After a major roster overhaul in the offseason, the Chicago Bulls made noise in beginning the 2021-22 season with a 4-0 record. While that may not seem like much, the four-game winning streak doubled as the first such run of Zach LaVine’s career, illustrating just how turbulent things had been in Chicago in recent seasons. The Bulls did cool off, at least to some extent, following their early-season blitz, but Chicago is now on another active four-game winning streak, and that pushes the Bulls into the top-2 of the Eastern Conference standings.
At 17-8 through 25 games, the early portion of Chicago’s new-look approach has been an unmitigated success. The Bulls are scoring nearly 1.19 points per possession during the winning streak, a run that featured a road sweep over the Nets and Knicks in New York. For the season, Chicago is scoring more than 1.1 points per possession, taking care of the ball at an elite level (13.3 percent turnover rate) and generating a top-five free throw rate. LaVine has been fantastic, following up on his breakout from a year ago, and the Bulls are shooting 36.9 percent from three-point range. It remains to be seen as to how sustainable that is given the team’s roster, but Lonzo Ball is connecting on 42.6 percent of long-range attempts and the Bulls are largely keeping non-shooters off the floor.
Perhaps the No. 1 reason for Chicago’s breakout success is the play of newly-acquired DeMar DeRozan, who is putting together an All-Star campaign. The veteran is averaging 26.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, posting a 59.2 percent true shooting mark on 30.3 percent usage. As of Monday, DeRozan is in the health and safety protocols but, when he returns, Chicago can take solace in his sky-high level of performance, and the team has been excellent whenever DeRozan has been on the floor.
While Chicago’s offense was supposed to be solid at the very least with DeRozan, LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, and plenty of talent, the surprise has been the defense. There are some indicators that the Bulls may not be quite as good as their current performance due to shooting luck, but Chicago is unquestionably better than expected. Opponents are scoring only 105.6 points per 100 possessions against the Bulls this season, with that number dropping to 102.7 points per 100 when the duo of Ball and Alex Caruso are patrolling the perimeter. Chicago’s roster pieces aren’t necessarily seamless fits in a traditional sense, but Caruso and Ball are making opponents uncomfortable and, at least for now, making up for a stark lack of rim protection.
No 25-game sample is enough to erase all doubt about the Bulls, but the first 25 games of this era in Chicago are highly encouraging. Can the Bulls challenge the Nets and Bucks for supremacy in the East? That remains to be seen, but Chicago is higher in our DIME power rankings this week than many would have projected back in October. Just how high are the Bulls? Let’s find out.
1. Golden State Warriors (20-4, Last week — 2nd)
Phoenix usurped Golden State based on a head-to-head win last week. Then, the Warriors returned the favor, albeit in a game that didn’t feature Devin Booker. Still, Golden State gets the edge based on a considerably large gap in net rating, with the Warriors leading the league +13 points per 100 possessions. Admittedly, though, the Warriors and Suns are 1A and 1B right now.
2. Phoenix Suns (20-4, Last week — 1st)
The Suns still have only one loss since late October. That is, of course, completely ridiculous, and Phoenix has been able to maintain a strong level with Booker sidelined. Phoenix’s defense has been notably impressive, ranking No. 2 in the league, and that raises the already lofty ceiling of the Suns.
3. Milwaukee Bucks (16-9, Last week — 3rd)
News broke this week that Brook Lopez will be sidelined indefinitely after back surgery. That is brutal news for Milwaukee, and the Bucks aren’t quite the same team without him. For now, though, the Bucks are rolling with a 10-1 record and a double-digit net rating during that sample.
4. Utah Jazz (16-7, Last week — 5th)
It was a relatively quiet week for the Jazz, with only two games on the docket. Utah kept rolling with two wins, and the Jazz trail only the Warriors in point differential. Utah is scoring three more points per 100 possessions than any other team in the league. Remember when Utah was viewed as a defense-first team?
5. Chicago Bulls (17-8, Last week — 7th)
The Bulls aim for a season-best fifth consecutive win on Wednesday in Cleveland. The odds weren’t high that Bulls-Cavs would be must-see TV in the preseason, but that’ll be a fun one.
6. Brooklyn Nets (17-7, Last week — 4th)
Brooklyn’s winning formula has shifted this season, relying more on defense and patching over holes with Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris sidelined. The Nets are No. 6 in defense, which is genuinely shocking, and Kevin Durant is from another planet. Regardless, the Nets are doing what they need to do, and Brooklyn falls only due to a head-to-head loss to Chicago this week.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (14-10, Last week — 19th)
No team has moved up and down in the rankings more than Memphis this season, but the Grizzlies are riding high now. Memphis just reeled off five straight wins without Ja Morant, which is thoroughly impressive. The Grizzlies now have four straight home games to attempt to build on that already strong push.
8. Atlanta Hawks (13-12, Last week — 8th)
Atlanta set a franchise record with 25 three-pointers on Monday night and, in the process, the Hawks zoomed to the No. 2 spot in the NBA in offensive rating. Nate McMillan’s team is still scuffling on defense, but this is a top-eight team in net rating that largely survived a schedule gauntlet and myriad injuries in the first 25 games.
9. Miami Heat (14-11, Last week — 6th)
With Jimmy Butler sidelined and Bam Adebayo set to be out for several weeks, the Heat are in crisis. Miami remains in the top ten, at least for now, out of respect for what happened early in the year, but the Heat are 3-6 in the last nine games and those struggles may continue for a while.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (13-11, Last week — 11th)
The Sixers are 10-4 when Joel Embiid plays this season. It’s been a weird campaign with Philadelphia dealing with injury, illness, and the absence of Ben Simmons, but Doc Rivers’ team is lingering. Embiid scored 71 points combined in two wins over Atlanta and Charlotte this week, and that’s probably a good sign for his future.
11. Los Angeles Lakers (13-12, Last week — 13th)
It’s hard too be too optimistic about the Lakers, but they aren’t going anywhere. It helps that the middle of the league is bunched up beyond belief, but Los Angeles is 8-5 with LeBron in the lineup and they looked good in a breezy win over the Celtics on Tuesday.
12. Boston Celtics (13-12, Last week — 9th)
Boston’s in the middle of a tough west coast trip, though the Celtics did blast the Blazers in the middle of the journey. It would’ve been nice if the Celtics were better against the Lakers on Tuesday, but they will have the chance to win a game in Los Angeles again on Wednesday with a back-to-back against the Clippers.
13. L.A. Clippers (13-12, Last week — 14th)
Speaking of the Clippers, L.A. is 2-4 in the last six and 5-8 in the last 13 games. That isn’t exactly blowing anyone away, but the Clippers did beat the Lakers in a head-to-head last week. They will be at home all week with three games on the docket, and that could kickstasrt Ty Lue’s team.
14. New York Knicks (12-12, Last week — 17th)
It feels silly to have the Knicks at No. 14 with how they’ve played, but that could be said for any number of teams. New York took care of business with a road win over San Antonio on Tuesday, but the Knicks have also been out-scored for the season. Good luck trying to make heads or tails of this entire tier of teams.
15. Charlotte Hornets (14-12, Last week — 16th)
Half of Charlotte’s rotation has been in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, which at least partly explains recent results. To their credit, the Hornets were able to steal a road win in Atlanta with a depleted roster, and they took the Sixers to overtime on the very next night. James Borrego is doing a nice job.
16. Cleveland Cavaliers (13-12, Last week — 20th)
It’s been a good two-week period for the Cavs, even if the some of the early-season buzz is gone. Cleveland won four in a row and, while the last two did not go the way the Cavs wanted, the losses came to Utah and Milwaukee by single digits. Oh, and the Cavs are No. 4 in the NBA in defensive rating through 25 games. That’s impressive.
17. Washington Wizards (14-11, Last week — 12th)
The bloom is off the rose in the nation’s capital. Washington is 4-8 in the last 12 games, giving up more than 1.14 points per possession with a hideous -7.3 net rating over that sample. With three straight losses at the time of this post, Washington might even deserve to be lower, but the season-long profile is solid enough to avoid freefall.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves (11-13, Last week — 10th)
A week ago, we were expressing overarching optimism about Minnesota. Some of that still applies, but the Wolves promptly went 0-3 this week. The loss to Atlanta on Monday wasn’t too brutal on its face, but that game happened at home on a night in which Minnesota simply had no defensive answers. That’s at least mildly concerning.
19. Denver Nuggets (11-12, Last week — 18th)
Only the Magic, Thunder, and Pistons have been worse by net rating over the last 10 games than the Nuggets. That isn’t a good place to be, even if some of the struggles are explainable by roster challenges. A team with Nikola Jokic on the floor can only fall so far, but it’s not going well.
20. Toronto Raptors (11-13, Last week — 23rd)
Toronto’s defensive issues have been puzzling all season long, and the overall numbers are bad. However, the Raptors may have found something in allowing fewer than 100 points in three straight games. That came with two victories over Milwaukee and Washington, and that perhaps brings some encouragement for the future.
21. Sacramento Kings (10-14, Last week — 24th)
The Kings only played two games this week, and they won both of them against the same opponent in the Clippers. I’m not sure how much was learned with those wins, but Sacramento certainly needed them.
22. Indiana Pacers (10-16, Last week — 22nd)
Rebuild season is reportedly here in Indiana. It makes sense on some level but, at the same time, the Pacers haven’t picked in the top ten of the NBA Draft in more than three decades (I promise this is true) and they just hired Rick Carlisle for top-dollar on the bench. It’s a weird situation, but the Pacers are worth monitoring with a very close eye for the next few weeks.
23. Dallas Mavericks (11-12, Last week — 21st)
The Mavericks’ 9-4 start was put together with smoke and mirrors and a quick look at the team’s point differential was all one needed to see that. Since then, Dallas is 2-8 and the formerly high-powered Mavericks just slogged through a three-game losing streak with 98.2 points per 100 possessions. Yuck.
24. San Antonio Spurs (8-15, Last week — 25th)
The Spurs are 4-2 in the last six, and San Antonio’s only real blemish came on Tuesday with a loss on a back-to-back to New York. They are operating in virtual obscurity, but the Spurs have been competitive following a disappointing 4-13 start.
25. Houston Rockets (7-16, Last week — 27th)
So, this is weird. The Rockets lost 15 games in a row. Then, the Rockets immediately won six games in a row. Per Elias Sports Bureau, that was the first time that any NBA, NHL, MLB, or NHL team produced that level of madness. There is credit due to Stephen Silas and Houston for bouncing back.
26. Portland Trail Blazers (11-14, Last week — 15th)
Things are absolutely disastrous in Portland right now. Damian Lillard isn’t happy, CJ McCollum is injured, Neil Olshey is no longer employed, and the on-court product is hideous. The Blazers have lost six of the last seven, and Portland allowed nearly 1.2 points per possession over that stretch. They shouldn’t be this bad. The vibes are dreadful.
27. New Orleans Pelicans (7-19, Last week — 26th)
Zion Williamson still isn’t playing, but New Orleans is at least playing better. The Pelicans are 4-3 in the last seven games, scoring more than 1.14 points per possession. New Orleans lost by 10 in Houston on Sunday, or the Pelicans might be higher on this list.
28. Oklahoma City Thunder (7-16, Last week — 29th)
It’s rather unbelievable that Oklahoma City lost a game by 73 points this week and still rose in the rankings. Granted, the Thunder were short-handed in that game, but Oklahoma City bounced back with a nice road win over Detroit to end the week. They can take a small pass for the history-making mess against Memphis.
29. Orlando Magic (5-20, Last week — 30th)
Detroit made it easy on Orlando in escaping the basement. The Magic are still struggling mightily with the worst net rating (-10.6) in the NBA, but Orlando did beat Denver this week. That’s a nice result amid the ugliness.
30. Detroit Pistons (4-19, Last week — 28th)
On the bright side, Cade Cunningham is coming on strong, averaging 22 points and 7.8 rebounds in the last four games. On the less rosy side, the Pistons have lost nine straight games, including a home loss to OKC that ensured Detroit would land in the No. 30 spot this week.