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.
- 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.
- White converted on 35.3% of his 3-point shots during his freshman year at North Carolina
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