3 takeaways from Bulls' inconsistent start to 2022-23 NBA season

3 takeaways from Bulls' inconsistent start to season originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

After seven games last season, the Chicago Bulls stood at 6-1 with back-to-back victories over the then-Western Conference powerhouse Utah Jazz and at the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

That the latter victory ultimately proved to be last season’s only in 15 tries against the conference’s top-four finishers couldn’t ruin an electrifying start. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso forced turnovers. DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine scored in bunches. And Nikola Vučević controlled the boards as the Bulls owned top-seven offensive and defensive ratings and the league’s fourth-best net rating.

After seven games this season, the Bulls are 3-4 with impressive victories over the Miami Heat and Celtics, but disappointing losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs.

Ball is sidelined indefinitely following knee surgery. LaVine isn’t playing in back-to-back sets of games following his own knee procedure. The Bulls rank 21st in offensive rating, 14th in defensive rating and 16th with a net rating of minus-0.4.

Seven games don’t make a season, as last season so painfully proved. But they nevertheless offer some evidence to parse. Here are three early takeaways:

Slow starts are an issue

The Bulls have lost five first quarters and trailed by double digits in three. Their defensive rating of 131.1 is a league-worst by almost three points below the Indiana Pacers.

Following yet another slow start in Saturday’s home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, coach Billy Donovan said he and his staff will “look at everything” but also made clear the issue isn’t because of one player but rather how the group has functioned.

“We’re playing catchup and using so much energy to get back in the game. Part of it is execution offensively. Defensively, we’re not as locked in and physical as we need to be. We just let teams play the way they want,” Vučević said. “Once we wake up and focus a little bit more and get physical, we get stops. But it has to happen from the beginning. Otherwise, it’s going to be a struggle every night.”

Indeed, the Bulls’ 3-point defense has been an issue in all quarters, which is why they rank 28th in allowing 43.2 percent from that distance. But first quarters are especially problematic as the Bulls struggle to either master the game plan, rotations or both.

The Bulls are allowing opponents to shoot a staggering 57.6 percent on high volume of 9.4 3-point attempts in the first quarter alone. The 29th-ranked team — the Sacramento Kings — check in at 48.3 percent shooting allowed.

“We're good enough to get back into the games. But your luck's gonna run out. Your energy, shots, momentum, whatever it is, will run out eventually,” LaVine said. “Obviously, when we're down, you're fighting for your life to get back into the game. We need to come out that way.

“Because these first games, that's been our MO. We're getting down on the first unit. Second unit usually comes in and saves our ass and plays better.”

Depth is legitimate

As LaVine was saying about that second unit...

The Bulls’ bench ranks 14th in scoring, fourth in assists and seventh in rebounding. The reserves have been consistent enough to draw an 11-man rotation from Donovan when everyone is available.

Goran Dragić has seemingly formed chemistry with everyone, but with Andre Drummond in particular. Drummond, long an elite rebounder, is producing a career-high per-36-minute rebounding average. Javonte Green and Caruso rank first and second in the league in deflections. And Derrick Jones Jr. intriguing mix of athleticism and activity is why Donovan is using 11 players.

“With our second unit, it’s pretty much like a starting lineup,” Drummond said.

This is helping Donovan's goal of keeping players like Caruso fresh for the long haul. The defensive-minded guard, in an increased role last season, battled nagging injuries before his unavoidable wrist fracture from a Grayson Allen flagrant foul. Caruso averaged a career-high 28 minutes last season but is down to 25.3 thus far this season.

LaVine isn’t LaVine yet

The two-time All-Star guard has produced plenty of flashes through his first four appearances, including a sizzling 46.4 percent on seven 3-point attempts per game. He’s also getting to the line 6.3 times per game.

But even with an improved showing against the 76ers, LaVine has yet to display his typical finishing prowess. His 50 percent shooting from 3 feet inward is below his career 65.3 percent shooting at the rim. He is also connecting at just 16.7 percent of his shot attempts between 3 and 10 feet.

That will change. What may not is LaVine’s inconsistent availability. Neither Donovan nor LaVine has shed much clarity on whether his knee management plan that currently is keeping him sidelined for one game of all back-to-back sets, including one this week, is temporary or a season-long situation.

Playing more not only will improve LaVine’s timing and rhythm to help him recapture his typically elite finishing skills, but also could benefit his decision-making. The 76ers blitzed DeRozan in the second half, forcing the ball out of his hands and LaVine and others into decision-making mode.

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