The Chicago Bulls: Buy, Hold, or Sell?

benny-the-bull-commons
RIP Benny the Bull

So as we all suspected, the Chicago Bulls are at the top of the league in offensive efficiency at 114.7 points per possession. More importantly, my eyes did not bleed watching them try to manufacture points as other teams pack the paint. They did bleed from watching them take on the Brooklyn Nets, but that’s besides the point. (Full disclosure: I barely watched the Pacers game as I switched to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series, a truly difficult decision.)

The question of extrapolation is… will the Bulls go 82-0?

Strength of Schedule 

The schedule has been a mixed bag. The Bulls took on a strong Boston Celtics team and a solid Indiana Pacers team that were both coming off back-to-backs. The Nets like myself just want to lay down and die. You can only play the schedule you are given, but the schedule has been more than kind.

But, they destroyed the Pacers and Nets with a 17.7 win differential over three games. They certainly weren’t doing that last year.

Hold

Three-Point Shooting

Three Alphas? More like Three Alphas. Zing!

Okay, I’m done.

The offense has been a great deal better than I’ve expected. The most obvious problem was that Fred Hoiberg started a hilarious shooting five of Rondo, Butler, Wade, Gibson, and Lopez. I haven’t seen so little outside shooting since the last season of the Bulls. The three-point explosion in the Celtics game was famously ridiculous, with Dwyane Wade hitting four to the entirety of last regular season’s seven. Even Rajon Rondo connected.

Isaiah Canaan has shown flashes of being an off the bench microwave guard in the same vein as Aaron Brooks and Nate Robinson. And Doug McDermott continues to be great behind the arc, hitting 1.7 threes at a 50% clip in 24 minutes. I’m just doubtful he’ll be playable for that long in the (maybe?) playoffs with his defense. I was about to write Nikola Mirotic was exposed last year when team scouts started realizing that despite his reputation and volume he was a pump-fakey and inconsistent shooter, but he shot a terrific 39% last year even through all the streakiness. He’s currently languishing at 30%, and we know that three point percentage is one of the most inconsistent statistics.

Wade’s playoff, preseason, and current trend are gathering in sample size, but I’m still skeptical. I think the Bulls will be better than the three-point laughingstock many of us expected, but they’ll end up below average.

Sell 

Offense

And yet, I’ve been impressed by the amount of shot creation. Brooklyn fans were actually bristling with excitement after Dwyane Wade pulled out multiple between-the-legs crossovers on a hapless Bojan Bogdanovic. The passing (despite a few expected Rondo overpasses) and cutting has been surprisingly solid. What was particularly fascinating was how the Bulls attacked a usually stolid Celtics’ defense. They continuously switched the point of attack, with the three guards and wings attacking and creating. They didn’t integrate smoothly together and Butler and Wade both took questionable shots, but it was difficult for the Celts to overload with so much slashing and foul-baiting.

As for the bigs, Taj Gibson has been bulling his way in, picking up cheap shots and hitting his foul-line jumper. The problem is it lacks any sort of efficiency, always taking a decent volume because he rarely draws fouls. Meanwhile Nikola Mirotic runs and tears through defenses like he’s Kobe reborn.

Hold

Defense

The Bulls currently sit tied with the Charlotte Hornets at 97 points per possession allowed behind consistent luminaries like Atlanta, Cleveland, the Clippers, San Antonio. The inevitable rise of Boston, the Golden State Warriors, and Tom Thibodeau’s rasping ghost of statistical regression will eventually push the Bulls down much further.

Rondo and Wade have been quite terrible the past few years despite their prime abilities and predilections. But I am excited to see that Robin Lopez isn’t quite the sluggish monolith I expected him to be. He’s been surprisingly spry for a big man his size. Though the defense has benefited from the other team continuously taking the ball out of the basket.

Sell 

Bench

As I’ve mentioned already, I’m excited about Isaiah Canaan as a streaky fourth guard with whom you can either ride the hot hand or pull when he doesn’t have it. He also currently has a 32.67 PER, so he might also win the MVP.

Cristiano Felicio continues to be a huge Brazilian man who is a little raw. Bobby Portis continues to attack like a caffeinated terrier black hole. He has to learn how passes work. But I am extremely concerned that the Bulls doubled down on Denzel Valentine after Doug McDermott, another septuagenarian rookie who lacks athleticism but can shoot. We’ve seen shooters like Kyle Korver game-planned to death by the Cavaliers. I’d much rather go with athletic wings who you can teach a shot to like Butler, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George (an admittedly, extremely difficult task). Tony Snell was a gamble that didn’t keep me up at night.

Even still, we look to be deeper than I thought. Mirotic has been a solid sixth man, and the Bulls acquired Michael Carter-Williams for nothing.

Buy 

Playoff Contention 

The Bulls over-under began at 38.5, and starting 3-0 is a good sign. Before the year, I thought their range was about 37-45 and put their playoff chances at about 35-40%. Right now, I’m revising slightly upward to 39-43 wins. Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto are the general consensus top three in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks I suspect would’ve been great before the crippling Kris Middleton injury. Same to a lesser extent with Reggie Jackson and the Detroit Pistons. I believe the Pistons, Wizards, Hawks, Pacers, and Hornets will be in there with the Bulls, rising over the Magic and Bucks in this mediocrity mishmash. One of those initial six will have to fall out of the playoffs; I just have no idea which one.

If this were a stock, there would be better buys. But am I revising the price target up? Yes! I look forward to a gentleman’s sweep in the first round!

Buy 

Watchability

I admit to thinking this Bulls team would be an atrocity offensively and defensively while capping our ceiling with the elderly additions of Wade and Rondo. And while I objectively would prefer a full Jimmy Butler-centric rebuild with Mirotic off the bench and young draft picks, I am truly enjoying watching Wade. Once upon a time he was the most exciting player in the league. Fifty years from now, even with no bones and no cartilage, I bet Wade will still be slowly Euro-stepping, pump-faking, and throat-slashing his way to fouls and fines.

(The thought of no Benny the Bull still makes me cry.)

Buy 

Overall 

If the Chicago Bulls were a stock, their current valuation would be through the roof. The P/E ratio would be a mess. Sales are unsustainable and there is little obvious upside with no trust in management. However, based on the upcoming technical analysis, I believe the Bulls can continue their run as they spend most of their early November feasting on mediocre Eastern Conference opponents (i.e. their peers). While the fundamentals (Jimmy Butler) remain partly intact, I still don’t like the long-term story. As a one-year prophecy, I can stomach them.

If I were rating my ability to maintain an extended metaphor, that would be a “Sell”! For the Bulls, I’m upgrading my preseason price prognostication:

Sell to Hold 

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