The Chicago Bulls, should they win their final three games — and since those three games are against the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats, that seems rather likely — will have won 50 games for the third time in four years under Tom Thibodeau, one of which came in a 66-game season. This after a period of 11 years following Michael Jordan’s retirement where they won 50 games zero times. The Bulls have been fantastic since the start of 2014, going 35-14 in that span after going 12-18 in 2013. They own the East’s best record since the all-star break at 21-7.
All of this has led to the idle musing that maybe the Bulls are a better team sans Luol Deng, who was traded on January 6, two games into that 35-14 stretch. That’s the conclusion reached by Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, anyway, who cites the improved record along with a slight increase in points scored per game and a slight decrease in points allowed per game since the trade.
Is he right? Kind of. He is correct that the Bulls have a much better record (33-14) without Deng than with him (14-18), and that the Bulls have scored slightly more and defended slightly better since the trade. That’s also borne out by points per 100 possessions in both instances, in case you were wondering. However, this is an instance of seeing correlation and thinking it implies causation.
A couple of things to keep in mind: First, the Bulls’ hot streak doesn’t actually start after Deng was traded. They’re 33-14 since then, sure, but if you go back to December 21, they’re 38-16. The uptick in scoring starts around December 18. What happened then? A guy named DJ Augustin showed up and started balling out. DJ replaced Marquis Teague in the starting lineup on December 18 and the Bulls promptly scored 94, 95, 100 and 95 points over their next four games, after scoring 82, 77, 91, 78, 74 and 75 in their previous six.
What else happened around then? Joakim Noah went from a very good center to possibly the best center in the NBA. Since Deng was traded, Noah is averaging 13.6/11.9/6.2 per game with 1.3 steals and 1.7 blocks thrown in for good measure. Those numbers are insane, and go a long way toward explaining how the Bulls have been scoring so much better in 2014.
I also feel I should note that Deng was fantastic for the Bulls before being traded. In 23 games, he was scoring 18.3 points per 36 minutes, a career high, to go with 6.6 rebounds per 36 and 3.6 assists per 36. That assists number is also a career high. He was shooting 45.2 percent from the field, his highest number there since 2010-11, and getting to the foul line 5.2 times per 36, also a career high. Oh, and his PER was 17.0, his best since 2007-08.
After reading everything in the preceding paragraph, I defy you to look me in the eye and tell me the Bulls wouldn’t be better off with him on their team. I have written at length about Tony Snell’s potential, but there’s no version of reality where the Bulls aren’t better with Deng in his place. None.
So settle down, Mr. Cowley, and realize that there’s a difference between playing better and being better. The Bulls have played better since trading Deng. But they are not a better team.