The Chicago Bulls aren’t usually the sort of team where you need to parse the narrative; in most cases the headline and lede will do.
In the early ‘70s, they won with such a bruising defense that opponents often wondered if Dick Butkus and his mates had donned basketball garb for the evening. The lone question was would this squad have anything left when superior Western Conference teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks aged out of the championship conversation (they didn’t). In the ‘80s, the simple question was whether a true title contender could be built around Michael Jordan (it could). And in the ‘90s it was would they ever not win a ring in a season that began with Jordan, Socttie Pippen and Phil Jackson with the team (nope). In recent years the big picture question centered around the health and return to form of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose.
This season’s Bulls offer no easy primer. The team is 10-6 and exceeding expectations by a healthy margin. How they have done it suggests a sea change in their operating principles. The Bulls have been slow to embrace advance metrics as a tool of analysis. In his superb breakdown of where each North American sports team stands on the usage of analytic data, ESPN’s Kevin Pelton ranked the Bulls in a group of “skeptics” or fourth among five tiers of teams on how they value and implement advanced statistics, citing that front office honchos Gar Forman and John Paxson preferred scouting reports and character evaluation. At that time, the Bulls had only one person, Steve Weinman, assigned to analytics.
The Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg as head coach in the summer of 2015, and there was speculation that he would invest more into analytic data. They hired an additional data guy, Miles Abbett, and in the signature statistic of the basketball analytic movement, three point shots (yes, for all of the extended equations in analytics, some of the fundamental principles are pretty basic, three points are indeed half again better than two), the Bulls improved. Their three point shooting percentage shot up from 10th in the league in ’14-15 to a bright and shiny third in ’15-’16. However that was about the only thing that went right in a season rife with player dissent and crippling injuries. The Bulls won eight fewer games than the season before and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Hoiberg was supposed to revamp a moribund offense but in Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) the Bulls slipped from 11th to 23rd and the defense fell from 11th to 15th.
The improvements this season have been dramatic as the Bulls rank seventh on both sides of the ball. The offensive improvements are centered on the other key offensive factors, notably rebounding but also preventing turnovers and getting to the free throw line. The offseason additions of Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez seem to account for much of this. The team also signed Rajon Rondo, but it remains difficult to see the benefits (my theory is that no one in the Bulls front office knew the phone number for Jeremy Lin’s agent, so the team panicked). Some of the team’s rise on defense owes to Lopez, a noted rim protector replacing Pau Gasol, a fine scorer who was a defensive liability. Last season the Bulls gave up more drives to the rim than any other team.
So have the Bulls joined teams like the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets as ardent promoters of basketball analytics? Probably not. Or at least not yet; the team’s personnel moves all seem to stem from an analysis of data, which is a good sign. It means that many of the improvements are sustainable, barring injuries to key players like Wade, Lopez or all-star wing Jimmy Butler. This does suggest that the Bulls front office, which has deserved the ire of many fans, may have gotten this offseason right.
What this may also mean is that the Bulls are a sort of analytics 2.0 team. These are teams that came late to the data party but have succeeded by adapting strategies that became undervalued in the first wave of analytical teams. The Kansas City Royals and their reliance on fielding and relief pitching are a great example in baseball of this concept. The Royals won a title with that roster building philosophy, but it’s far too early to forecast similar glory for these Bulls (Cleveland and Golden State are just too far ahead of them in talent right now), but Chicago has made tremendous improvements and if my deductions are accurate, then their rise isn’t a fluke. It should propel them to the fringe of the championship conversation, which was unthinkable a few months ago when the franchise seemed mired in a long slow downward spiral.