Chicago needs to give up the ghost on its playoff chase and preserve Butler’s health
The Chicago Bulls need to shut down Jimmy Butler for the rest of this season. There are a number of reasons why shutting Butler down makes the most sense. Butler isn’t healthy and it has shown recently. The Bulls are also bad with very little chance of improving their roster talent unless they land another good player in this year’s coming draft. Let’s take a deeper look at the case for shutting Butler down.
Butler isn’t healthy
Up until February of this year, Butler had been playing like a top 5 player in the league. He was near the very top of ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) leaderboard, as well as the leaderboard for Box Plus-Minus (BPM) and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). In my own simple metric, DRE* (Daily RAPM Estimate), Butler was 8th in the league amongst players who had played 25 games or more through February 1st.
(*Note: the weights for DRE have changed a bit since that initial linked article. Updated weights are DRE = (points-.88*fga-.35*fta-1.4*tov+.25*rebs+1.89*steals +.74*blk + .51*ast-.16*pf )*(100/possessions)-7.5))
DRE is just a simple metric and it doesn’t adequately capture defense all that well, so Butler was likely undersold slightly here, but the point is that through February 1st, Butler was somewhere between a top 5 and top 10 player. On February 1st, Butler suffered a heel injury which caused him to miss 4 games, before returning for good on February 15th. Since Butler’s injury, he’s now 54th in the league in DRE amongst players who have played in a minimum of 10 games since February 1. He went from being a +7.4 per 100 possessions according to DRE to just a +3.8. He is clearly not the same player from a high level perspective and as a result, the Bulls have been much worse.
As Tom Haberstroh noted in a great video for ESPN during Butler’s epic run to start the season, the Bulls played like an absolute cellar dweller when Butler wasn’t on the floor being amazing. Well, even with a limited version of Butler, the Bulls are much, much worse than the average team he was able to will them into being. In the month since Butler’s return from the heel injury, Chicago is 26th in the league in Net Rating (-5.6 points per 100 possessions). Such a mark would make them roughly a 26 win team over an 82 game season.
There are other indicators that Butler is still hurting, besides the high level results. He’s getting to the line for about 3 and half less attempts per 100 possessions and he’s also taking fewer shots overall. He’s passing much more frequently when he drives and the Bulls are producing fewer points per Butler drive as a result (which is a nice way of saying Butler’s teammates stink and it’s better when he takes it himself on drives). His finishing on drives is much, much worse the last month as he went from shooting 51.5% on drives to just 42.6% since the injury. Every indication is that Butler is not himself and he’s playing hurt. This is stupid. The Bulls are going exactly nowhere this season and Butler is the only player on their team who really, truly matters. He should not be running himself into the ground in a meaningless season with no direction. Also, every game Butler plays while hurt increases his chances of suffering a more serious injury as the result of compensating for the pain he’s very clearly playing through.
This Draft is the Bulls’ Best Chance to Get Better
Every person who I trust about the draft thinks this draft is really, really special, particularly in the top 10 or so picks. The Bulls have virtually no good young talent on their roster, save for Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic (yes, I still think Mirotic is good, despite Fred Hoiberg jerking his minutes around). They need to finally get younger and more athletic, which was what the plan was supposed to be this past summer. Their best chance to get younger, more athletic, and better for the future is to draft someone great in this draft.
Chicago is already outside of the playoffs and Dwyane Wade just broke his elbow and will be out for the rest of the season. Right now, Chicago would be picking 13th in this draft. That sets them up at a chance to get a contributor, but if Chicago does the right thing and punts on the remainder of the season and allows Butler to get fully right, they could slide into the top 10 or so picks. Currently, Dallas, Portland, and Minnesota are all set to pick ahead of the Bulls, but they are only ahead of them in the loss column by the slightest of margins and all three teams have been playing much better as of late, in the case of the former two due to midseason acquisitions (Nerlens Noel and Jusuf Nurkic, respectively) and in the latter due to players finally picking up Tom Thibodeau’s defense. All three teams seem at least somewhat interested in chasing the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff race. It’s entirely possible that the Bulls without Wade and Butler could lose their way ahead of all 3 in the lottery odds and end up with the 10th pick in this draft.
Resting Butler Opens Up Minutes for the Young Guys
I mentioned earlier that the Bulls don’t have any great young talent. While that’s true, they do have a bunch of guys who have shown flashes to a greater or lesser extent and would probably develop more with more opportunities to play. Jerian Grant has been very solid when he’s played with the starting unit, Paul Zipser looks like he could stick as a rotation wing in the league, and Denzel Valentine can, at the very least, shoot well with a quick release and swing the ball from side to side. All of these guys have seen their minutes jerked around as the coaching staff flails to try to find lineup combinations that work. Resting Jimmy Butler(along with the loss of Dwyane Wade) down the stretch run of the season would give all of them more opportunities to grow and more opportunity for the front office and coaching staff to figure out what they really have in these players.
Wrapping it all up, everything points to one correct decision here for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler should be shut down and Chicago should focus on developing and understanding what they have on their roster, who fits and who doesn’t, while driving themselves deeper into the lottery of one of the best drafts in recent memory. Of course, having written all this, the Bulls will probably continue to run Butler out there and have him play 37 minutes a night and get hurt again, all while pushing themselves to the fringes of the lottery where the talent is thinner.
Ideas for team-building around Chicago’s newest superstar
In my last post, I outlined the ways in which the Chicago Bulls front office has failed to surround their best player, Jimmy Butler, with complimentary talents. In this post, I’ll toss off some ideas, most of which seem at least theoretically plausible, for the Chicago front office moving forward.
If I were running the Bulls, I’d be trying to flip Taj Gibson for some kind of guard or wing who can shoot. The return for Gibson needn’t be incredible, as he’s 31 years old and unlikely to return to Chicago. The biggest thing is that they shouldn’t let him depart with nothing gained in return like they did with Pau Gasol last year in a completely lost season. Another ancillary benefit would be that it would open the starting power forward spot for Mirotic, alongside Butler.
One team that might be interested in Gibson is the Raptors, assuming their pursuit of Paul Millsap ends up fruitless. If Chicago was able to flip Gibson for Terrence Ross, that’d be a deal worth doing. The Bulls might need to include another asset to get Toronto to bite, but the makings of a deal could be there, as Ross is currently blocking minutes for the possibly superior and definitely much cheaper Norman Powell, and they may want to trim some salary as they prepare to pay Kyle Lowry, while improving their big man rotation to take on Cleveland.
Chicago might also call up their old pal Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota and dangle Gibson and their first round pick or the protected Kings pick for the price of Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng. Jones is a very solid pick and roll point guard who can also spot up off the ball very well, a near ideal fit next to Butler. He’d be basically perfect if he was a plus defender. Dieng makes the salaries work and is a solid young big man in his own right. Thibodeau has to be losing his mind a bit at his inability to get the young Wolves to play his defense well and having a coach on the floor in Gibson who really understands his defense may be worth it. Maybe his prior relationship with Gibson gets him the inside track on re-signing him. On the other hand, the Wolves appear to be quickly falling out of the playoff picture, so this sort of win-now move is a little improbable. But these are the sort of deals the Bulls should be exploring for Gibson.
The Bulls also have a couple of mid-first round picks, assuming the Kings remain where they are in the standings, to dangle in trades. Given the depth of this year’s draft, the Bulls might be better suited to hang onto these picks. I will admit, I haven’t investigated this draft much yet, but that seems to be the consensus at this point. At some point further along in the season, I’ll run my draft numbers to see what they think of this year’s crop of young talent.
Finally, the Bulls may trade Rajon Rondo. Rondo probably won’t fetch anything on his own. In fact, he’s likely a negative asset and Chicago would probably need to attach an asset to move him. This would be a mistake. They should just buy Rondo out and stretch provision his $3 million in remaining guaranteed money next year over the next 3 seasons.
I compiled a list of potential free agent targets for the Bulls, most of whom are shooters, with a few exceptions that are explained below.
UFA Target List
Most of the players in this tier are fairly unlikely to move from their current situations, but they are the best fits for what the Bulls need that seem possibly acquirable.
George Hill would be Chicago’s best option, by far, in unrestricted free agency this summer. He also seems pretty unlikely to leave a great situation in Utah for what is a pretty dicey situation with the Bulls. Hill would be a perfect fit next to Butler, however, as he can defend either guard position, he can run pick and roll when Butler sits or with Butler on the floor, and he is a knockdown spot-up shooter from behind the arc. Hill is getting a little advanced in age, but he’s got a game that should age well and would be worth the risk.
Like Hill, Mills is pretty likely to stay where he is, rather than actually coming to Chicago. He’s been San Antonio’s best point guard this year, and they can’t afford to lose him, so expect them to pay up. Mills isn’t the defensive stopper that Hill is and definitely doesn’t have Hill’s switchy defensive versatility, but he’s a knockdown shooter off the catch and a good offensive maestro in the pick and roll and otherwise. He’ll be 29 in the first year of his next deal, so he’s slightly better from an age perspective than Hill, but Hill is still a better option given the overall package he provides relative to Mills.
Theoretical Jrue Holiday is the best option the Bulls have this offseason. He’s a long, very talented defender from the PG spot. He can hit open catch and shoot threes. He can also run the offense, and he’s only 26 years old. Unfortunately, real-life Jrue Holiday hasn’t played more than 2000 minutes in a season since 2013. He’s constantly injured. Chicago would likely need to pay him a max contract or very close to it and given the Bulls’ history with oft-injured point guards, they may decide to look elsewhere. Still, the potential of a Holiday-Butler pairing with shooters in the forward spots is very intriguing.
Teague’s shot from behind the arc comes and goes. He’s a career 35% shooter from deep, right at league average, but he’s shooting below 30% this season on roughly 3 attempts a game. Last year, he shot 40%. Teague also tends to dominate the ball a bit more than you would like in a player paired up with Butler. On the other hand, he’s just 28, he’s a decent enough shooter, and he’s been healthy for most of his career.
2Pat is a bit duplicative of Nikola Mirotic and he’s a couple years older, but he’s probably a little bit better than Mirotic. If the Bulls decide to let Niko walk in restricted free agency, a bad idea it must be said, this would at least be one way to salvage the loss. Patterson is really important for what Toronto does, though, and he has found a great role for himself, so it’d be surprising if he left the Raps.
Players in this tier are more likely to come to Chicago and are, generally, bets on upside, as they skew younger.
Ian Clark is a combo guard who has been marinating in the Golden State special sauce for a couple seasons now after bouncing around from Utah to Denver at the start . He’s a career 37.6% three point shooter with a pure stroke. He can create a little off the bounce, but he’s mostly a spot up player. He’s made great strides as a defensive player, though he’s still not a plus defender, but he should be able to get to the level where he’s not hurting. Clark is only 25 years old and his skill fit next to Butler is strong. His price tag is also likely to be pretty reasonable given his status as something of a journeyman.
Casspi has been underrated for practically his whole career. His burial on the Sacramento bench is just the latest example. Casspi can play either forward position on both offense and defense and he strokes it from range, hitting threes at about 37% for his career on pretty heavy volume for his position. Casspi’s already 28, but he would be a tremendous add to a team in desperate need of players with the versatility to capably swing between the two forward spots. This will be even more the case after the Bulls (likely) lose Taj Gibson, whether via trade or free agency and they need to find players to fill those power forward minutes.
Thompson is only 25 and he’s a 39% three point shooter over his career. His overall efficiency has suffered due to his poor foul drawing and foul shooting ability. From a spacing perspective, though, he provides the goods. He’s also been a poor defender, by the numbers, but he has good tools and the numbers may look different without the drag that playing for Philadelphia has on everyone’s stats. This is a swing on potential. Thompson probably won’t cost a ton and he’s young enough to become something more. If he’s only ever an off-the-bench bomber from the wing, there’s still value in that for Chicago.
Muscala is one of the rarest things in the league, a true stretch five. He’s 6’11”, 240 pounds, so he’s got the size to play down low, but the skill to play either big position and to space the floor. He’s improved his shooting while adding more and more volume from deep each year. “Moose” has developed into another rarity, a player who grades out as a plus on both ends of the floor. He’s playing roughly 20 minutes a night for Atlanta, so they will probably want to keep him. Additionally, the Bulls should have two centers already that will require minutes in Cristiano Felicio and Robin Lopez, but if Gibson departs, Muscala could be an option to fill his minutes, if not his defensive impact, more directly.
If Chicago can’t snag one of the point guards in tier 1, these are the guys they should be looking to grab.
Williams was my preference for the Bulls to give the Rajon Rondo contract to this off-season, at the time. They had already lost E’Twuan Moore and other, superior options (Matthew Dellavedova, Langston Galloway, among others) had also already signed. Instead Dallas got Williams for the same year deal for less money than Rondo got. This offseason would be an opportunity to re-do that decision. Williams is not at all what he once was and some of his defensive numbers have started to take a worrying dip, as he hits 32 this season. He is, however, still a good shooter and a roughly league average starting point guard. He would be worth signing as a year long stop-gap until one of the Bulls’ younger point guards (Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine, whomever they might draft this year) develops or someone better becomes available.
Collison will be 30 in year one of his next deal. He’s not quite as good as the guys in tier 1, but he is likely to be much easier for the Bulls to sign and he’s a decent fit. He probably won’t require a contract the length of some of the players in tier 1, either, which alleviates some of the concerns about his age. Collison is a pesky on-ball defender and most important for these purposes, he’s a 37.3% shooter from deep for his career. His overall defensive numbers (DBPM and DRPM) are worryingly bad, so that’s a red flag, especially as a soon-to-be 30 year old. Those numbers may be suffering a bit from his presence on the Kings cluster****. Still, he’s probably worth the flier, depending on the size and length of the contract he gets.
Jerebko has been a very nice find for the Celtics since they nabbed him in a trade from Detroit. He can really shoot and has been able to operate as a stretch center for about a fifth of his time in Boston without them getting killed defensively. Having him as a rotational big man would be a nice way to round things out around Butler. As an added bonus, fans would get to yell “HIS NAME IS JONAS!” whenever he did something cool.
Green has been bouncing around the league for a while now, having carved out a niche as a solid shooter on the wings. He’s going to be 32 and he’s not a good defender, despite his athletic tools, but he’d be another end of rotation guy who can shoot from deep.
RFA Target List
There are some restricted free agents who would be good fits for what the Bulls need, but their current teams are definitely matching anything, for example, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is almost certainly getting a max deal that Detroit will almost certainly match. These are the other, more realistic options.
Nikola Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio, Michael Carter-Williams
The top priority should be for the Bulls to bring back their own restricted free agents. Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio should be prioritized, but even Michael Carter-Williams is probably worth keeping around, so long as the price tag isn’t too high. Mirotic’s shooting is too important and he’s too talented to lose. Felicio has been a great find and if the Bulls can use the threat of their match to retain him on a value contract, so much the better. Carter-Williams is never going to be a shooter or the best fit around Butler, but could be a decent 20 minute a night backup when Butler and the starters aren’t on the floor, if he is surrounded by shooting.
In taking lessons from the Houston experiment, one way to stretch the floor is by sucking in the defense with rim rolling big men that can serve as your defensive anchors. Nerlens Noel had an incredible rookie season on the defensive end, dragging a D-League level supporting cast to a middling defensive efficiency. He was one of the best projected players by statistical models in the last few years. He blocks shots, gobbles steals, and his best offensive skill projects as a pick and roll finisher, in the vein of what Clint Capela is doing down in Texas. Noel was benched earlier this year and the Sixers have a zillion bigs, so with the right offer, the Bulls may be able to snag Noel. In this scenario, they probably let Felicio walk, as he is a pretty similar player in terms of skills, just without the top end upside of a Noel. Chicago also doesn’t have the minutes to realistically pay and play Lopez, Noel, and Felicio.
Despite flying way under the radar (outside of Utah, anyway), the Aussie has a funky combination of skills that all work together to produce an incredibly efficient, really good player. He shoots threes at over 39% for his career, he’s a very good passer for a low-usage wing, and he grabs steals like a madman. He’s also very likely going to see whatever offer he receives in restricted free agency go unmatched by the Jazz, as they have simply too many people to pay with their need to give George Hill and, probably, Derrick Favors big money deals this summer. I really like Ingles as a fit around Butler and on bench units with Carter-Williams or Dwyane Wade running the show. He’s 29, so there is some risk of paying too much for him as he declines, but his game isn’t explosive, anyway. He gets by on skill and craft. As a result, Ingles seems likely to age quite well.
Bullock is a similar swing on potential to UFA target and fellow 25 year old, Hollis Thompson. Bullock hasn’t shot the trey as well as Thompson, but he’s shown more as a defender. He came into the league as a 3 & D prospect, and after being glued to the bench by Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, Bullock has finally shown that he has some ability to be that player in limited minutes in his two seasons with Detroit. At just 1204 career minutes, Bullock is such an unknown that he could be an undervalued player on the market, even if the Bulls “overpay” to steal him from Detroit.
So those would be my targets for the Bulls. It’s not hard to envision them picking a couple of these guys, adding them to their current stable of players, and reshaping the lineups around Butler to accomplish something like a lesser version of what the Rockets have done with James Harden by surrounding him with shooting and rim-diving bigs (hello, Cristiano!). With a bit more opportunity for guys like Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant, and Paul Zipser this season, the Bulls might get a head start on seeing what this sort of thing might look like. Chicago might lose a little bit more frequently, but they aren’t winning anything of significance this season and would develop their young guys. They also might actually surprise themselves and see better performance, because as I mentioned in part 1, Jimmy Butler with shooting around him is a freaking beast. It’s about time the Bulls fully unleash that beast.
Part 1 of a 2 part look at how the Bulls should build around their star
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.
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.
This offseason it came out that the Chicago Bulls were installing a new offensive system, which was to be based off of “read and react” principles. The goal is, according to Coach Tom Thibodeau:
If [the opponent’s defense] get[s] set we want to move them side to side. But we want the ball in to the paint. When you have a player like Derrick [Rose] who can force the defense to collapse, now you’re going to get some high scoring or very efficient shooting out of that. Everyone has the responsibility to hit the open man, keep the ball moving.
Getting the ball into the paint for shots close to the basket remains the most efficient way to score in the NBA, with the exception of getting to the foul line, so it’s no surprise that Thibodeau wants to emphasize getting those shots for his team.
The Bulls so far have done fantastically well at getting shots in the paint. They are second in the league, behind only the Houston Rockets, in percentage of shots taken within 5 feet of the basket, with 111 of their 250 field goal attempts coming in close. The Bulls are converting those shots at an above average rate, too, coming in 8th in the league in FG% on shots in that range, at 62.2%. As a result, the Bulls are third in the league in Points in the Paint per pace adjusted 36 minutes at 38.0, behind only the Sixers and the Pistons. All of this seems great, so why are the Bulls 24th in offensive efficiency at an abysmal 95.6 points per 100 possessions?
The Bulls are tied for 6th highest in the league in Team Turnover Percentage (TmTOV%) at 19.1%. A lot of that comes back to Derrick Rose playing out of control and forcing things, a topic which was well covered by Ricky O’Donnell over at BlogaBull. Rose has 17 turnovers in just 3 games for an average of nearly 6 a game. That’s obviously too many, but the Bulls have been averaging roughly 13 turnovers per game from non-Rose players, too. That’s a tremendously high number. So what’s driving all these turnovers? I went back and watched every turnover the Bulls committed over the first 3 games and what stood out was just how many of the Bulls turnovers were a product of lazy passes or miscommunications between a passing Bull and the teammate to whom his pass was directed. There were so many times when guys attempted to throw an entry pass just to initiate the Bulls base offensive set and instead just threw the ball away. It seemed like a total lack of focus, for three games running, on valuing possession of the ball. I mean just watch this montage I made of bad Bulls entry passes from the first three games:
Chicago is clearly making getting the ball into the paint a point of emphasis and trying to get it in to Carlos Boozer for paint catches. The problem has been that they seem to be struggling with the touch on those entry passes, as you can see from all of these needless turnovers. There have been a lot of other turnovers that derive from a lack of focus, like this turnover from Kirk Hinrich as he bounces a lazy pass to Mike Dunleavy Jr., which Carmelo Anthony easily sniffs out and steals:
Or this one against the Knicks, which was a team wide failure, starting with Derrick Rose’s not initiating the offense until 14 seconds remained on the shot clock, and then, the rest of the team seeming quite confused about what they were each supposed to do, resulting in a Jimmy Butler long 2 point jumper which was blocked by Tyson Chandler, forcing Jimmy to scramble to get the ball and then chuck up an air ball at the buzzer.
These kinds of mental errors and miscommunications are somewhat surprising from a Tom Thibodeau coached team, but when you consider: (1) they’ve installed a new offensive system, (2) their core guys all missed time during the preseason to deal with injuries, and (3) their starting unit had never played a minute together as a whole prior to opening night against the Heat, the miscues become much more understandable. I’d expect Tom Thibodeau will hammer out the kinks in short order, especially given that he’s had a lot of time between the Sixer game and tonight’s tilt with the Pacers to get in practice time.
Despite all the bad passes and dumb turnovers, though, the Bulls have still been getting the ball inside well and converting well on the shots they have gotten inside. So what else, besides the turnovers and resulting empty possessions, is causing the Bulls to be so bad on offense? Well, there’s this:
The Bulls are shooting an absolutely abysmal 24.8% on all jumpshot attempts and an even worse 23.2% as a team from behind the three point arc. As a result of this terrible shooting from anywhere outside the immediate basket area (5 feet and in), the Bulls are 25th in the league in effective field goal percentage, which is just astonishing given how high a percentage of their overall shot attempts have been near the basket and the fact that they are converting those high percentage looks at a top 10 rate. This kind of jump shooting futility is certainly very unlikely to sustain. The Bulls might not have a lot of great shooters, but they do have guys who are better shooters than this awfulness. For reference, the Bulls, as a team, shot 31.5% on all jumpshots last year and 34.3% on three point shots, and all of that was without Derrick Rose creating open shots by drawing the defense’s attention. Going forward, we should expect the Bulls to shoot better on jump shots than their current terrible mark, which, if they continue their effectiveness at getting paint shots and converting them at a high level, should buoy their effective field goal percentage and their overall offensive efficiency to much more respectable levels. The turnovers and bad shooting still don’t tell the whole picture though. There’s one more piece of the puzzle that has held the Bulls back.
As I alluded to above, there is no more efficient way to score in the NBA than to get to the foul line. For a team that’s been getting a lot of shots in the paint, the Bulls have an absurdly low free throw attempt rate (free throws attempted per shot attempt), clocking in at 26th in the league. Derrick Rose, in particular, seems to have reverted back to his rookie days of getting loads of contact, but getting no calls. A team getting the ball inside at such a prolific rate and still getting so few FTAs per shot attempt seems like a circumstance that is simply very unlikely to continue. The Bulls were also unlucky in that they played their first three games against teams that were all pretty good at avoiding fouls last year. Miami ranked 22nd in fouls called against, New York was 15th, and Philadelphia was 25th. As a group, these three clubs seem to have done a great job at either not fouling or not being called for fouls, depending on your level of cynicism about NBA refereeing. Either way, the larger point is that the Bulls played a tough stretch in terms of getting calls on the offensive end, so like the other numbers, expect this one to improve going forward.
The Bulls have been below average to bad in these key areas of scoring efficiently as a team. They’ve still rebounded the ball well, which helped prevent them from being the worst offense in the league thus far. They’ve gotten good shots, for the most part. Looking at things from a process based perspective, rather than a results based one, there’s much to be excited about. The Bulls will shoot better. As they get more familiar with their new offense and their responsibilities within it, they will almost certainly clean up the unfocussed, lazy passes and miscommunication issues which have caused the turnovers which have been a big part of their early season struggles. Finally, they will probably (hopefully?) start getting more of the benefit of the doubt from the referees, especially if they continue living in the painted area.
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