Since it's around a quarter of the way through the season (or because I have the time right now), it's a good time for a status check on the Bulls, going through some metrics (tempo-independent, in case you're new to such things) to determine the improvement.
And overall it has been an improvement. By ESPN's expected wins formula, the Bulls currently have the 4th highest winning percentage in the league, and 1st in the East. They receive such a high ranking based on outscoring their opponents by an average of 4.5 points a game, which is fairly significant. Like I mentioned during the blowout tour of the Atlantic division, blowing out (instead of merely winning close) bad teams means you're pretty good, and that's reflected in the expected wins.
So has the much-maligned (by the mainstream media, anyway) offense improved? Here's a breakdown of the Bulls offense thus far:
The Bulls still play at a very high pace, somewhat counterintuitive for what's known as a defensive team. However as you can see it was that way in last season as well. The important thing is that overall, the once-poor offense has been upgraded to average. Breaking it down further...
Aside from the slight dip in turnover ratio (although ranking-wise it's an increase) the Bulls have improved by every other offensive metric, notably in their shooting. We also see the first instance of what you'd believe to be a Ben Wallace effect, both in percentage of Offensive rebounds grabbed, and the slight increase in FTA (of course, if you aren't making them...).
[Speaking of that last stat, I neglected to mention how fantastic Ben Gordon was in Wednesday's game attacking the basket. When he does that he's such a better player, and pretty impossible to guard, especially for a team like the Sonics. I feel the need to say this because Gordon's usually only mentioned here for his faults or tradeability. I'm sure he appreciates this, heh.]
On to the defense, where the overall results have also improved, but with a drastic change in method:
By watching the games, I would not have figured that the Bulls lead the league in preventing opponents' offensive rebounds. I'm guessing the initial depressing feeling you get seeing a rebound go to the other team makes it hard to take them in perspective. This is the Wallace factor again, although remember this isn't a comparison of him and Chandler now, but him against Chandler's disappointing final season as a Bull.
But what's startling is how the type of defense has changed this season. Paxson said over the offseason that the fact that they were last in the league in steals signaled to him that they needed to get more athletic defensively. So whether it's just adding the steal-and-block savant Wallace (the other athletic offseason additions aren't getting significant minutes) or a change in coaching philosophy, the Bulls have become a more aggressive defensive team. Whereas last season they dug in and either forced a low-percentage shot or fouled, this year the defense has been forcing turnovers.
Is this change in defense helping the offense? It's common sense to make that correlation, as turnovers lead to transition opportunities and higher-percentage shots. No matter the method, the Bulls need to be an elite defensive team to carry their mediocre (yet improved) offense if they want to remain a force in the East. Whether it's the old way of a great defensive FG% or maintaining this season's rank as the elite team in the NBA in forced turnovers will be something to watch throughout the season.
And of course, beating up on the East does throw some cold water on the Bulls gaudy point differential. The Bulls have had a relatively easy (in terms of the median NBA team, although 3rd toughest among Eastern Conference teams) in strength of schedule thus far, and other analytical rankings have them pegged in the top-3 of the conference rather than the top.
But one of my expectations in the beginning of the season was that the Bulls depth and consistent effort would keep them from playing down to bad competition, and get them a lot of regular season wins. So while I still say that blowouts predict future success, some wins against a few more quality opponents would mean more, if not for their expected wins total but for my confidence in the team going into the playoffs. But hey, if the schedule gods give you a gift, take it and pummel the hell out of it.