It’s not often that a non-number can do so much to define a team’s season, but the Chicago Bulls have one that’ll stop you in your tracks. Their net rating with a lineup of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah was — they didn’t have one. That lineup failed to play a single regular-season minute together.
And that encapsulates everything that went wrong for the Bulls last year, and to a point, the years around it as well. The injuries, the glut at the power-forward spot, the stubbornness of Tom Thibodeau, and his refusal to try new and intriguing lineups all coalesce on the simple fact that not for one second did the most obvious quintet of players ever take the court together.
And what exacerbates all of this is that with the Bulls’ supposed strength in the middle, they just weren’t very good there, although it’s not immediately obvious that was the case. Thibodeau was so stubborn in his commitment to try and wedge the rock into a plugged hole that it actually found its way there a decent number of times.
I’m going to show you two charts. The first one illustrates the percentage of points a team scored in the restricted area and what they got from the three-point line. The lines cutting through the middle of the graph denote the averages.
What I want to focus on here is that the Bulls have this reputation of being an above-average team inside that just needs shooters. That’s not the case. They were average in their point distribution from deep.
However, they were well-below average in the percentage of their points that came in the restricted area. And truth be told, that wasn’t even the worst part. The chart below shows their shooting percentages in the two optimal areas:
See the Bulls, situated right there next to the New York Knicks? Depressed now, aren’t you? Last year, the Bulls were basically the Knicks in the two most important areas of the court. I’ll now pause and give you a moment to grieve.
When you look at the Bulls again, the problem wasn’t with the three-point scoring. It was with restricted area scoring. So why is it that a team with so many bigs couldn’t score worth a lick at the rim?
I want to call your attention to the trend line sloping upward at a nice, 45-degree incline, which indicates that as three-point shooting percentage increased, so did the percentage in the restricted area. And for once, we don’t need a causation/correlation warning because what’s important isn’t which causes the other. It’s that they seem to have a symbiotic relationship with one another.
The Bulls failed at any point to recognize that relationship exists. Look at the best offenses; San Antonio, Golden State and Atlanta all were excellent at both because they recognize that utilizing the whole court matters.
In fact, that’s the heart of what the Bulls’ offense struggled with last year. The constant efforts to lob, jam, dribble, pass or force the ball inside for a challenged shot was annoyingly persistent. At NBA.com, they don’t track contested shots by range, but we can get a hint.
The Bulls attempted 20.5 percent of their two-point field goals with a defender within two feet. That was the seventh-highest mark in the league. And they had the 12th-lowest field goal percentage on those challenged twos. Only the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers (all of whom missed the playoffs) were worse in both regards.
And it gets uglier from there. The Bulls in the fourth quarter were more infuriating than an Alvin and the Chipmunks Singalong. In terms of forcing and missing contested shots in the most important frame — the Bulls were the worst team in the NBA:
Which brings us to the present, to the lineup that never happened, and the promise that it will. The subtle but obvious lineup change of Mirotic for Pau Gasol and a more inventive offense can do massive things for the Bulls.
It’s time to dispel the notion the Bulls don’t have shooters. They have plenty of them. In fact, sans Rose, they shot 36.7 percent from deep last year. Will they be the Golden State Warriors? No. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have enough shooting to generate a great offense.
The problem is that they don’t utilize that shooting to open up lanes and create better, uncontested looks at the rim. Mirotic and Hoiball can make that happen. Fred Hoiberg loves running high picks, be they of the conventional PnR variety or a drag screen. They’re often set well above the three-point line, moving everyone outside of the lane.
During the Summer League, Cameron Bairstow and Bobby Portis were freeing up the likes of Vander Blue and Ramon Galloway for lanes which were literally completely empty. For Rose and Butler that would be like driving from downtown Chicago to O’Hare without another car on the Kennedy.
And while the sets were simple, there were strong indications that they were only scraping the surface of the playbook. The thing to look at here is neither the specific plays, nor the men running them, but the apparent paradigm upon which they’re based: that three-point shooting can be used to set up inside points. That screens can be set up outside the three-point line. That the basketball play doesn’t have to occur exclusively inside the arc. That plays can as easily be run from outside in as inside out.
In essence, these are the things that make a stretch offense work.
The Bulls have shooters in Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and Dunleavy. They have slashers in Butler and Rose. They have bigs who can pass in Gasol and Noah. They have bigs who can shoot in Portis and Mirotic. They have bigs who can post up in Gasol and Gibson.
In short, they already have the tools you need to generate a spread offense. What they lacked last year was imagination, creativity and a general acknowledgment that it’s 2015. They had all the pieces, but Thibodeau just refused to assemble them.
And lest you think that’s too harsh, I remind you: He did not play the very obvious lineup of Mirotic for Gasol one time until the playoffs. Some have criticized the Bulls for not making any change other than the coaching, but at least from the offensive perspective, it’s pretty apparent that’s where one was needed the most.