No offense to my beloved hometown team of the Toronto Raptors, or Washington Wizards (currently ranked one and two in the East), but the Chicago Bulls are the most impressive team in the Eastern Conference a quarter of the way through the season.
I can hear you all now – “Don’t the Raptors have a 15-4 record?”, “The Raptors lost their NBA All-Star shooting guard, and have won two games!”, “Umm, the Wizards are 10-4 in the conference, they get no love?”. Let me break this down for you. It’s not that Raptors haven’t blown people away, playing way above where people expected them to. It’s not that the 6–2 road record for the Raps doesn’t make the Dino fans out there smile. It’s not that the Wizards aren’t an impressive 10–4 against conference opponents. It’s not even that the Bulls are a mediocre 2-2 within their own division. There are two reasons I put the Bulls above their limited Eastern Conference competition.
One, the Bulls have had to deal with Derrick Rose being in and out of the line-up more often than I am in and out of love with the Toronto Maples Leafs (that is a lot). The Bulls have succeeded with a Rose-less garden before, and had success, but it’s different when any team knows they are without a player for weeks or months. The coach and GM have a chance to change the game plan, make a trade, move pieces around and find what works. Having Rose in for one game and out for the next, never knowing when he will start or sit has to make playing the game very difficult on his teammates. It has to make it even worse on Rose who would not be practicing and coming in rustier than an iron gate in Florida after a hurricane. To go 12–7 given this situation would be a feat onto itself. But it wouldn’t be enough to leapfrog the Wiz or Raps. This brings me to my second point.
Two, the Bulls are 10–3 on the road. I’m ignoring the 2–4 record at home, the 2-2 record within the division, and the fact that the only other team in the division with a winning record are the 9–7 Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls have played 13 of their first 19 games on the road and have killed it. The Raptors are a respectable 6–2 on the road so far, but that isn’t even half of their current games to date. The Wiz are a disappointing 4–3 on the road, and that’s not even a third of their total number of games played. To put this a different way; the Bulls have as many road wins as the Raptors and Wizards combined. They are only two shy of the total number of road wins for the rest of their division combined. This road-trip diet is going to pay off later in the season as other teams burn out on the road while trying to prepare for the NBA Playoffs.
It is still very early in the season with many question marks surrounding the teams towards the top end of the Eastern Conference. Can the Raptors maintain this pace of play and stay healthy? Will the Wizards continue to be able to run the way they have? Can the Atlanta Hawks make a surge and maybe acquire a missing piece to pull it all together. Can the Cavs play as a unit instead of individuals. The question surrounding the Bulls is never about the ability, but always around the health of Derrick Rose. A lot can happen over the next 60+ games, but if you’re a Bulls fan I’d be feeling optimistic about what this team can do, with or without Rose.