Why Aren’t the Bulls Building Around Jimmy Butler?

Part 1 of a 2 part look at how the Bulls should build around their star

Jimmy Butler is the franchise.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a piece requesting that the Bulls put the ball in Jimmy Butler’s hands, ala James Harden in Houston. #LetJimmyBeHarden. The context was a specific one: Derrick Rose had just gotten injured (again) and the Bulls needed an option to keep their offense afloat as they prepared for the playoffs. Running things through Joakim Noah had been exposed in the prior year’s playoffs. I thought Butler was probably a better option to run more of the offense, even when Rose returned, because Rose had been pretty poor since his return from his initial knee injuries.

The Bulls didn’t really get the opportunity to make Jimmy the focal point that season, as he got hurt before that article even posted. Last year, the Bulls ran back the same team with Rose as the primary option, Pau Gasol as the secondary option, and Butler in third. Even in that tertiary role, however, Butler was able to emerge as a real star player posting 28.4 points per 100 possessions on a strong 56.2% true shooting. This year with Rose traded and Gasol gone to San Antonio, Butler should have been the obvious choice to be the Bulls’ first option.

Looking at how the best teams are constructed around star players and specifically star players with Butler’s facility for driving to the basket, surrounding Butler with shooters should have been the obvious choice. If you looked at when Butler and the Bulls were most successful last season, it was when he was surrounded by shooters, giving him open lanes to drive to the bucket. When Butler shared the floor with Nikola Mirotic and E’Twuan Moore, two solid spot-up shooters for their positions with average to good defense, the Bulls scored at a 111.1 points per 100 possessions rate (which would have been top 3 in the league last year over the entire season) and surrendered only 104.7 points per 100 possessions (roughly a top 10 defense over the 2015–16 season) for a net rating of 6.4 points per 100 (equivalent to the 57 win Cavs over the full year). That’s really freaking good! Fit matters. Similarly but even better, the Bulls were 111.1 points per 100 and surrendered 103.1 points per 100 in the 329 minutes when Butler, Tony Snell, and Mirotic shared the floor. (All of this information via nbawowy.com).

Eagle-eyed readers will note something interesting about those two 3-man lineups that blitzed the league for Chicago. They included two players, E’Twuan Moore and Tony Snell, that the Bulls willingly parted with in this off-season. They let Moore sign with the Pelicans, when they had the cap space to pay him more than what New Orleans offered. Instead, they used that money to overpay Rajon Rondo for a season, a move that has already blown up in their face. It was always a baffling decision. Rondo can’t space the floor and needs the ball in his hands and out of Butler’s hands to maximize his own value. The fact that the Bulls reportedly had Rondo as their number one free agent target just speaks to how little they seem to understand how to maximize their best player’s impact on the floor.

Miss you, E’Twuan

Then, Chicago traded Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams, another floor pincher (the opposite of a spacer) who needs the ball in hands to be relatively successful. Oh, they also brought in more competition for Butler to be “the man” by signing Dwyane Wade to a big contract well past age 30, always a big risk. Wade has been really good for the Bulls, better than could have been expected based on the last couple years, but he’s also a tough fit with Butler. He’s, say it with me now, a poor shooter who needs the ball. The only reason things haven’t been worse is that Wade is a future hall-of-famer who has a super high level of basketball intelligence and works smartly off the ball to find open spaces to cut into around Butler. Why are the Bulls making this so hard on themselves?

Despite all of the roadblocks the Chicago front office has thrown in his way, in some ways literally as they block his path to the basket with non-shooters, Butler has managed to get even better, yet again. He’s scoring over 35 points per 100 possessions on 59.4% true shooting, which is ridiculously good in any environment, but all the more staggering when you consider how often he’s playing against defenses packing the paint.

When Butler has played with space, he’s been even more remarkable. In 187 minutes he’s shared with Mirotic and Doug McDermott, this team’s two best shooters for their positions, Butler is scoring 50.8 points per 100 possessions on 62.8% true shooting, which is obviously freaking nuts. More importantly, the Bulls offense is blitzing the league at 123.2 points scored per 100 possessions, which would be the league’s best offense by a huge margin, while only surrendering 103.7 points per 100, which would be tied with the Warriors for the best defense in the league. (Data again via nbawowy.com). Small sample size caveats aside, pairing this information with the previously cited 3-man lineup data, we can say pretty definitively that Jimmy Butler + shooters is a winning combination.

The Bulls need to be targeting shooters to pair with Butler. They should try to be active during this year’s trade deadline to get shooters to go with Butler, but they also need to be thinking now about who will be available in free agency that they can realistically land that fit with Butler, which is to say shooters who don’t need the ball.

They’d also do well, for the remainder of this season, to start Nikola Mirotic alongside Butler and McDermott to maximize the number of minutes those players share together, given how they’ve lit the league on fire when they play together. I’d also suggest playing Paul Zipser a bit more off the bench, given that he was a 42% three point shooter and an 82% free throw shooter over his 4 year European career. (Data via RealGM). The guy can shoot and, to my eyes, looked to know how to play in the preseason action I caught of him. (His production in very limited minutes hasn’t been there, but the samples are way too small to buy into much there).

Part 2 of this piece, where I lay out a more detailed plan for the Bulls, with options to build this team around Jimmy Butler will be out tomorrow.

The Bulls Seem Broken Right Now, But Are They Really?

The Chicago Bulls started their season off hot, defying the expectations of many, including me. But since starting the season 9–5, the Bulls have won just two games in their last seven, and they have dropped three straight games, including an absolutely embarrassing beat down at the hands of one of the absolute worst teams in the league, the injury-battered, talent-deficient Dallas Mavericks.


What’s wrong with the Bulls?

Chicago can’t shoot. This was a yuuuuge concern going into the season and it’s one that has been borne out about a quarter of the way through the season. Chicago ranks 27th in the league in effective field goal percentage. This is largely driven by the fact that the Bulls are shooting the fewest three point shots in the league and are, at the same time, shooting the worst percentage from three.

It turns out having Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Jimmy Butler as your starting guard and wing rotation is not a recipe for effective shooting from deep. Worse still, the Bulls are not getting threes from Doug McDermott, as he’s been injured for 12 games this season, nor from Nikola Mirotic, who is in another one of his many shooting slumps to start the year.

Despite the Bulls’ poor performance in the most important aspect of offensive efficiency (putting the ball through the hoop), they have still managed to fight valiantly at the other aspects of offense to be an above average offensive team. Chicago leads the league in crashing the offensive glass, they get to the line at a very healthy clip, thanks to Butler, Wade, and Mirotic’s penchant for drawing contact, and as a team, they are relatively ball secure.

The Bulls’ problems with shooting are unlikely to go away, given their personnel. Doug McDermott should help some, and there’s some hope that Nikola Mirotic could bounce back from his shooting woes. They are doing about the best they could hope for in the other aspects, roughly speaking, and as a result, they are a pretty good offensive team on the year, despite almost no spacing.

Chicago’s struggles in the last seven games come down to one thing, really. They simply shot the ball from deep even worse than they have done on the year and their opponents have shot very well. During this 2–5 stretch, the Bulls have shot 24% on 129 three point shots, compared with 31.5% on the year, as a team. On the other hand, their opponents’ shot 39.6% on 154 threes, compared with those opponents shooting 35.8% from deep for the season.

That’s the sort of thing that tends to even out over the course of a long season. Chicago isn’t this bad at three point shooting, and their opponents aren’t this good from three. If both the Bulls and their opponents just shot to their season averages from deep, the Bulls would have seen a benefit of 15 net points over those 7 games. That’d be worth another expected win over those 7 games and the Bulls would have simply been 3–4, which is the roughly .500 team that they appeared to be preseason and their 11–10 record now shows.

Chicago similarly benefited to start the season by hitting from three point range at a near league average clip while bombing from behind-the-line with slightly greater frequency than they have in their recent skid. This was largely due to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade making threes well-above what should be reasonably expected.

The Bulls aren’t broken. They just are what most of us expected them to be: a middle of the pack team. They started the season shooting better than you’d expect and lately they’re shooting worse than you’d expect. Over the course of enough games, you see the truth. As long as you don’t let a run of good or bad shooting luck cloud your vision.

Up at BlogaBull: Let Jimmy Be Harden

Since Derrick Rose has gone out with his newest knee injury, the Bulls have returned to last year’s Joakim Noah centric offense. They should fight against that impulse to rely on the familiar, because this year Jimmy Butler has shown he can handle a much bigger role. In fact, even when Rose is back, it would serve the Bulls well to allow Jimmy to handle more and more of the offense.

http://www.blogabull.com/2015/3/2/8126435/jimmy-butler-chicago-bulls-stats-james-harden-rockets

Up at Nylon Calculus: Introduce DRE: A (Hopefully) Better Simple Metric

An expanded explanation of the motivations for and the methodology behind my simple linear weights metric, dubbed “Daily RAPM Estimate” or “DRE.”

http://nyloncalculus.com/2015/02/23/introducing-dre-a-hopefully-better-simple-metric/

Did We Expect Too Much from The Chicago Bulls?

[Ed. note: I pitched this piece a little while back and it didn’t get picked up where I pitched it, so I’m posting it here. Chicago has picked it up some of late, so it’s not exactly timely, but I wrote it and wanted it to have a place on the internet.]

The Chicago Bulls have been one of the NBA’s weirdest teams this year. They’ve been labeled a contender since they signed Pau Gasol in the offseason. While Pau’s put up big numbers, and Derrick Rose has played 41 out of 52 games, the Bulls don’t look anything like a contender on a night to night basis.

Chicago’s defense, typically the backbone of the team, has fallen off significantly from its usual spot amongst the top 3 to 5 teams in the league to something much more average. The Bulls’ offense, on the other hand, a putrid eyesore last season, is back to respectability. In total, the 2014–15 Bulls have been a pretty good, not great team. It’s worth wondering why anything more was expected.

In some ways, it’s easy to see the logic behind the anointing of the Bulls as sure bets to make the Eastern Conference Finals. No one expected the Atlanta Hawks to become what they are and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense was a huge question mark. Chicago won 48 games last season and upgraded from Carlos Boozer to Pau Gasol and from D.J. Augustin to Derrick Rose. Predicting a significant boost in the win totals from those two seeming upgrades didn’t seem like much of a leap.

The truth of this season, though, has been that Rose has hardly been an upgrade over the performance Augustin provided and, in some ways, has actually been a downgrade. Part of that is how exceptionally well Augustin played last season in Chicago and part of it is the reality of Rose returning from nearly two entire years having played almost zero basketball.

Returning from one major knee injury is a difficult enough task, mentally and physically. Rose is returning from two. As a result, Rose is finishing at the basket worse than ever. Rose still helps the Bulls immensely when he charges into the paint over launching a long jumper, but his forays into the paint are just coming with less frequency than they once did. This shouldn’t be that shocking, really. To have expected Rose to return after being away from the hardwood for so long and be anywhere close to his former self was always absurdly optimistic. That’s not to say he can’t get ever back to that level, it’s just that it’s going to take time for him to get there and may require a change in how he plays. We might not see the best of Derrick Rose this season, and really, that makes total sense.

Gasol has absolutely been an upgrade over Carlos Boozer, that much can not be disputed. But Gasol does present many of the same problems that Boozer did. He is incredibly slow-footed on defense and his effort on that end is often demoralizingly poor. The Bulls defensive drop-off is not all Pau’s fault, but he is a big part of the problem. The other part, which Pau’s presence has exacerbated, is that Joakim Noah has not been himself this season. This, too, could have been predicted, were it not for the Rose-colored glasses with which everyone seemingly viewed this year’s Bulls.

Noah, after being an MVP candidate last season, was absolutely demolished in the playoffs by the Washington Wizards’ frontcourt. It was clear something was wrong with him, and as it turned out, he had to have offseason knee surgery. As a result, Noah, up until very recently, has seen his lateral movement significantly limited and his usual frenetic energy sapped. With Gasol manning the back-line center spot in the Bulls’ defense instead of Noah, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year has been forced to chase around power forwards on a bum wheel. Not exactly an ideal fit or situation.

Finally, a hugely under-discussed portion of the Bulls’ relatively disappointing season has been their lack of wing depth. Even with the problems that Rose’s rustiness and Noah’s balky knee have caused, the Bulls looked pretty close to the contender everyone expected up until January 1st.

What happened on January 1st? Mike Dunleavy Jr. jammed his ankle in a tilt against the Denver Nuggets. He’s been out ever since, as the injury has been the nagging sort. Without Dunleavy’s shooting in the starting lineup to space the floor around the driving games of Rose and Jimmy Butler and the post-ups of Pau Gasol, the Bulls have seen their offense stagnate. It’s been even worse on the other end of the floor. Dunleavy is a classic glue guy on defense, as his 6’9″ length and smart use of angles makes him tough to score over for most other wings in the league. The Bulls have missed him immensely.

Behind Dunleavy on the depth chart is Kirk Hinrich, a formerly solid two-way player who has seen his once stout defense slip markedly this season and who has been an offensive non-entity for a few seasons now. Second year player Tony Snell provides a decent approximation of the length and shooting of Dunleavy, but without the veteran savvy or, more problematically, the trust of Coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls have also tried rookie Nikola Mirotic on the wing, but he is really a stretch power forward more than anything, and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most wings in the league. Doug McDermott, last year’s college Player of the Year, is also around as an option, but he was out until very recently with a knee injury of his own and appears to be firmly entrenched in Thibodeau’s dog-house, a not unusual phenomenon for rookies under the Bulls’ demanding and, at times, unforgiving head coach.

The Bulls’ lack of wing depth was a problem that was there to see for those that, knowing Thibodeau, could guess how reluctant he might be to use the young players who make up the majority of the Bulls’ wing rotation. If Dunleavy didn’t get hurt, this weakness of the Bulls’ roster might never have been exposed, but that’s life in the 82-game grind of an NBA season. Injuries invariably happen.

So are the Bulls a disappointment or did we simply expect too much? It’s a little of both. The Bulls had real weaknesses coming into this season that were glossed over due to the simple math of Rose plus Pau Gasol plus 48 wins last year equals contender. It’s also a long season, so even if the Bulls don’t take the East’s number one seed in the regular season, Rose and Noah could get right, with Dunleavy’s return on the horizon, and the Bulls could still come out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’s just been a more frustrating and difficult road so far than they or anyone else really expected.

Up at CBS Local Sports: Derrick Rose’s Diminished Vertical Explosiveness

It’s tough to disentangle how much of Rose’s reducing his forays to the paint and the rim is mental and how much of it is a drop in physical ability. In watching him night in and night out, he seems to be just as fast as ever, but he doesn’t appear to have the same vertical explosiveness he once did. Even if Rose never gets that burst off the ground back, he can still become an extremely effective player based on his speed, but he has to fundamentally alter his game and improve on aspects of his skillset that he never really needed so badly before. Maybe that’s what his struggles this season have been about: evolving and building a new skillset, a new path to effectiveness. That has to be the hope for Rose fans, because it looks like the version of Derrick Rose who can explode up and over opponents (hi, Goran Dragic) might be lost to us.

Derrick Rose’s Diminished Vertical Explosiveness

Up at BlogaBull: Derrick Rose Struggling, But Don’t Panic Yet

This season, Derrick Rose has not been his old MVP self. This is not a revelation, I’m not telling anyone noteworthy information by making that observation. Rose has shown flashes of brilliance here and there, but mostly he’s been okay to pretty bad depending on the night. His overall numbers and efficiency have all trended down over the course of the year. I’m still not quite ready to panic regarding Rose’s struggles, though. Some of this is based on positive things Rose has been able to do and part of it might be wishful extrapolation from a select few (some would say cherry-picked) numbers. Let’s get into it.

http://www.blogabull.com/2015/2/7/7994513/derrick-rose-has-been-bad-getting-worse-but-im-still-not-panicking

Up at BlogaBull: Signing Pau Gasol Was A Mistake

Pau Gasol was selected as an All Star starter by the fans. This is, honestly, a joke. Pau Gasol is the Bulls fourth best big man. Yes, fourth best. Behind Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and even rookie Nikola Mirotic. The idea that Gasol was somehow one of the best big men in the entire Eastern Conference is ridiculous. At first glance, it’s easy to see why Pau has received this recognition. Pau is averaging 18 points, 12 rebounds, nearly 3 assists, and over 2 blocks in his roughly 35 minutes per game. Those certainly seem like All Star numbers. However, it’s pretty likely that no one is putting up emptier stats than Pau Gasol is this season.

http://www.blogabull.com/2015/1/31/7956711/signing-pau-gasol-was-a-mistake

Building A (Hopefully) Better Simple Metric

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything in this space, but I’ve not forgotten it, and I’ve not stopped tinkering with some of the ideas I’ve tried to tackle here before. The idea I’d like to return to today is my enjoyment of simple, easy to calculate, transparent boxscore metrics.

In the past, I built off of an easy to calculate and understand linear weights metric (Alternate Win Score) to create Usage Adjusted Rating, which essentially tried to adjust AWS to credit heavier usage players for the greater degree of difficulty they generally encounter in getting points and remaining efficient. The results were pretty good and passed the laugh test. But calculating UAR and the subsequent variant blend with plus-minus (UARPM) that I developed was best done on season long numbers and well, there are much better one number metrics out there for analysis of season long data. Daniel Myer’s Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) being the best examples. So from here on, I’ll be retiring UARPM from the website.

But for broad strokes analysis of single games, the current best linear weights metric is probably Alternate Win Score. Some people like to use John Hollinger’s Game Score, since it’s readily available on Basketball Reference for every game. I wanted to improve upon AWS and Game Score and build a transparent, easy to calculate and understand metric to quickly analyze game to game performance.

To build my game score metric, I looked to Jerry Engelmann’s 14 year RAPM data set, since it is, to my mind, the best estimate of long run +/- impact that’s in the public domain. After that, I ran a regression of the most basic boxscore stats (per 100 possessions) to get the coefficients or weights for my simple linear weights metric.

New Win Score

I tried to include personal fouls, but they were not statistically significant predictors of RAPM (+/-) at all. All of the other boxscore stats I picked were highly statistically significant with strong p-values. Then, I translated the coefficients so that they were weighted relative to points score (i.e., so that the coefficient or weight for points was equal to 1). The resulting weights for my simple game score metric are as follows:

PTs + .2*TRBs + 1.7* STLs + .535*BLKs + .5*ASTs — .9*FGA — .35*FTA — 1.4*TOV

If you want to translate this linear weights metric directly to a simple statistical plus-minus, you can just subtract the average performance league-wide from the player’s total. Per pace adjusted 36 minutes the average performance in the league currently is roughly 4.9. Here’s the top 25 in the league as of the games played January 16 per game, pace adjusted, with the per-minute average subtracted out, so as to make it roughly +/- impact per game:

PlayersPM/GAnthony Davis7.1Stephen Curry5.9Chris Paul5.7James Harden5.0Kevin Durant4.3Jeff Teague3.9Jimmy Butler3.8LeBron James3.7Kyle Lowry3.5Damian Lillard3.3Russell Westbrook3.1DeAndre Jordan2.9Tyson Chandler2.8Brandan Wright2.6Kawhi Leonard2.6Kevin Martin2.6John Wall2.6Mike Conley2.5Klay Thompson2.4Paul Millsap2.3Marc Gasol2.3Hassan Whiteside2.3Derrick Favors2.2Kyrie Irving2.1Kyle Korver2.1
Those results definitely pass the laugh test. Anyway, I like this as another tool in the tool kit. I even won over noted one number metric skeptic Seth Partnow to use the metric for some broad strokes performance analysis.

https://twitter.com/SethPartnow/status/555458033006804992

Good enough for me!

If any of you have a good idea for a name for this new Win / Game Score linear weights metric, let me know in the comments or on Twitter: @NBACouchside.

Up at BlogaBull: In Praise of Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

Let me get this out of the way at the start: I love Mike Dunleavy Jr. He’s really, really good. You should love Mike Dunleavy Jr., too. Here’s why:

More at: http://www.blogabull.com/2014/11/19/7246255/in-praise-of-mike-dunleavy-jr