games, LaVine has combined for 47 points on 10-for-26 twos and 3-for-21 threes.

The Bulls’ rotation of defense-savvy guards has been elite to start the season. Caruso and Coby White are two of the nine NBA players who have drawn two or more charges this season.

One area they’re lacking, however, is making passes that lead to points. As a team, the Bulls are averaging 19.8 assists per game, they only assist on 51 percent of their team baskets, and they generate assists on 14.5 percent of their possessions. All three of these marks sit at 29th in the league.

While clutch success, free throws, and career highs stand out as some early-season positives for the Bulls, shooting efficiency, three-point shooting and passing are obvious areas with room for improvement. Chicago can rise above .500 for the first time this season on Wednesday when they meet Luka Doncic and the Mavericks in Dallas.

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