Monday night has not been kind to the best teams in the NBA throughout the first week of the season. At the start of the games, we had seven undefeated teams left. At the end of the matches, we had three. The Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards all fell on Monday, leaving us with just three undefeated teams.
The Utah Jazz are here relatively predictably. Their net odds suggested they were playing at a team level of around 65 wins last season, and they have only spoken twice so far. The Golden State Warriors have an MVP contender for Stephen Curry, so their presence at the top of the table is hardly surprising. And then we have the Chicago Bulls, offseason darlings who have supported the optimism of the preseason so far with four wins in four tries.
Ultimately, all three teams will lose matches. It should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that no NBA team has ever been 82-0. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun trying to figure out who will be the last undefeated team in the game. So let’s take a look at how things have gone for the Bulls, Jazz and Warriors so far and predict which NBA team will be the last to lose a game in the 2021-22 season.
The case for them: We’re dealing with tiny samples here, but it’s worth noting that Chicago has played twice as many games as Utah. The difference between 80 games and 82 is minimal, but the difference between four and two is a bit more significant. If you completely ignore the previous season, we have twice as much evidence for Chicago as we have for Utah. A 4-0 start is not to be sneezed at. A 2-0 fluke is a bit more likely to be a fluke.
And through those four games, Chicago answered some of the main questions they faced at the start of the season. Despite all the fear surrounding their defense, the Bulls so far rank sixth on this side of the floor. We’re obviously dealing with tiny samples here, but no defense has allowed 97.7 points per 100 possessions or less in a full season since the 2003-04 season. Their depth hasn’t been that impressive, but it’s worth noting that Alize Johnson is the only reserve to play real minutes with a net negative rating. Their starters destroy their opponents and their bench is not destroyed in return.
It doesn’t guarantee anything in the long run, and there is likely a setback to come in some areas. This defense is not going to remain impenetrable forever. They are also unlikely to continue shooting 42.3% out of 3. But the most important players on this team have played well together so far. The basic concept, for now, seems solid.
The case against them: Let’s start with the obvious: the calendar. Chicago has now beaten Detroit twice without Cade Cunningham, New Orleans once without Zion Williamson, and Toronto on Monday without Pascal Siakam. It’s not exactly a row of murderers. Here’s who’s coming in their next 10 games: Knicks, Jazz, Celtics, 76ers, 76ers, Nets, Mavericks, Warriors, Clippers, Lakers. So… yes, the Bulls are about to get tested. The ease of their schedule doesn’t negate their wins, but it does suggest we know a little less about the Bulls than their record can prove. Going 4-0 against this slate wouldn’t be particularly difficult.
Shooting covered a lot of trouble for the Bulls on both ends of the pitch. Opponents have only made 30% of their 3 wide open against the Bulls. It will regress. The same goes for Chicago’s 42.3% mark behind the arc. The Bulls needed a great shot as they worked on some of their own questionable offensive adjustments. They score 111.5 points per 100 possessions when Zach LaVine plays without DeMar DeRozan and 114.7 when DeRozan plays without LaVine… but together they only score 99. That will improve, but not necessarily at the level of the ‘elite. LaVine can perform very well off the ball, but DeRozan’s value is highly correlated with its use. He’s now part of a squad with several players who need the ball, so it’s only fair to question his usefulness within this attack when the best players are all on the pitch together.
The Bulls are doing what good teams should do against bad ones: rack up wins. It’s going to help them come and sow playoff time, but these wins alone just aren’t enough evidence to suggest that they’ll continue to win at a similar pace. We’ll know a lot more once they get through this rough patch, but for now it seems unlikely that they will outlast teams like Utah and Golden State.
The case for them: As we’ve seen, the Jazz were the best regular season team in the NBA by a country mile last season. They only follow the Miami Heat in net standings over two games, and their shooting profile so far has been as analytically excellent as ever. They take the third-highest number of 3 points in the NBA (44.5) and allow opponents to win about 35.5 on the league average in return. This is a significant advantage over a one-party sample. Taking nine 3 more points per game as the opponent provides a huge cushion for bad shooting nights.
They needed that cushion so far because offensively they struggled to get out of the gate. They are only making 33.7% of their 3 points at this point and Donovan Mitchell is only hitting 35.7% of his field goal attempts. There is, however, no cause for immediate concern. After all, it’s only been two games. The fact that the Jazz won despite some poor shots suggests they will improve further when they regress closer to where they were last season. Right now they’re relying on the elite defense of Rudy Gobert, and until further notice it’s not going anywhere.
The case against them: For starters, Utah has only played twice. Beating thunder and kings won’t impress anyone. Their schedule is quite manageable at the moment. They have Denver on Tuesday, but it’s home and the Nuggets are on their second night in a row. A quick trip to Houston precedes their showdown with the Bulls, but even if the Jazz do, the Bucks are expecting them on Sunday.
Depth is also a slight concern here, especially with Rudy Gay. Utah relies very heavily on seven players. Mike Conley and Joe Ingles are 34 years old. Bojan Bogdanovic is 32 years old. Some age-related decline is entirely possible for one of them, and any base rotation stepping back counts on a roster so dependent on a small number of players. The Jazz added Gay and Eric Paschall to add a bit of stylistic versatility, but until Gay is healthy and Paschall has more time in the system, the Jazz are pretty committed to their way of playing: bombing. of the 3 and channel the bullet manipulators towards Gobert. This will work most of the time. For now, on nights when it doesn’t, the Jazz don’t have a lot of stylistic hubs available.
Golden State Warriors
The case for them: From a pure planning standpoint, Golden State has to be the frontrunner here. They’ve already played the toughest part of their start-to-season schedule, a three-game road trip to California in which they beat the Lakers, Clippers and Kings. On Tuesday, they play a road game against Oklahoma City before heading home for eight straight games. None of their opponents on this stretch are particularly intimidating: they face the Grizzlies, Thunder, Hornets, Pelicans, Rockets, Hawks, Timberwolves and Bulls. There is room for a real race here.
The Warriors tend to rely quite a bit on Stephen Curry on the offensive end, but remember they beat the Lakers with him shooting 5 of 21 from the field, and in a small sample their bench edged their opponents by nearly 10. points per 100 possessions when Curry is resting. If these Jordan Poole-led bench formations continue, the Warriors won’t lose as many games when Curry goes to the bench as they have in previous years.
Their depth also shone with Ground Curry. Replacing the lower-caliber NBA players on last year’s roster with smart veterans like Otto Porter Jr., Nemanja Bjelica and Andre Iguodala gave them a core skill within Steve Kerr’s offense that has been lacking in the past two seasons. There are valid questions about their cap, but right now they’re a very dangerous regular season team. They play a somewhat unique style that is difficult to prepare for and they do so now without making the mistakes that have kept them from making the playoffs for the past two years.
The case against them: The Warriors may have been through the most difficult part of their schedule, but that doesn’t mean it was particularly difficult. The Lakers were destined to wrestle on opening night with so many new faces. The Clippers don’t have Kawhi Leonard. Kings are kings. As with the Bulls, these are games the Warriors are meant to win. This does not guarantee that they will continue to win.
They also have the worst net score of the three undefeated teams at plus-7.3. It’s not bad at all, and over a full season it’s an elite number. But you would expect an undefeated team so early in the season to win a little more comfortably. The Warriors have yet to win a single game comfortably. They could very easily be 0-3.
Curry is one of the most trusted regular season winners in basketball history… when he has a full roster. He won 73 games in the 2015-16 season, but he did so with Klay Thompson by his side. Thompson won’t be back until the Warriors lose their first game. Right now, there is still a huge offensive burden on Curry’s shoulders. The Warriors can win games they struggle with, but it takes a team-wide effort. If he’s gone, no one else can.