Checking in on the Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have had a solid season so far, now ranking second in the Eastern Conference after a recent 5-game winning streak, but many still have labeled new coach Fred Hoiberg’s first season with the team a disappointment. Where has the team succeeded, and where is there room for improvement?

Offensively

According to Synergy Sports, Chicago has had a below-average offense this season in terms of points per possession, ranking 24th in the league. While they’ve been solid in the halfcourt, they’ve had real issues in transition, ranking dead last in the NBA despite the presence of supposedly dynamic open floor pilot Derrick Rose. Coach Hoiberg clearly needs to either rethink the Bulls’ transition strategy or devote more time to it in practice.

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Their offense has been relatively cold at close range (53% shooting near the hoop), which is surprising when you consider the reputation of their top players – Rose is an athletic specimen who loves to get to the basket, and Pau Gasol is a classic post-up threat. Let’s dig deeper into what’s causing Chicago problems when they have the ball.

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One spot that isn’t causing any problems is the hand off, which Coach Hoiberg probably should run more of – the Bulls are best in the NBA in that category by points per possession.

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In terms of their three top-usage players, Rose seems to be the one that really isn’t pulling his weight – the former MVP is all the way down at 15th percentile in the league in offensive efficiency. Jimmy Butler, on the other hand, simply needs to keep up his excellent offensive season.

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The Bulls run pick and roll a lot (19% of the time), but their most common ball handler in these situations has been right at league average in Rose. When Butler is the ball handler, though, Chicago gets almost 0.13 more points per possession. Kirk Hinrich has been excellent in his limited opportunities, so maybe he needs more, while Tony Snell has been a disaster when running pick and roll, so Hoiberg should try to avoid those sets.

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Here we find the Bulls’ main culprit for their transition woes. Surprisingly, it’s the “one man fastbreak” Rose, who is just 7th percentile across the league in transition, barely getting three points for each four possessions in the open court. It’s a hard position for a coach when a player struggles to this extent in what’s supposed to be his bread and butter, but this is a problem the Bulls need to address.

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Butler has been one of the best isolation players in the league, giving Chicago a solid option at the end of the shot clock if the action they run doesn’t get them a good shot in time. When rookie Bobby Portis has the ball, however, he should probably move it before looking to create his own shot.

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Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic have been solid when posting up, but Taj Gibson has been ineffective with his back to the basket despite his relatively high volume at 58 possessions.

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Gibson is better utilized in the pick and roll – Chicago runs most of their screen and rolls with Gasol, but his below average points per possession suggests they’d be better off devoting a higher percentage of these plays to Gibson, who’s getting over a point per possession. A transference of Gibson post-ups to Gasol and Gasol on-ball screens to Gibson would likely proliferate the Bulls’ offense. Joakim Noah, on the other hand, has been absolutely dreadful in his 20 possessions as the screener, getting just 12 points at a rate that puts him in the 1st percentile league-wide.

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Results to this point in the season have shown that the Bulls should be running more off-ball screens for Nikola Mirotic and less for Doug McDermott, as the Spaniard has been almost doubling McDermott’s efficiency when running off picks.

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Defensively

Defense hasn’t really been a struggle area for Chicago, at 3rd in the NBA in points per possession efficiency and with a very blue shot chart, but there is always room for improvement.

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Though Rose and Noah have struggled offensively, they’ve shown their worth on the defensive end, while Jimmy Butler is playing far below his reputation, perhaps because of the energy he’s now expending on offense. These numbers could be slightly skewed when considering Butler is often guarding the other team’s best perimeter player, but it also shows that this season he’s perhaps been the wrong man for that job, yielding almost a full point per possession.

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Opposing teams have clearly looked to attack Nikola Mirotic in spot up situations, as 12.7% of opponents’ tries have been against him, and they’ve been successful – he ranks at just 23rd percentile. Coach Hoiberg should either work on improving Mirotic’s closing out or tinker with his strategy so that he isn’t so often put into this position. Derrick Rose, too, could use some great improvement at closing out on jump shooters.

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Main takeaways

Trade rumors have swirled about the Bulls all season, mostly regarding their crowded frontcourt rotation and their franchise face Derrick Rose. Here’s a look at how Chicago’s players rank in Corner Three’s wins above replacement statistic, which takes into account key offensive and defensive indicators that correlate strongly to points scored and points prevented, based on years of data, then compares each player to the replacement-level player at his position.

Player WAR 
Jimmy Butler 6.9
Pau Gasol 5.0
Taj Gibson 2.4
Nikola Mirotic 2.4
Joakim Noah 1.4
Aaron Brooks 0.8
Doug McDermott 0.1
Bobby Portis 0.0
Kirk Hinrich -0.2
E’Twaun Moore -0.2
Derrick Rose -0.3
Tony Snell -0.3

This measure backs up what has been seen in the points per possession data – Derrick Rose has really hurt the Bulls this season. If he doesn’t return to form soon, Chicago may need to consider a trade or switch things up in the rotation if they mean to contend for a championship.

In the frontcourt, Joakim Noah seems like the smartest trade candidate, depending on the different return values Chicago can find between him and Gibson. Noah’s sudden ineptitude offensively has made him the odd man out among the team’s solid big men.

In all, though, the Bulls have been a very good team this season, and have better shown that in the past couple of weeks. A little tinkering here and there, and if the front office so chooses, a personnel change, could give Chicago even more leverage in the very much up-for-grabs Eastern Conference.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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