In the wake of the Chicago Bulls’ busy offseason, there’s a fair criticism which many have focused on, and that’s the relative dearth of shooting on the new-look team. With Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade making up the new starting backcourt and joining Jimmy Butler as the perimeter presence, there isn’t a whole lot of shooting to be had.
The discussion tends to stop there, and the Bulls are generally vanquished from the playoffs before the season starts or else fated to a No. 8 seed and a first-round exit. And while I don’t want to argue that that’s impossible or even implausible, I do want to suggest an alternative narrative — that there’s a way things could break right for the Bulls and they could be a dark horse team for the Eastern Conference Finals.
After all, they won 42 games last year, not 22. And when they had Jimmy Butler in the lineup they were 37-30. They lost a triple-overtime game to the Detroit Pistons in the middle of the season. Had they won that game, they would have been in the postseason instead of Detroit.
My point here isn’t to say that if they hadn’t had injuries they would have won the title, but it’s about perspective. They weren’t that bad last year. It just felt like it sometimes.
Three-Point Shooting and Winning
Yeah, the lack of three-point shooting is a very valid criticism. None of those top perimeter players are marksmen, or let’s be honest, even average when it comes to shooting.
But let’s put things in balance. You don’t have to be leading the NBA in threes to win a game, or even make the playoffs. In the wake of the proverbial speedboat known as the Golden State Warriors, we’ve established “pace-and-space” as not a way of winning or even the best way to win, but we’ve made it tantamount to the only way to win. And that is just not true.
Here are last year’s teams by winning percentage and three-point percentage:
So yes, that point way up at the top is the Warriors and we don’t need to elaborate on that, but keep your eyes up near the top and roll them to left. What’s that there? The San Antonio Spurs?!?! And along with them, the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies, who also made the postseason. Three of the bottom six teams in made threes were in the playoffs.
Chicago is there, slightly left of center. They made marginally fewer threes than the Indiana Pacers and even the dynamic Oklahoma City Thunder, who had Kevin Durant.
Sure, the teams that did make the three tended to be in the playoffs, but you didn’t have to be a team full of snipers to be successful. There are other ways to win.
Furthermore, the Bulls’ shooting issues aren’t that bad. The reality is the Bulls added more threes than they lost:
So they finished in the middle of the pack last year. They added threes this year. But suddenly Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott are the only players on the team who can hit a three with any consistency?
I’ll give you that the shooting from the starters on the perimeter isn’t a strength. But let’s not blow things out of proportion. It’s not like none of them ever hit a three and that the Bulls don’t have other players who can hit them, or that Rondo-Wade-Butler are going to be playing 48 minutes a night. It’s about degrees and perspective.
So the bad isn’t as bad as it sounds. What about the good?
Where the points can come from
Say what you want about Rondo’s passing and assist padding, but what you can’t say is he doesn’t know how to deliver a well-timed and precise pass. He has great court vision. And he’d rather get the assist than the field goal (hence the stat padding). So if he sees an opening, he’s going to take it.
Jimmy Butler was a beast last year on cuts. He scored 1.53 points per possession on them, which placed him in the 92.9 percentile, per Synergy. That’s the equivalent of shooting 51 percent from three, so yeah, there are still ways of scoring efficiently without the deep ball. Butler amassed 193 points on such plays. No one in the league scored more points as efficiently as him. DeAndre Jordan, who led the league in points, scored 1.48 PPP.
Yes, Butler was more efficient on cuts than Jordan. Having Rondo feed him the ball when he’s going for those baseline alley-oops sure isn’t going to hurt that number.
What about passes to the perimeter? Mirotic averaged 6.2 points per game on catch-and-shoots and shot a 60.7 effective field goal percentage on them, per SportVU tracking. The complete list of players who were better includes Klay Thompson, J.J. Redick, Stephen Curry and J.R. Smith.
Want spot-up shooting? Only eight players recorded better than McDermott’s 1.17 PPP on spot-up attempts and scored more points.
Maybe you miss a shot. Only three players scored more on putbacks than Robin Lopez’s 232 last season.
Want drives? Only 14 players averaged five points on drives last year and .7 assists. Two of them were Wade and Butler. They were third and seventh, respectively, in field goal percentage on those drives.
Need a little iso? Argue all you want that Butler runs too much iso, but he scored .91 PPP, which tied him with Chris Paul for 10th-best among players with 150+ such points.
My “point” here (pun intended) is that there are many ways to score. They don’t all have to come from behind the arc, and you can have a good offense without raining in a ton of treys.
Sure, there still might be some defensive issues. But Joakim Noah wasn’t there most of last year, Derrick Rose was a train wreck, Pau Gasol was a good rim protector but a target for the high pick-and-roll, and Wade essentially just replaces whatever sieve was serving as the small forward on a given night.
The defense didn’t get much worse, and you can make an argument that it could be a bit better because while Lopez isn’t the fastest big man in the world, he’d win a foot race with Gasol.
And with Rondo’s 6’9″ wingspan and Wade’s nearly 7’0″ reach, they should be hell on passing lanes as a tandem. Rondo averaged 2.0 steals last year and Wade averaged 1.1.
With Butler taking the responsibility of guarding the primary ball handler, there’s a way that could work.
Unlike last year, when they were tied for third-most second chance points surrendered, this year all five starters are good defensive rebounders for their position. And between those extra boards and steals, they should be able to generate more fastbreak points than they did last year.
They’re not going to lead the league in defense, but they could be good enough.
And with a team that has a guy like Wade on it, who has been to the dance and won a Finals MVP, you’ve got a puncher’s chance in the playoffs of getting to the next round and maybe the next.
The Bulls won’t win the title, but they could be a dark horse in the playoffs.