Nate Silver’s site 538 is widely regarded as the gold standard in parsing poll numbers and projecting politics, but he got his start projecting sports performance. With the accuracy his site has displayed (except for overlooking the staying power of some guy named Trump), the projections that he and his staff make carry great weight. Thus, it was more than a little surprising that their NBA preview figured the Chicago Bulls to finish 45-37; this is far more optimistic than most systems and even Vegas has their over/under at 38 wins. I figured them to win 35 and finish in that dreaded position of drafting late in the 2017 Lottery.
But what if 538 is right? It seems inconceivable. The Bulls won 42 games last season and parted ways with several of the team’s best known players, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Their lone reliable outside shooter, Mike Dunleavy also left via free agency. In their stead, the Bulls signed free agent guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. The signings were head scratchers since Wade plays the same position as Jimmy Butler, the Bulls all-star guard, and Rondo is the NBA’s leading malcontent and the once stalwart defender is now one of the worst defensive players in the Association. During the summer, when friends asked me what the Bulls were doing, I’d put my head in my hands and change the subject to the Cubs.
But…but…what if 538 is right? What has to happen? I love an exercise in contrarianism, so let’s posit these three things have to happen.
Coach Fred Hoiberg Rebounds from an Awful Rookie Season
In the summer of 2015, when Fred Hoiberg took over the Bulls coaching job, he inherited a veteran team that had made the playoffs for six straight seasons under his predecessor Tom Thibodeau. It was a sturdy team built on rock solid defensive play and somewhat resourceful offense. However, the team was beginning to show cracks in the foundation. The initial narrative was that Hoiberg, whose Iowa State teams were among the top college offenses, would repair the cracks and install a more exciting ball movement-based offense. It was a nice idea but in reality, Hoiberg was overrun by the veteran players and the offense resembled Thibodeau’s minus the production. The team slipped to 23rd in Offense and 15th in Defense after ranking 11th on both sides of the ball in 2014-15. They slipped eight games in the standings and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Hoiberg’s schemes were miserable, and night after night, he stood on the sideline with a deer in headlights expression of confused horror.
The success of Brad Stevens in Boston notwithstanding, the history of NCAA coaches moving into NBA gigs and succeeding isn’t pretty; top college coaches like Rick Pitino (twice), John Calapari and Mike Montgomery all tried the NBA and then retreated back to the college ranks. Hoiberg could easily have resigned and fled back to the NCAA after his first chaotic season. Either he’s a glutton for agony or he sees something that can be built into a successful team.
The Mid-Range Matters
It took several decades but everyone in the NBA has figured it out: three points are more than two. Thus teams seek to shoot three pointers and capitalize on a spread out defense by attacking the rim for easy two point shots. As Jeff Van Gundy told me in an interview last year, “it used to be that what you wanted was an open mid range shot. Now that’s what the defense will concede.”
One of the primary criticisms of the Bulls offseason acquisitions is that it did little to bolster their three point shooting. What if the Bulls plan to capitalize on the midrange shots? With defenses conceding them (my eye test agrees with JVG’s contention). Although he is an indifferent defender and a lousy shooter, Rondo is still great at setting teammates up for open shots, and Wade remains a elite midrange shooter. Lastly, if the Bulls braintrust, GM Gar Forman and Team President John Paxson concluded that they didn’t have the talent to be the pace and space Warriors of the Midwest then pursuing a different style is prudent.
The public face of the Bulls is two veteran players, Wade and Rondo and one player in his prime, Butler, but the bulk of the roster is comprised of promising young players who have only scratched the surface of their potential: third year forwards, Niko Mirotic and Doug McDermott; second year forward Bobby Portis; third year guard Michael Carter Williams, second year big man Cristiano Felicio and rookie Denzel Valentine. They are moving into minutes vacated by veterans like Mike Dunleavy Jr., Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose. Any good college coach has to excel at talent development. Perhaps with a clearer path to minutes, Hoiberg can help these players grow. The Bulls organization has done an excellent job of talent development in the past.
Lastly, the pressure is off. Last season the Bulls were on the fringes of the championship conversation. This year most pundits outside of 538 peg them for the lottery. This may create an easier environment to engage in team development. I’m not saying that the Bulls will win 45 games, but if you look more closely—and seriously this isn’t squinting—then you can see the road to a successful season here. The pieces are present; it will just be a matter of utilizing them correctly.