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How the Bulls Can Buy Time by Turning Back the Clock

Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The narrative has already set in: The Chicago Bulls lack a killer instinct. Time and again, they’ve let fourth-quarter leads slip away as their usually strong defense breaks down, with their punchless offense unable to compensate.

Their recent failures have seen this year’s team lumped in with last year’s edition that became known for not showing up every night. With wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Indiana Pacers juxtaposed against bad home losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns, it makes sense from afar to assume their inconsistent effort carried over into the Hoiberg Era.

Except that’s not really the case. In 2015, Chicago lost seven home games by double digits (four to lottery teams), something that’s yet to happen this season. This year, they just aren’t near as potent offensively (despite bringing back the exact same roster). Derrick Rose has been healthy but has contributed little, whether through efficiency or raw volume, while Mike Dunleavy has yet to play after suffering a setback with his recovery from back surgery. Making matters worse, Pau Gasol has predictably seen a dip in his production after a huge 2015 season. The shot chart on the left is from last season, and the right is this season:

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While the Bulls, now 29th in offensive rating after their near collapse against the Clippers, don’t have the same supply of offensive firepower, they may have ways to make up for it in an underappreciated area. Much like special teams in football, rebounding gets forgotten as a critical component in between offense and defense. It also happens to be an area of weakness for their typical closing pairing (Gasol with Nikola Mirotic). The thing that makes the Bulls so complicated is that one can’t just look at each of their four bigs. They have to be looked at as combos because each has its own quirks.

Below is a table showing each duo over the last month:

Players Minutes played Offensive reb% Defensive reb% Overall reb%
Gasol/Mirotic 204 20.3 73.2 47.5
Gibson/Noah 154 29.8 77.7 54.2
Gasol/Gibson 99 25.5 73.4 50.7
Mirotic/Noah 63 29.2 79.7 54.3
Gasol/Noah 45 26.5 82.0 54.5

(Gibson/Mirotic has been excluded due to having played only eight minutes together in the last month, and only 36 minutes overall.)

What becomes abundantly clear is the Bulls are a significantly better rebounding team with Joakim Noah, who’s posting his best defensive rebounding percentage since 2010, on the floor. Offensive rebounding with Mirotic is assured to be lower due to him residing on the perimeter rather than down low, but notice the drastic uptick in offensive rebounding (not to mention defensive rebounding) when Noah is paired with Niko as opposed to Gasol. Pau is known as an “empty rebound” guy, as he vacuums up uncontested boards and doesn’t box out consistently.

That also translates to the numbers, which show that over two-thirds of Gasol’s rebounds are uncontested, while over half of Noah’s grabs are contested.  Mirotic’s numbers are very similar to Pau’s, while Gibson’s resemble Noah’s, with slightly lower contested numbers but great success against multiple contesting rebounders. It might stand to reason that Gasol stumbles into uncontested rebounds merely by being the starting center, which is partly true. NBA.com’s database in this area goes back to the 2013-14 season, which is enough to show that Noah, in his final season as the clear starting center, did nab a higher percentage of his rebounds unabated, although 40 percent of his boards were still through traffic.

But that’s just rebounding. One way to obtain clarity on the ever-fluctuating Bulls is by using Jimmy Butler, their only entirely dependable player, as a totem of sorts. See, the thing that immediately tips off the oddity of the Bulls is that Butler’s on/off court numbers are horrendous. In the last month, Chicago is 2.9 points per 100 possessions worse with him on court and 7.5 points per 100 better with him on the bench (the next closest Bull in the latter measure is Rose at +1.9). However, because we can look at stats and watch the games — shhh, don’t tell Barkley — we know this is a case of the stats not painting an accurate picture.

Whether Rose is coasting or actually this mortal is irrelevant for this particular discussion. His play as it is has been bad enough to drag down Butler’s numbers. This table displays the net ratings of various lineups over the past month (that time period is more useful for forecasting due to Noah’s slow start and Doug McDermott’s notable improvement on defense). Lineups with tiny sample sizes (under 25 minutes as opposed to 40 or well over that) are marked via asterisk:

Lineup Overall W/Butler W/Butler and Rose W/Butler and Hinrich
Gasol/Mirotic -3.9 -4.0 -6.7 +6.8
Gasol/Noah +7.0 +9.8 +6.0 +23.4*
Gibson/Noah -0.5 -9.3 -19.5* +21.4
Mirotic/Noah -8.6 -10.9 -39.6 -10.0
McDermott +1.2 -0.7 -2.1 +14.6
McDermott/Gasol +2.9 +4.4 +2.9 +10.5*
McDermott/Gibson -1.2 -9.3 -13.1 +16.7
McDermott/Mirotic +3.1 0.0 +2.3 -14.4
McDermott/Noah +1.0 +0.6 -14.9 +25.7

The Bulls aren’t soft, they’ve simply been finishing games without their best lineups on the floor. The numbers for Gibson and Noah might be inflated a tad due to facing more backups, but two things are clear:

  1. This isn’t going to be a great, or even good, offensive team unless Rose, and probably Mirotic, play a lot better.
  2. Noah and Gibson, while (understandably) not back to their age-28 peaks, are much more effective than their injury-plagued 2014-15 versions.

On the surface, the Gasol/Mirotic combo looks fine, except teams are mercilessly attacking it late in games, when each possession is theoretically played with higher intensity and greater attention to detail. Over the last month, that duo has surrendered a 112.5 defensive rating in the fourth quarter, contributing to a -20.8 net rating in said quarter. It’s unclear if Fred Hoiberg even has the capability to do so due to problematic playing time promises made to Gasol upon signing, but the Bulls would be best served to fully embrace their defensive capabilities (third in defensive rating as a team), and throw in a proto-Rockets offense where McDermott provides much needed spacing and Hinrich isn’t the one with the ball in his hands, unleashing what many fans have long wanted: #PointJimmy.

Turning back the clock to the Gibson/Noah pairing gives Chicago strong communication and flexibility on defense, and while their offense won’t be dynamic, they’ll have three capable shooters on the floor and would stand a much better chance clinging to leads because the boards won’t be so vulnerable. Playing Hinrich in such a role is nothing more than a band-aid, but until this roster that’s saddled with question marks (with Rose being the biggest one) can start to sort itself out, such a lineup would buy them time that they desperately need at the moment.

All stats via NBA.com/stats

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