The N.B.A.’s Early Story Lines: Missing Stars, Big-Time Bulls, Jokic

After two seasons that were dramatically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the N.B.A. thought it was returning to some version of normal this year. Instead, a wave of infections in the past few weeks has had a major impact on rosters and schedules, prompting game postponements and sidelining key players.

Before that, though, several key story lines had begun emerging on the court.

Golden State and Phoenix have established themselves as the best teams in the Western Conference, while the Lakers, laden with former All-Stars, have struggled to find their way. And even though injuries have stymied the Nuggets as a team, their big man Nikola Jokic has been making a case to win the Most Valuable Player Award again.

The Chicago Bulls have proved to be surprising contenders with a team of former castoffs who have played brilliantly together. In the East, only the Nets have a better record than the Bulls, despite playing without Kyrie Irving so far this season.

While Irving’s absence has to do with his vaccination status, two other stars have been out for contract-related reasons — Houston’s John Wall and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. How their situations resolve could have consequences for the way players and teams resolve conflict in the future.

With Christmas Day — what some consider the unofficial start of the N.B.A. season — looming, here’s a look at three important story lines so far this season.

And in New Orleans, the Pelicans are still awaiting Zion Williamson’s return to the court — a theme that has become all too familiar to fans. After undergoing off-season surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot, Williamson has experienced a series of setbacks. His scheduled return to practice this month was scuttled when he reported soreness in his foot. Medical imaging later revealed a “regression” in the healing process, which led the team to abandon any sort of targeted timeline. He remains indefinitely sidelined.

The Chicago Bulls’ resurgent season was interrupted last week when a coronavirus outbreak sent 10 of their players into the league’s health protocols and the N.B.A. postponed two of their games.

They returned to play Sunday, still depleted, in a game against the Lakers, and got right back to winning.

The Bulls have been led by DeMar DeRozan, whose emphasis on midrange jumpers has led him to be treated like a relic. DeRozan is averaging 26.8 points per game this season, ranking fifth in the league. He missed 10 days after entering the coronavirus protocols with what he told reporters in Chicago was an asymptomatic case.

While he was out, the Bulls relied more on guard Lonzo Ball, who has made dazzling assists all season and is running the team’s offense beautifully. Chicago recently lost a second-round pick after the N.B.A. concluded that the Bulls had tampered in order to sign Ball in free agency over the summer. But that penalty might have been worth it: Ball is shooting better than ever, especially from 3-point range, where he has made more than 40 percent of his shots.

Zach LaVine, who starts at guard alongside Ball, has had nearly identical statistical production to DeRozan, including averaging 26 points per game. Meanwhile, center Nikola Vucevic is averaging double-digit rebounds.

Off the bench, Alex Caruso has changed games with his defensive intensity, and is averaging two steals per game — second best in the league. Caruso’s defense is what earned him a shot in the N.B.A. to begin with.

The success so far is a welcome change for a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2017. The Bulls last made the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, led by Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.

They won’t play with the marquee teams on Christmas, because few saw this start coming. But they’ll have plenty of chances to prove they belong among the best in the league.

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