Kevin Anderson

The Bulls offensive system is working and the math backs up Jim Boylen

The Bulls offensive system is working and the math backs up Jim Boylen

Bulls coach Jim Boylen told a group of reporters before the season started that “we believe in the math and we coach to the math.” This, of course, caused an uproar in the ‘watch the games’ community and even Zach LaVine was quoted on being skeptical of the team’s approach to mid-range shots.

Is Jim Boylen’s offensive system working? The analytics say it is despite having the NBA’s 26th ranked offensive rating (per Basketball-Reference.com).

It’s an understatement to say the Bulls 3-7 record is disappointing, and the fan base is looking for someone (or something) to blame. The latest focus is on the team’s offensive system and reliance on the 3-point shot. They are 11th in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game this season, a big jump from the 27th they finished last season.

The massive increase has a lot to do with Jim Boylen’s new system, his overhaul of the coaching staff in the offseason, and the front office’s roster changes. Boylen hired former Nets assistant coach Chris Fleming this past summer and he brought much of the Nets’ offensive philosophy with him. The Nets were 5th in the NBA in 3-point attempts a year ago.

Lauri Markkanen, whose own shooting woes have been chronicled at length, doesn’t believe the team has to change its playstyle to score more points, “I wouldn’t be worried about that, I know how well we can shoot… I’m confident in our offense.”

^ In this example from Saturday’s loss to the Rockets, we see Zach LaVine drive past Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker comes over to help, leaving Lauri Markkanen open in the corner. LaVine makes the right play, but Markkanen fails to hit the open shot.

There are many close observers of the Bulls (including our own analysts Kendall Gill and Will Perdue) who believe that the team needs to go back to a traditional play style that includes more mid-range shots and post play.

However, the analytics suggest that the Bulls’ offensive system is working because it’s resulting in open and wide-open shots. It’s overly simplistic to say an open shot is good, a contested shot is bad but the goal of any offensive system is to create good looks for its scorers. Through 10 games, the Bulls have attempted 347 3-point shots. Of those attempts, a whopping 89.6% of them are considered open or wide-open by the league’s closest defender metrics (1). The Bulls are hitting just 31.1% of those open or wide-open shots. That is far below the league average. They rank 27th in the NBA on ‘wide open’ threes made, and 24th in the NBA on ‘open’ threes made.

The Bulls run an offensive system that gives priority to an open three over a contested two, even if that shot attempt is near the rim. The team believes that there is more value in an open corner three than a contested shot in the paint.

^ In this clip, Wendell Carter Jr comes up with the offensive rebound off the Coby White miss. Because he’s double-teamed immediately, instead of taking a contested shot 3 feet from the rim, Carter passes out to a wide-open Kris Dunn.

They are also taking an above-average number of 3-point attempts (26.0 per game) without a dribble. That’s the 8th highest total in the league and suggests that most of their attempts are coming within an offensive set and not in isolation. They are converting just 31.9% of their threes without a dribble, which is near the bottom of the league at 26th.  To give a little more context, Fleming’s former team, the Nets, are hitting 41.0% of their 3-point attempts with no dribble.

^ In these two examples from the Bulls win over the Hawks we see the Bulls passing offense in action. In play 1, off the rebound, the Bulls push the pace and Tomas Satoransky hits a wide-open Otto Porter Jr. In play 2, Jabari Parker leaves Markkanen wide open to help on Satoransky.

The most common 3-point shot taken by the Bulls is a catch-and-shoot jumper, 79.3% of their attempts a game are shots with the touch-time less than 2 seconds. As you’d imagine, the numbers line up with their no-dribble threes, their 31.6% conversion rate on catch-and-shoot threes is fourth-worst in the NBA.

If the offensive system is working, then why are the Bulls struggling to score points? This could be due to a collective slump by the team’s high volume three-point shooters.

Speaking after Saturday’s loss to the Rockets (a game in which the Bulls shot just 4 of 32 from three) Jim Boylen reaffirmed his belief in the offensive system, “We have guys shooting below their career averages by multiple points. Will that turn? I think it will. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t. I get it. Believe me. I’m sitting there with it too.”

The numbers back up Boylen’s assertion. Using Markkanen as an example, he is hitting just 25.0% of his ‘wide open’ threes. He’s 16th in the league in ‘wide open’ 3-point attempts per game, but 244th in converting ‘wide open’ threes. That is a massive difference. Last year Markkanen shot 43.2% on ‘wide open’ 3-point attempts. He clearly has the ability to hit that shot.

Of the Bulls eight highest volume 3-point shooters this season, 5 players are shooting below their career average. A 6th player, rookie Coby White, is hitting just 21.2% of his threes (2). Markkanen, Luke Kornet, and Kris Dunn are converting far below their career averages.

Despite the struggles, don’t expect to see any tweaks to the system on either end of the floor. Speaking Monday at the Advocate Center, Boylen was asked point-blank if he was going to make any changes 10 games in, “No… We’re getting the shots we want... I’m expecting us to break through and shoot the ball better. No, I have a belief in this group of guys.”

The question that Jim Boylen will have to answer if this slump continues is “Are the players failing the system or is the system failing the players?” Typically, teams have a solid understanding of who they are at the quarter pole of the season, 20 games in. For his part, Markkanen believes he will turn a corner, saying after the Rockets game, “I know that I can hit shots, it’s just a matter of time.” Just how much ‘time’ Markkanen and the rest of the team has before playoff aspirations turn into lottery aspirations remains to be seen.

Footnotes

  1. The NBA considers an ‘open’ shot to be when a defender is 4-6 feet away from the shooter. A ‘wide open’ shot is when the defender is 6+ feet away.
  2. White converted on 35.3% of his 3-point shots during his freshman year at North Carolina

 

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How the Bulls can land a max-salary free agent

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USA TODAY

How the Bulls can land a max-salary free agent

The Bulls will enter free agency with approximately $20 million in cap space. That’s far short of the amount needed to sign a max-salary player, but there is a path for the team to land a star — if one chooses to play in Chicago. With rumors out of Brooklyn that D’Angelo Russell would be on his way out if the Nets sign Kyrie Irving, coupled with the uncertain futures of both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Bulls fans are wondering “what if.” I’ll let much wiser people debate if the Bulls should extend an offer to any of these players; I’ll outline how it could happen.

In terms of this discussion, it’s very important to note that not all free agents are eligible for the same max salary. The league has three tiers of max free agents, broken up by years of service. Players with 0-6 years of service are in one tier, 7-9 years in another, and 10+ years of service in the last.

Players in the more experienced tiers can get a much larger contract over players coming off their rookie contracts. The wonderful Larry Coon explains this in detail in his CBA FAQ. The exact 2019-20 salary cap will be announced at the end of the month. It’s currently projected at $109 million, and for this scenario, we use that number. Essentially, tier 1 players can get 25 percent of the cap, tier 2 30 percent and players with 10+ years of experience can get 35 percent of a team’s cap.

Russell would fall into the 0-6 years tier, earning him a first year salary (the one that matters in terms of cap space) of approximately $27.2 million. Klay Thompson has eight seasons of experience and is eligible for a first-year salary of about $32.7 million. His teammate Kevin Durant can sign a max deal starting at $38 million.

Step 1- Get medical waiver on Omer Asik’s $3 million cap hit.

The Bulls will find out by June 30 if the league approves their waiver request on Asik. The former Bulls big has a $3 million cap hit of guaranteed money on the books for the 2019-20 season. The team waived Asik back in October and it looks like his NBA career may be over after dealing with arthritis and Crohn’s Disease. The NBA is likely to approve the Bulls request, and they’ll get that money back in cap space for free agency.

Step 2- Waive and stretch Cristiano Felicio

The league allows teams to waive players and stretch their contracts over several years to lessen the immediate cap hit a team takes. Felicio is owed approximately $15.7 million over the next two seasons. The stretch provision means teams can spread out the cap hit of a waived player twice the years remaining on the deal, plus one. This translates to a cap hit of approximately $3.1 million over the next fives years instead of the amount he’s owed. This means the Bulls would gain an additional $5 million in cap space this summer.

Accomplishing steps 1 and 2 will clear enough cap space for the Bulls to sign a 0-6 year free agent, so if Russell wants to play for the Bulls and the front office feels he’d be a good fit, it would only take these two steps to sign him. It gets more complicated for the more experienced free agents.

Step 3- Trade Kris Dunn for a 2nd round pick.

Dunn is owed $5.3 million for the 2019-20 season. Trading him for a second round pick would net the Bulls a cap saving of $4.4 million. The reason the Bulls don’t get to keep the full amount is that teams have to account for a roster spot against the cap when they go below 12 players. Trading Dunn would get them into the 7-9 years tier and allow them to sign Klay Thompson (or any of the other free agents at that tier).

Step 4A- Trade out of the first round of the 2019 draft

Here is where it gets a lot more difficult for the Bulls if they want to sign a 10+ year free agent. They have to clear about $5 million more in cap space. Let’s safely assume they aren’t going to trade Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter for pennies on the dollar just to clear cap space. Otto Porter’s contract makes him a very unlikely trade candidate as well. Trading the No. 7 pick for a future first nets them another $4.4 million, close enough to get to that max slot with other small moves.

The major flaw with this is the draft is June 20 and free agency starts 10 days later. You’re not going to get a commitment from any superstar worth this amount until June 30, so essentially this option is off the table.

Step 4B- Trade Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison for second round picks

This option is a lot more likely if the Bulls can sign a superstar in the 10+ years tier. Hutchison showed promise in his rookie season, and despite missing all of last season, Valentine should be able to get you something (especially if packaged with Hutchison). I doubt the team wants to punt on Hutchison after one season, but they'd have to, if this was the only thing in the way of signing a franchise changing star.

If you want to dream for the Bulls, our friends at NBC Sports Boston put together a list of the top free agents available. The likelihood is that the Bulls will use their cap space to sign a few veteran free agents to give them some much needed depth, but should they dream big, there is a path to be in play for a star.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Pippen: Zion Williamson should sit out rest of the season

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USA TODAY

Pippen: Zion Williamson should sit out rest of the season

Pro Basketball Hall of Famer and 6-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen knows a few things about success and talent, and the former Bull thinks consensus top pick Zion Williamson should sit out the rest of Duke’s season and prepare for the NBA draft.

Speaking on ESPN’s ‘The Jump’ on Tuesday, Pippen was asked about the Duke freshman, “I would shut it down… I would stop playing because I feel that he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career.”

Williamson is averaging 21.2 points per game and 9.4 rebounds per game for the top-ranked Blue Devils. Most NBA experts, including our own Mark Schanowski, have the 6-foot-7 forward as the NBA Draft’s top pick this June.

Fellow Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady added “Football players are doing it, why not? College football players are skipping bowl games and they’re getting ready for the combine.”

The Chicago Bulls currently hold the second worst record in the league at 10-34. New NBA lottery rules go into effect this season that give the three worst teams in the league the exact same odds of landing the top pick — 14 percent.

 

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