A year ago when the Bulls climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, it was completely unexpected.
Now in their second season as an NBA power, dominant victories like the one Wednesday in Atlanta have become routine.
With a 41-11 record, the Bulls are five games ahead of last year’s pace through 52 games. But that campaign didn’t produce a strong finish — they dropped four straight to Miami in the conference finals.
Does having a better record mean the Bulls have gotten significantly better this season?
That depends on how well they do in the playoffs, but here’s a look at some statistical categories that might provide some clues:
The 98-77 victory in Atlanta was the Bulls’ seventh straight on the road, and it improved their record away from the United Center to 21-6. That’s on pace for the second-best road record in team history, following 33-8 in 1995-96.
Of course, everything is based on winning percentage, since this is a lockout-shortened, 66-game season.
Recent trends show that winning on the road is a good indicator of playoff success. Last year the two NBA finalists, Miami and Dallas, posted the league’s best road records at 28-13. In three of the last four years, the team with the best road success won the NBA title.
Tracking a little farther, the trend falls apart. Two straight NBA champs, Miami in 2006 and San Antonio in ’05, were barely above .500 on the road during the regular season, going 21-20.
But winning on the road might go hand in hand with a more dominant trend — only once in the past nine seasons has the top seed in the East advanced to the Finals.
Maybe the Bulls shouldn’t even bother trying to stay in first place.
On the bright side, the last teams that did reach the Finals as the top seed (Boston in ’08 and New Jersey in ’02) had Brian Scalabrine on the roster.
This probably is the Bulls’ greatest team-wide improvement. They jumped from a 3-point percentage of .361 last year to .384 this season, which ranks second in the league behind San Antonio.
Last year they had just one player shoot above 40 percent for the season, Kyle Korver at .415.
This season three are shooting better than 40 percent — Korver (. 431), C.J. Watson (. 429) and John Lucas (.418) — while Luol Deng isn’t far behind at .395.
Why are they shooting better from long range? Adding Lucas to the rotation helped. But the best explanation probably is better ball movement, which comes from a better understanding of coach Tom Thibodeau’s offense.
The Bulls actually are shooting fewer 3-pointers per game (16.6) than they did last season (17.3).
One area where the Bulls are dominating the league statistically is the offensive glass.
Their offensive rebound percentage is .327. Basically, that means whenever the Bulls miss a shot, they grab their own rebound nearly one-third of the time. The L.A. Clippers rank second at an even 30 percent.
Last year the Bulls ranked fourth in this category, but they finished behind three average teams — Minnesota, Sacramento and Portland. So maybe it’s not a great indicator of team success.
Likewise, the best offensive rebounding team in league history was the 1991-92 New Jersey Nets at 39.1 percent. They finished with a 40-42 record.
Looking across the Bulls’ roster, there isn’t any individual improvement that stands out. Players with better numbers than last season, such as C.J. Watson, basically are producing the same but playing more minutes.
One area where individual numbers have improved, though, is with the interior trio of Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. In his second season, Asik is grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game, up from 3.7 last year with only a slight jump in minutes.
Boozer and Gibson, meanwhile, have made nice gains in shooting percentage. Boozer has gone from .510 to .538, while Gibson jumped from .466 last year to .502.
Again, this probably has a lot to do with the players knowing the offense and doing a better job of moving the ball.
Thibodeau often says the Bulls are an inside-out team. If the big men are scoring efficiently, it should create good looks from the 3-point line and that should explain the Bulls’ offensive success.
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