The Bulls: More Than a Surprise
A fifth of the way into the 2016-17 NBA season it’s fair to say that the Chicago Bulls are one of the surprise teams of the Association. The issue now moves to whether their success marks a paradigm shift in NBA offense.
The Bulls were widely picked by experts to disappoint this season. The team, which had lingered on the fringe of the championship conversation for years, fell to a dispiriting 42-40 in 2015-16, and their offseason moves to remake the roster seemed unlikely to return them to their previous stature. Las Vegas oddsmakers put their over/under for the season at 38 wins and most experts took the under (for the record, I was especially pessimistic, forecasting 35 wins and a front office housecleaning). Their offseason acquisitions, guards Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo and center Robin Lopez did little to move the team toward the pace and space uptempo, three point shooting model of the Golden State Warriors and other successful offenses in the NBA. The Bulls ranked 23rd last season in Offensive Rating, if their moves made them less effective offensively then freefall seemed a more likely outcome than contention.
Yet, here we are, the Bulls have completed their usually grueling circus road trip with four wins and two losses and stand 10-6, tied for the second best record in the Eastern Conference. The single biggest change has been in the offense which has risen from that putrid 23rd ranking to a solid seventh in Offensive Rating. Initial observations wrote off their rise as a fluke as both Wade and all star wing Jimmy Butler were shooting well above their career averages on three point field goals, but the Bulls current success has little to do with three point shooting. Yeah, let’s repeat that: the Chicago Bulls have made a giant step forward offensively without benefit of long distance shooting. The reason for their rise augurs well for the sustainability of the improvement and suggests the need for more sophisticated analysis of NBA play.
The contemporary NBA offense is usually built around teams racing downcourt with wing players running to spots behind the three point line while the point guard and a big man set up a pick and roll near the free throw line. The ways in which the defense react dictate which long distance shooter will be free or if one of them will sprint unguarded to the basket in the hopes of receiving a pass and making a layup or dunk. The concept is simple; the most effective shots in the NBA are three point goals and layups. This trend has put a premium on wing players who can shoot from distance and guard multiple positions. The Warriors often feature a lineup that is essentially point guard Steph Curry and four wings, and it is nearly unstoppable.
But what if your roster doesn’t feature multiple wings who can shoot accurately from deep and don’t defend several positions well? That was the Bulls quandary going into this offseason. They needed to remake a team and well players like the Warriors Klay Thompson just weren’t available, so they went a different route. The common thread for their offseason acquisitions is offensive rebounding, and their arrival plus the long overdue promotion of power forward Taj Gibson to the starting five have made the Bulls into the best offensive rebounding team in the Association. More than 30% of Bulls misses are rebounded by teammates leading to second chances. The impact is enormous; the Bulls are 21st in the Association in field goal percentage but seventh in offense. Creating additional opportunities has led directly to a better offense. Their number one ranking contrasts sharply with their 13th place finish last season.
There are secondary factors in the rise of the Chicago offense. Wade and Butler are among the league’s best at drawing fouls from their defenders and getting to the free throw line and that too shows in the Bulls team stats. The team ranks eighth in free throws attempted as a percentage of field goals. That’s up from 26th last season. Lastly the Bulls take care of the basketball. Last season, they were 12th in percentage of possessions that ended in turnovers; this season they are sixth.
Offensive Rating, points scored per 100 possessions, correlates to four factors, Effective Field Goal percentage (a calculation that includes the extra point for made three point attempts), Offensive Rebounding Percentage, Turnover Percentage and Ratio of Free Throws to Field Goals taken. The usual shorthand for looking at offensive performance is to judge by Effective Field Goal percentage or its cousin, True Shooting Percentage (which factors in free throws). The dramatic improvement in the Bulls offense has come by improving the other three categories. Their eFG% has improved this year but it has gone from 26th last season to 23rd this season.
Based on the first 16 games of this season, the Bulls offense has illustrated an appealing logic. Unable to improve dramatically in the most prominent approach, long distance shooting, the team improved in all of the secondary components to a good offense, and it is paying off.
It is worth noting that the Bulls 10-6 mark has been accomplished against a middling slate of opponents, only seven of the Bulls games have been against teams with .500 records or better. There are games against powerhouses like Cleveland and San Antonio in December. Also the Bulls have stayed healthy; an injury to any of their starters, especially Butler, Wade or Gibson, could collapse their run in a hurry. But until then and perhaps beyond, the Bulls have shown that there is more to NBA offense than three point shooting.