A lot of analysts are picking the Bulls as a sort of dark horse contender to come out of the Eastern Conference. The reason for this is due to the massive amount of injuries the team has sustained. We haven’t seen the Bulls at full strength much this year, so it’s hard to predict how this team will fare in the playoffs. This article will serve as a guide to understanding Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses.
Bulls Strengths: Big Frontcourt, Drawing Tons of Fouls, Taking away the 3 on Defense.
The Bulls’ biggest edge on other teams is their frontcourt depth. The main problem with the frontcourt is how to distribute enough minutes to their four quality bigs in Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic.
Gasol has been the most consistent offensive player, and the Bulls will post him up frequently in isolations or run him in pick-and-pop, where he’s one of the best free throw line-extended shooters in the league at 48 percent.
Noah has been a shell of himself this year and is extremely limited offensively. He has the lowest scoring average of any starter playing more than 30 mpg, and by a wide margin. However, he’s still a great passer and gets a lot of assists. He will throw a lot of lobs and backdoor passes when defenses fall asleep or run dribble-handoffs with guards to get open jump shots.
Gibson and Mirotic have also both been solid coming off the bench.
The frontcourt, along with the return of Derrick Rose, has helped the Bulls leap from 28th in ORtg last year to 11th this year. Teams will struggle no matter what to find a way to defend against it. The Bulls also have offensive (Gasol, Mirotic) and defensive (Noah, Gibson) specialists, so it’ll be difficult to exploit the Bulls on either end late in games.
The Bulls are #4 in free throw attempts per game and #3 in free throw percentage. The team draws a lot of its points by getting into the bonus early in periods and making a living at the free throw line. Jimmy Butler has emerged as a foul-drawing machine (12th in NBA in FTA/36 min), and Mirotic isn’t far behind him. (16th in FTA/36 min) As a team, the Bulls garner a 4.0 point advantage per game by free throws alone.
To beat the Bulls, teams absolutely cannot foul them. Much easier said than done.
Taking Away the 3:
Tom Thibodeau has predicated his defenses on preventing three-pointers for years now, and this year is no different. The Bulls are third in three-pointers allowed (19.6 att/gm) and third in the percentage that opponents shoot on those shots against them. (33.5 percent) With the trend towards shooting more threes, this has been morphing into an even greater strength on Thibodeau teams for the past few years.
Weaknesses: Poor Pick-and-Roll Defense, Lack of Continuity, Poor Defensive Rebounding, Can’t Force Turnovers/Poor in Transition Defense
Poor Pick-and-Roll Defense:
This has been the Bulls’ biggest weakness all year. Point guards have been shredding the Bulls on high pick-and-rolls. The Bulls are dead last in the league in defending ball handlers in the pick-and-roll. Part of the reason is that Gasol is a very poor and immobile help defender on these plays, but the whole team has slipped from what has traditionally been a very good defensive team.
If you think that the Bulls are still an elite defense, this is no longer the case. The Bulls were 1st/2nd/6th/2nd in defensive rating under Tom Thibodeau and have slipped to 11th this year. They still remain great at defending isolations (fourth in league), so if teams want to beat the Bulls, they should try to pick-and-roll them to death and absolutely not resort to one-on-one play.
Injuries have been the story of the Bulls’ season thus far. Fair warning, this part is depressing.
In past years, Thibodeau has been accused of playing his guys into the ground, so the Bulls came in this year by hiring a Director of Sports Performance, Jen Swanson, to enforce minutes restrictions on players and ensure team health. Unfortunately, the injuries still came hard. The Bulls’ starters missed a combined 86 games this year. (Gasol – 4, Butler – 17, Noah – 15, Dunleavy – 19, Rose – 31) Compare this to the Bucks, who they face in the first round and had starters miss only 41 games.
To make matters worse, there are still a number of important players that are coming into the playoffs dinged-up. Gibson has a shoulder problem that affected him in the last game of the season and has been battling ankle problems for the past few years. Rose has only played 4.5 games since sitting out for almost two months after right knee surgery. His other knee was bothering him enough that he sat out the second half of the Bulls’ last game, too. Noah sat out the last two games of the season and missed numerous games this year because of problems on the knee he had surgery on in the offseason. Butler has been nursing various injuries throughout the year and sat out a game a week ago with calf problems. Kirk Hinrich has been hurting for a while now with a leg injury. The list goes on and on. Still, the Bulls are as healthy as they’ve been for most of the season, and they present an intriguing matchup in the playoffs.
As a result, it has been very difficult for the Bulls to have any sort of continuity on the team. The Bulls have gone through stretches where Noah has ran the team as a sort of quasi-point guard, and Rose has also run the team with some success. It’s not clear which of these options are going to be used in the playoffs, nor is the nine-man rotation even completely set. Thibodeau will have his hands full on what to do with minutes.
Thibodeau teams have usually been excellent at defensive rebounding. This year’s team has struggled, though, giving up 11.7 offensive rebounds per game. (27th in league) The Bulls have been bad at every aspect of this – rebounding off missed free throws have been especially troubling. Second chance points have killed the Bulls all season, and teams have got to crash the offensive boards hard to beat the Bulls.
The Bulls’ turnover margin has been very poor this year. Butler is the only player who can consistently force steals, and you’ll see him dart into a passing lane at least once per game in the playoffs. The Bulls are 29th in drawing turnovers, though, and are 12th in turnovers they commit.
Because they commit a lot of turnovers, teams tend to run on them and score a lot in transition. It doesn’t help matters that the team is old (fifth-oldest, 28.8 yrs old avg) and struggles to get back on defense.
If teams want to beat the Bulls, they should try to push the pace. Run Gasol through a lot of high pick-and-rolls. Don’t foul and don’t fall asleep on defense when Noah has the ball because he’ll find a back-cutter. Crash the boards hard and don’t ever give up – this is a team that has blown a lot of big leads throughout the season.
If the Bulls want to win, they need to limit their turnovers and hustle back on defense. Try to stop the bleeding on rebounds by boxing out as a team. Somehow pray that Gasol removes the cinder blocks from his feet for the playoffs and hope Rose returns to form, or at least close to it.