Bullish: The Quarterly Report
Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season. In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated. I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root. I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.
The NBA 2016-17 season is just more than a quarter over, so small sample size caveats no longer apply.
It’s clear that the Bulls are better than the assessments of most forecasts. Vegas put their over/under win total at 38 and most pundits (myself included) took the under. Yet during the first 23 games, the Bulls have played at or near a 50 win pace. They have signature wins over elite teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they hung very close with the Los Angeles Clippers before losing. They have also shown weaknesses losing to teams like the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers and the team with the Association’s worst record, the Dallas Mavericks, blew them out by 25 points.
The Bulls have created an effective offense by capitalizing on the strengths of their roster. All five starters, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez are above average rebounders and below average shooters from long distance, so instead of mimicking the league’s dominant trend toward fast paced play featuring a flurry of three point shots, the Bulls play a methodical style that maximizes their second shot opportunities and Butler and Wade’s ability to create their own shot, often creates opportunity at the free throw line. Also, although Rondo is given to flashy, ambitious passes sometimes, the team is one of the best at not ending possessions in turnovers.
Their defense which also ranks in the upper echelon on the Association is premised on dismantling opponent’s pick and roll plays. Depending on the defender, the Bulls will either switch or trap the play, and on traps or sometimes when they show traps, the taller defender will frequently sink back into the restricted area to protect the rim. The biggest attribute to this approach is the Bulls are often beating opponents to desired spaces and deterring shots. That has left them with elite numbers in opponent’s Effective Field Goal Percentage and ratio of free throws to field goal attempts. Oddly for a team that excels in Offensive Rebound Percentage, their Defensive Rebound Percentage is middle of the pack. If it improves, the Bulls D might make former coach and defensive wiz Tom Thibodeau smile.
The most encouraging thing about the team so far is that there’s a clear recognition of its strengths and that there’s a willingness to experiment. Coach Fred Hoiberg played big man Cristiano Felicio as a reserve for the first ten games of the season or so, but when Doug McDermott, the team’s only reliable marksman from distance went out with an injury, Felico found himself nailed to the bench in favor of Bobby Portis, a big who has some shooting range. The substitution failed miserably, however, as Portis lacks Felicio’s defensive mettle and the second year player doesn’t react quickly enough to be a useful force on the floor. As soon as McDermott returned, so did Felicio, and the Bulls bench, once a major problem has become only a minor issue.
At the start of the season, the defensive strategy was to switch every pick and roll, but better teams, most notably the Clippers used that strategy to isolate favorable one-on-one matchups. A lasting takeaway from that game is the site of Clippers power forward Blake Griffin backing down the much smaller Rondo and shooting over him before additional help could arrive from Bulls defenders. The new strategy minimizes those situations.
The Bulls are still a work in progress, and yes, aren’t we all, but there’s a lot to be settled before the team can be fully counted on to vie for a top four seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. There are questions at reserve point guard which may not be settled until Michael Carter Williams returns from his wrist injury. There are questions of crunch time lineups. I favor using Wade at the point and having McDermott on the floor to stretch the defense, but that quintet hasn’t been on the floor enough to settle pro or con. There are also interesting issues surrounding minutes, usage and player development.
The Bulls have 59 more games to work those through. The nice thing is that the Bulls were never in the Finals-or-bust most that underpinned recent seasons. Instead they were literally trying to turn this thing around and move forward. The first goal appears to have been accomplished. How far and how fast is what we have to gauge.