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 great Chicago Bulls experiment finally met its match this week and the result was a surprising thud: three defeats to teams that the fanbase might have thought inferior.
The Bulls have gone against the grain for a third of the season. Rather than build an offense around great outside shooting, the method used by every other successful franchise these days, the team built around every other major attribute, rebounding, not turning the ball over and getting to the free throw line. In two and half games, the team discovered how bad things can look when the other team counters that strategy.
It’s a little bit of a surprise that two teams that unmasked the Bulls were the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Milwaukee Bucks. Neither team figures to be a Conference Finalist this year, but both are filled with young future all stars and figure to be top echelon teams soon. What each team did was contest the rebounds and due to their length and athleticism, they kept the Bulls from getting second shots. In each of the three games, the Bulls offensive rebounding dipped well below its seasonal average and the results were disastrous.
The Bulls are often criticized for their lack of three point shooting and it’s a valid complaint. The Bulls are dead last in the Association in three point attempts, makes and of course, percentage. What’s more is that they aren’t passing up threes and routinely nailing mid range shots. They are 25th out of 30 teams in two point field goal percentage. In other words this is truly the gang that can’t shoot straight. The 69 points against Milwaukee at home on Friday night, was more a reflection of a crucial team weakness, not a fluke.
The easy point of comparison is that the Bulls are like a college football team that in an age of spread offenses and high flying passing games, still prefers to grind it out, three yards and a cloud of dust. Yet, the Bulls ground game isn’t all that good either. Their offensive rating fell from 10th to 15th this week.
Until the Bulls repair their offense, they will be dependent on their defense. That’s a familiar position for Bulls fans during the Tom Thibodeau regime, but those Bulls were typically top five or even top three in defense. This year’s Bulls are 11th in defense. A defense that is a bad game or two from being middle of the pack isn’t going to carry a team with an offense in freefall very far.