The Chicago Bulls’ 2021-22 season is directly around the corner, and with it will come unabashed playoff expectations.
The first steps toward snapping the team’s four-year postseason drought were completed in the offseason, when the front office put the finishing touches on an all-encompassing roster overhaul. Now comes the task of ironing out the on-court issues that plagued an underperforming group last season en route to a 31-41 finish, which left them short of the play-in tournament.
But take heart in this fact, Bulls fans: Behind each significant acquisition of the 2021 offseason, there lies intention.
In a reprisal of a concept we typically reserve for draft season, here is one area of statistical need DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso (all of whom signed with the team this offseason and should take on outsized rotational roles) project to address:
The Stat: 110.4 offensive rating (21st in NBA)
How DeRozan helps: Yes, this is a wide statistical umbrella to brandish. But DeRozan can be the tide that raises the Bulls’ offense in a number of ways — particularly when it comes to areas the team most glaringly struggled in 2020-21.
First, it’s worth examining why an above-average shooting team (the Bulls finished last year ninth in field goal percentage and 13th in 3-point percentage) enjoying a supernova season from Zach LaVine finished in the bottom 10 in offensive rating. While not all-encompassing — and placing injury- or COVID-related absences aside — three factors spring to mind:
- Free-throw attempts were far too sparse. The Bulls finished 2020-21 dead last in the league in free-throw attempts per game (17.5) and free-throw attempt rate (0.197) — staggeringly low numbers that point to a team unable to generate easy offense when the going got tough.
- Turnovers were far too common. The Bulls scratched and clawed after the trade deadline to climb to 27th in the NBA in turnovers per game (15.1) and turnover rate (15.1 percent) by season’s end. Opponents scored 17.8 points per game off turnovers against the Bulls last season, fourth-worst in the league.
- The results with Zach LaVine on the bench were far too hideous. The Bulls scored at a rate of 112.4 points per 100 possessions with LaVine on the floor last season (analogous to the 13th-ranked offense in the NBA) and 104.8 with him off (analogous to the 29th-ranked Orlando Magic).
DeRozan visited the charity stripe 7.2 times per game last year — eighth in the league and a career-high. He averaged a career-high 6.9 assists against just two turnovers. And, while entering the latter stage of his career, he’s still a 20-point-per-night caliber scorer, having averaged 21.6 last season.
Health willing, DeRozan can help the Bulls pluck some low-hanging fruit on the offensive end, clean up their ball security issues and mitigate dry offensive spells by staggering minutes with LaVine and Nikola Vučević, ensuring that at least one high-level scoring threat is on the floor at all times. That's not a luxury the Bulls have had since the rebuild commenced.
The Stat: 99.58 pace (13th in NBA)
How Ball helps: This might not seem like a glaring area of statistical weakness. Pre-trade deadline, the Bulls ranked 18th in offensive rating (110.6) and eighth in possessions per game, also known as pace (101.07).
But after the trade deadline — when they added an All-Star in Vučević — they ranked 22nd in offense (110) and 25th in pace (97.36). When the Bulls’ offense flashed a top-10 ceiling early in the year, Billy Donovan repeatedly emphasized the importance of playing an up-tempo brand of basketball and getting downhill on drives. After finishing the season short of the play-in, he pledged to dive into the issues that arose after drastically switching styles upon the Vučević acquisition.
Surely, the Bulls want to play faster this season. While, say, moving Patrick Williams to power forward full-time or the acquisition of Derrick Jones Jr. could help marginally, Ball will be the key.
Every pass in the book seems to come naturally to Ball, but his decisive hit-ahead game has the potential to unlock previously unexplored avenues for the Bulls’ play-finishers. The Bulls finished last season 27th in the NBA in transition frequency (12.7 percent) and while they were reasonably efficient in those opportunities, they ranked just 25th in transition points per game (15.8). Along with free throws, it’s an area in which the Bulls can stimulate their offense with easy buckets, and Ball enters the year a more accomplished fastbreak playmaker than anyone on last season's roster.
The Stat: 0.92 points per possession allowed to pick-and-roll ball-handlers (27th); 1.25 points per possession allowed to pick-and-roll roll men (29th)
How Caruso helps: There’s plenty of reason to question the Bulls’ defensive potential heading into this season, but the Caruso signing directly addresses the team’s most obvious weakness on that side of the ball in 2020-21: Point-of-attack defense.
Bulls perimeter players being knocked around at the point of attack in screen-and-roll was an issue often bemoaned by Donovan and analysts alike throughout the campaign, and massively contributed to the team rating out poorly defending ball-handlers and roll-men in that action. Worse, that weakness clearly became part of their reputation. Opponents spammed 23.7 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions (third-most in the NBA) and 8.4 roll-man possessions (most in the NBA) per game against the Bulls.
Caruso, meanwhile, was a crucial cog to multiple elite Lakers defenses during his time there and carries the reputation of one of the most dogged point-of-attack defenders in the league. Greater success fighting over screens and getting into opposing ball-handlers could mitigate easy, in-rhythm opportunities for opponents’ guards and bigs, which the Bulls will need to do as much as possible to reach the heights to which they aspire.