Three strange developments in the NBA Eastern Conference
By almost any measure, this has been a strange NBA season.
Aside from the fact that Harrison Barnes was looking like more of an early MVP candidate than Damian Lillard, there’s also the fact that Cleveland—Cleveland!—is 7–5 through 12 games. You have to go back 21 years to find the last time the Cavaliers were this far above .500 this late in a campaign without a man named LeBron on their roster.
It requires going back much further than that, to 1975, to find the last time Washington finished with the most wins in the Eastern Conference. Yet the new-look Wizards are currently tied for the best record in the East, even though franchise player Bradley Beal hasn’t played anywhere near his best to this point.
With all that in mind, we broke down three of the more odd aspects of the young season thus far.
The Bulls are winning … with defence?
While Chicago undoubtedly stood as one of the league’s most intriguing teams heading into this season, most of that intrigue—if not all of it—stemmed from the club’s offensive capabilities.
Seeing the Bulls through that prism made sense. After all, they already had Zach LaVine, quietly one of the NBA’s best scorers. They’d finally get to see him in extended action with center Nikola Vucevic, the pick-and-pop beast the organization dealt for at the 2021 trade deadline. Beyond that, adding DeMar DeRozan, a free-throw-line inhabitant who’s always had to carry more than his share of scoring responsibilities, would relieve some of the pressure LaVine felt to create from the wing and vice versa.
So it’s not necessarily surprising that their offence ranks sixth best in basketball, especially as free-agent pickup Lonzo Ball drills his almost seven three-point attempts per game at a 44.7 per cent clip.
But in one of the more interesting and perhaps consequential developments of the season so far, the Bulls—tied with the Wizards for the East’s best mark—are showing lockdown tendencies on defence.
Most Chicago fans would have gladly taken “not bad” on defence, given the team’s perceived deficiencies on that side of the ball. DeRozan gets lost on the perimeter like a tourist who doesn’t speak the language, and stretch bigs figured to pose a problem for Vucevic. But not only is Chicago not bad there, it’s actually excelling just as much on that end of the floor—ranked sixth—as it is on offence.
Taking things one step further: The club has been the stingiest defence in the NBA in fourth quarters—more than the Clippers, Warriors, or Jazz—when getting stops take on added importance.
While many weren’t believers in the Bulls’ ability to get stops, the team appears to have struck gold with its closing lineup of Ball, LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic and free-agent signee Alex Caruso. (We’ll take credit for having had faith in this lineup’s defensive chops—even as far back as the summer.) Caruso has been a high-value hound, not only leading the league in steals while coming off the bench, but also logging more deflections per minute than any other player in the NBA.
In just the first three and a half weeks of play alone, the Bulls have held the following teams scoreless for lengthy fourth-quarter stretches:
If the Bulls are back, offence will be part of it. But more and more, it’s looking like defence will be, too.
The Magic are rebuilding … but have arguably the best-performing starting five so far
Outside of perhaps the Thunder, there might not have been a team with lower expectations than Orlando. The Magic play for a first-time head coach in Jamahl Mosley and have one of the youngest starting fives in NBA history: Cole Anthony is 21, Jalen Suggs 20, Mo Wagner 20, Wendell Carter 22, and Mo Bamba is 23.
Watch the young club often enough, though, and a clear pattern emerges. For all of its youth, the starting unit routinely establishes breathing room for its backups. That group, which had the league’s best net rating among starting fives until Wednesday, is beating opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions.
But those leads vanish like Mickey Mouse funnel cakes at a Disney park: there one minute, then literally gone the next.