The Chicago Bulls’ offense has taken off during their ongoing nine-game win streak.
Scoring 119.7 points per 100 possessions since Dec. 19, they rank first in the NBA in offensive rating since they last lost; on the season, their 112.1 points per 100 possession mark ranks fourth.
Those figures are propped up by some remarkably efficient shooting. The Bulls enter Sunday’s road matchup with the Dallas Mavericks second in the league in field-goal percentage (47.5) and midrange field-goal percentage (44.4), and first in 3-point percentage (38.7).
And that shooting has come in a decidedly un-modern shot profile. According to Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage-time possessions, the Bulls are the fifth-most midrange-heavy team in the NBA, but rank 13th in percentage of their field-goal attempts taken at the rim and 29th in percentage of their field-goal attempts taken from 3-point range. Their raw 3-point attempt average of 29.9 per game is last in the league, where it’s resided for most of the season.
The team’s results to this point leave little to be desired. But moving forward, a valid question looms: Should the Bulls be getting up more 3s?
“I'd like for us to take some more. I think that would be good,” head coach Billy Donovan said before Friday’s 130-122 win over the Washington Wizards. “But I also think, too, one of the areas that we've gotta get better at is we've gotta be better at playing downhill.”
Donovan isn’t dodging the question. These two areas are intrinsically connected. Strong drives by threatening scorers — the Bulls have a handful of those — force defenders to collapse to the paint. Collapsing causes rotation. And rotation can lead to cracks, with open looks over scrambling defenders a byproduct.
“When you get downhill and you force rotation and you force a second defender into the paint to help, that’s when your spray-out 3s really start to come,” Donovan said. “I don’t love just saying randomly, ‘Hey, we gotta take more 3s.’ Because I don’t think all 3s are created equally. There are certain 3s that are just bad in my opinion. You gotta get the right ones.”
That selective approach to long-range shooting speaks to why the team’s overall percentage is so high. The Bulls have four players taking more than four 3-pointers per game, and all have track records as good or great shooters. Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball are each taking 7.5 3s per game, and each making 3.1, good for a hair over 41 percent. (Those two, Fred VanVleet and Patty Mills are the only players in the NBA making more than three 3s per game at a better than 40 percent clip.) Nikola Vučević and Coby White are each taking 4.9 3s per game and shooting 38.6 percent and 34.9 percent, respectively.
Simply put, these Bulls play to their players' strengths. They don’t overextend so-so shooters. If an open 3-point try presents for, say, Ayo Dosunmu (44 percent, 1.6 attempts per game), Javonte Green (36.4 percent, 1.1 attempts) or Derrick Jones Jr. (38.7 percent, 1.1 attempts), fire away. But gone are the days of chucking triples for the sake of chucking them.
That’s where Donovan’s emphasis on drive-and-kick comes in. Generating more shots at the rim and/or quality looks from 3-point range would have the potential to make the Bulls an even higher-octane offensive unit than they already are. But there’s no artificial way to do that. It must happen organically, and in Donovan's view, that comes by playing inside-out.
“If you look at our team, we've shot well when either the ball's went into [Vučević] and it's gotten sprayed back out, and/or there's been something downhill and there's been rotation and the ball's gotten kicked out,” Donovan said. “I think we can get more of those (good 3-point looks) if we get more into those (downhill) situations. I think that's one area offensively that we're going to have to improve upon.
“When you look at more the analytics of rim attempts, shots inside the restricted area, we're a team that hasn't generated a lot of those. We're gonna have to be able to get downhill.”
This is Donovan pushing a group that’s flashed a sky-high ceiling to stay sharp and build sustainable habits. Even as the Bulls’ free-throw attempt rate has jumped from 30th to 12th from last season to this one, their drives per game have held roughly level. They averaged 40.8 drives per game in 2020-21 (26th) and 41 per game in 2021-22 (25th). Their 3.1 assists per game on drives ranks 28th.
And the offensive dividends of a more persistent downhill attack go beyond generating layups, open jump shots or opportunities to attack closeouts.
“I'm not trying to be critical of our guys. I think you're always trying to look at ways to get better and to improve and continue to evolve as a team and get better and put things on guy’s brains,” Donovan said. “I don't like necessarily saying, ‘Yeah, we need to take more 3s.’ I think we need to get downhill more. I think that gets you to the free-throw line, it opens up offensive rebounding and then it opens up opportunities to shoot more 3s.”
Therein lies a frightening dynamic for the rest of the NBA. The Bulls are already one of the most explosive, efficient offensive groups in the association. But, as Donovan is always quick to remind, there’s still room to grow.