LONZO BALL WINDS and unleashes an overhead pass across the court.
Alex Caruso, who had just hit the floor under the basket to score another steal, was feeding Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls' point guard. As the ball hits Zach LaVine's basket, the throw is baseball-esque. He takes two dribbles before attempting a 360-degree dunk. The crowd at the United Center of 20,910 is in a frenzy during Wednesday's Bulls win over the Dallas Mavericks.
Ball-to LaVine has become an almost nightly connection in Chicago. Stacey King, Chicago Bulls' color commentator, has given this new era of Chicago Bulls basketball the "Chi Slama Jama", nickname. Ball has surpassed LaVine's transition assist total of 10 this season. He trails only Devin Booker (11) and Mikal Bridges (11), for the most common passer-to-scorer combo.
LaVine stated that the team had a completely different energy during the first week of the season. We expect to play in this manner. ... This is my most exciting moment in basketball."
This level of excitement has not been seen in years. Chicago had the worst winning percentage in the NBA (.339) during the last four seasons. They are already seeing the results of their aggressive offseason to revamp the Bulls' roster through free agency. DeMar DeRozan (a four-time All Star) is now a defensive specialist in Caruso. He leads the league with steals per games and Ball is paired alongside All-Stars Vucevic, LaVine.
The Bulls have an 8-3 record, their best start since 2012. They are among four teams (Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz), that have a record 8-3 start, their best since 2012. This is a surprising result for even the most optimistic projections.
This marks the Bulls' first season with a record of over.500 in any one season since March 2017, when they were playing under the "three Alphas" era that featured Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler. This alone has restored the packed houses that were so common after the 1990s dynasty. From 2011 to 2017, the Bulls were first- or second in home attendance percentage, before dropping to 24th during 2019-20 season. The coronavirus pandemic meant that the Bulls admitted only four more fans to the home games of the 2020-21 season.
The Bulls' new team and ability to highlight reel-oops have brought fans back to the arena. They are in the top 10 most attended teams and the crowd is so happy that they routinely break into "MVP!" chants for Caruso. Since 1998, the Bulls have not won the Larry O'Brien Trophy. They have not been to the playoffs since 2015 and 2017.
The Bulls team is now re-engaging a city that was looking for a winner.
LaVine stated that he is now ready to do whatever it takes to win, despite growing up and maturing in his league. "Obviously, I didn't have a track-record with what I did before.
Mid-November will be a test to see if Chicago can maintain its early-season success. So far, it seems to be thriving. Even opponents players notice how the "Bulls" are back.
The Bulls have played 14 consecutive games against teams in the playoffs and play-in tournaments. They are currently at 4-3. On Friday, the Bulls begin a five-game West Coast tour against the Warriors (10-1), tied for their longest road trip this season. ET, ESPN
Chicago's biggest gamble of the summer may be secured by its additions to the team.
LaVine was denied a long-term extension due to the Bulls' rush to improve their team. 26-year-old LaVine made it clear that he felt he had outplayed the last contract and wanted his respect for the next. LaVine, 26, has one more season on his $19.5 million contract and can become an unrestricted, free agent this summer. He would likely be the best player in the market.
LaVine has repeatedly stated how much he wants to win during his five-year Bulls career. Chicago is the first place to surround him with the talent he needs.
LaVine stated, "I think the most important thing is that I'm going out to have a lot of fun this year." My agent will handle everything contract-wise. Naturally, I would like to be there. It's a great team. ... However, right now I am extremely content where I am and want to see this team win."
When Bulls players discuss sharing the court with Ball, there is a common theme. They are clearly having a great time.
LaVine stated, "It's almost like he had six energy drinks before this game." "Like, how did he get the ball there?"
DeRozan stated, "Hell of talent, talent, and IQ." It's easy; it's enjoyable.
Derrick Jones Jr., Bulls forward, stated that "I haven't had any point guard in my entire career that can just throw it up to the rim for me."
The Bulls have not been able to find a point guard capable of producing consistently since the Derrick Rose era in Chicago in 2016. After a long search, they've exhausted a number of options including Jerian Grant, Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne. Cameron Payne made his breakthrough with the Suns. Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, who could make their season debut on this West Coast trip, missed the beginning of the year due to offseason shoulder surgery, were also considered.
Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan are the two leaders of this Bulls team, which is currently leading the Eastern Conference with an 8-3 record. Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images
Ball was the Los Angeles Lakers No. 1 draft pick in 2017. Ball was the Los Angeles Lakers' No. 2 draft pick in 2017. However, at 24, he is currently playing for this third team in five years. In a sign and trade, the New Orleans Pelicans released him -- still under investigation by NBA for possible tampering violations -- to veterans Satoransky and Garrett Temple and a second round draft pick.
After being the odd man out with two franchises and needing a guard, the Bulls needed a leader and Ball needed a place to call home. Perhaps that is why Ball and Chicago have been such a great match.
He's amazing. LaVine stated that he is one of the best IQ players he has ever played with. "This guy is the real deal. His influence is so great. People try to figure out what they can't do, and that makes it difficult to appreciate all the great things you can do.
Ball's scoring (11.6% per game) is declining and his assists (4.5/game) are at a career-low, but he has been the driving force behind the Bulls' transition offense. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Chicago averages 1.41 points per possession during transition this season. This is second in the NBA, behind the Philadelphia 76ers. Ball is tied for third in NBA with 21 transition assists. His brother, LaMelo Ball (26 for the Charlotte Hornets), is the first. According to Second Spectrum's tracking data, Ball is eighth in points per possess among players who have brought up the ball in transition (minimum 35) according to Second Spectrum.
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ESPN's Caruso said that he is finally blossoming into the player he believes he can become. He also has that confidence in his abilities that makes a big difference." Everyone hopes to be able to reach a place where you are accepted and allowed to play your game.
"He's just an agent. My motto is "Guys can either be energy-sucker or energy-giver." Lonzo is an energy-giver by the way he plays, pushing his tempo and being truly unselfish. ... Because they are getting the ball on the wing, it allows other guys to enjoy the ball.
Ball loves to go to the gym after practice to take some more shots. This routine was developed years ago while playing with his brothers, LaMelo, and LiAngelo. Ball's 3-point shooting accuracy has increased in each of the five seasons he played.
LaVine, DeRozan and now LaVine have joined him for some late-night sessions.
LaVine stated, "It's really refreshing to watch people here working on their games and to have the same drive as you do." "The most important thing is camaraderie. We're all in the gym. We're all working."
After the win over the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 8, DeRozan stated that it was a constant understanding, and it is more than winning a game. Losing a game. It's all about the long-term. To be a great team, you have to work hard every day.
THE BULLS HAD TRIED TO REDO their roster during the March NBA trade deadline. They added Vucevic to help push them into the playoffs. However, they were only able to finish 12-17 and weren't eligible for the play in tournament. The Bulls arrived in Chicago on Sept. 6, two weeks after training camp started, to train at the Advocate Center. Coach Billy Donovan encouraged the players to get to work and they were enthusiastic.
During the offseason, DeRozan and Caruso each made time to meet with LaVine for a workout. Donovan, who was the Bulls' first coach for two seasons consecutively, flew to L.A. with Team USA to visit LaVine.
Donovan looked back at his five-year tenure as a Thunder player in Oklahoma City. That was when Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony were reunited for the first time in 2017. He was disappointed in the time it took for those bonds to develop. Donovan wanted the Bulls and their families to spend as much time together as possible, whether that be playing pickup basketball to discover each other's play styles or going out to dinners to bond off the court.
Donovan stated last week that "these guys all come from situations where they have been the guy." "I don’t know what Vooch was like in Orlando and what DeMar was like in San Antonio. But I do know how much Zach was our backer last year. You're now bringing in players, not just Vooch and DeMar but an entire new rotation. They have to get to know each other and have these conversations. I was trying to speed up some of this, more than anything.
"When you have players like this, you can't expect it to just mesh and gel. It takes some time."
These preseason workouts have been cited by Bulls players as one reason why the team has bonded so quickly. DeRozan (26.0) and LaVine (24.9) are among the top 10 scorers in the league. They became the second Bulls teammate to score 20 points in seven consecutive games, something not achieved since Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan.
DeRozan has had one of the best starts to his career. He shot 48.8% from the floor, hitting a few (34.6%) and a few (34.6%) and still making free throws frequently (7.5 attempts per match, fourth in NBA), to go along with his second-highest field goal percentage (50.9%).
Ball is shooting 44.7% from 3 for his career and Caruso has led the defensive charge, pestering the backcourt. They are receiving contributions from high-energy players like Jones Jr., JavonteGreen, and rookie AyoDosunmu. Ayo is another crowd favorite, who played high school basketball at Chicago's University of Illinois. They have helped to lessen the impact of Patrick Williams' wrist injury, which could end his season.
They still have problems to solve: They are lacking in depth, take only 27.3 3-point attempts per game, and are being outrebounded by teams. Vucevic will be out of action for at least 10 days as a result of his COVID-19 test. He entered the NBA's safety and health protocols on Thursday. These growing pains were mask by a team that is willing to make sacrifices to win.
The Bulls will begin their five-game road trip against Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, Denver, and the Los Angeles Lakers. Friday's game is the first. Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
Caruso stated that "as far as people -- DeMar and Vooch, Zach -- three All-Stars are three of the most low-maintenance, unselfish guys in the league." "Guys who score 20-25 points per games, but can pass to the open guy if that's the right play.
"There is only one common goal. Zach hasn’t won many in his career. Vooch hasn’t won a lot in his career, but he has been to the playoffs once. DeMar has had some success but I think that they all want to return to playing good basketball. When you combine that with the fact that I and some other guys are also chasing success, it makes us all kind of move in the same direction."
LaVine, who is currently in his eighth season as a first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has never been to the postseason. He's never had a winning season, and until the Bulls began this season 4-0 he hadn't been part of a 4-game winning streak in his NBA career.
Chicago is buzzing again, but can it carry this team far?
LaVine stated, "You shouldn't be afraid to play some of the teams because you want them to be playing later in the season." It's an opportunity to challenge yourself and see how far you can improve as a team. These teams are something I look forward too. That's what you need to think about."