Bulls

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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What to watch for: Bulls hit the road to take on Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat

What to watch for: Bulls hit the road to take on Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat

The Bulls visit Miami to take on the 16-6 Heat in the wake of a disappointing loss to the Warriors in Chicago on Friday. The game tips off at 5 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago – until then, here's what to watch for:

Heat’s last five (4-1)

  • Dec. 6 — W vs. Wizards: 112-103

  • Dec. 4 — L at Celtics: 112-93

  • Dec. 3 — W at Raptors: 121-110

  • Dec. 1 — W at Nets: 109-106

  • Nov. 29 — W vs. Warriors: 122-105

Storyline(s) for each team

At 16-6, the Heat enter tonight the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and one of the league’s best teams — explosive offensively (second in the NBA in eFG%, per Cleaning the Glass), yet defensively-oriented (top 10 in defensive rating, eFG% against, turnover rate and defensive rebounding rate). Two things that should especially worry the Bulls: This game is in Miami and the Heat are coming off a day of rest after beating the Wizards 112-103 on Friday. The Heat are 9-0 at home this season and four of their six losses have come on the second night of back-to-backs. With fresh legs and their home crowd behind them, they’ll be tough to beat.

The Bulls, for their part, are coming off a momentum-crushing loss to the 5-19 Golden State Warriors on their home floor Friday, and on the first night of a road-and-home back-to-back — they’ll face the Raptors at the United Center on Monday. Both teams have already blown the Bulls out early in the season — the Heat 116-108 (it wasn’t that close) on Nov. 22, the Raptors 108-84 on Oct. 26. Since the start of last season, the Bulls are 7-48 against teams with winning records. To put it diplomatically, the next two nights will be an uphill battle.

Player to watch: Jimmy Butler

It’s the easy answer, but it’s also the right one. The Heat employ a dynamic cast of characters around Butler, but he’s the lifeblood of this team. The offense runs through him, the defense feeds off him (along with, of course, legitimate DPOY candidate Bam Adebayo as the anchor) and you can bet he’ll get up to face his former team. As Miami’s role players have endured up-and-down stretches, here are Butler’s numbers in his last eight games (i.e. since Nov. 22):

Per game: 22.8 points, 7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 47.3% shooting (14 attempts), 9.5 FTA

And against the Bulls in his career:

Per game: 29 points, 5.3 assists, 5 rebounds, 3.7 steals, 48.1% shooting (18 attempts), 11.7 FTA

Even in a game the Bulls could find themselves overmatched in, perhaps we’ll get a fun Butler-Zach LaVine matchup this time around. Since being traded for each other after the 2016-17 season, the two have had some battles — before the Nov. 22 no-contest (LaVine, remember, was pulled by Jim Boylen early in the first quarter and only tallied 16 points in a blowout), they were each averaging over 30 points per game when facing each other.

LaVine bounced back from that aforementioned pseudo-benching with a 49-point, 13 3-pointer outing in Charlotte; maybe another historic performance is in store after an underwhelming fourth-quarter showing on Friday against Golden State.

Matchup to watch: 3-point shooting

Miami is a heat-check factory. Their movement-based offense is effective at creating a plethora of open long-range looks per game and even though some of their ancillary weapons can be streaky, there’s so many of them that you can bet at least one will burn you on a given night.

For evidence, look no further than that Nov. 22 matchup. Before most Bulls fans had scanned their tickets and found their seats, the Heat ran out to a 15-0 lead in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the game, buoyed by four early 3-pointers (three from Kendrick Nunn, one from Duncan Robinson). Per Cleaning the Glass, the Heat take 36% of their field goals from 3-point range (13th in the NBA) and make 39.2% of those looks (3rd in the NBA). They have five rotation players shooting over 38% on threes, and only one of those is on fewer than 3.9 attempts per (Meyers Leonard, shooting 53.8% on 1.8 attempts). Robinson, notably, is hitting 42.8% of his 3-pointers on 6.6 attempts per game.

The Bulls were 10-for-30 (33.3%) from 3-point range in their last game against the Heat, but four of those came in the final 2:15 of the game in a too-little-too-late comeback bid. They’re feast-or-famine in this department, but will need to keep this matchup close to have a chance tonight. 

Injury/miscellaneous updates

Nothing new here as far as the Bulls are concerned, barring a surprise injury or Chandler Hutchison status upgrade. Boylen has indicated he’s progressing, but hasn’t offered a concrete timetable for return, as of yet. Thad Young rejoins the team tonight.

The Heat will be without Goran Dragic (16 points, seven assists, 3-for-5 from three on Nov. 22), who is currently dealing with a groin issue. Justise Winslow and Adebayo are both currently listed as questionable.

Winslow missed time earlier in the season with a concussion, then returned for five games, but missed Friday’s game with a lower back strain. Adebayo hasn't missed a game since 2018; losing him would severely impact Miami's defensive versatility and rebounding. He had 16 points and 14 rebounds in these teams' first matchup.

Bulls' guard Tomas Satoransky and his never-ending pursuit of perfection

Bulls' guard Tomas Satoransky and his never-ending pursuit of perfection

Tomas Satoransky is a perfectionist and a pleaser.

This can be a positive thing. It also can be negative.

“Everyone who is close to me will tell you that I’m hardest on myself. I always expect to play the best,” Satoransky said in an interview. “I always expect to be perfect, which isn’t always the best but in the long term it has always worked out for me.”

That’s because perfection is an unattainable quest. But Satoransky keeps working towards the unachievable goal. So he’s driven, which is good, but sometimes self-destructive, which isn’t.

Early on, as Satoransky slowly adjusted to a new city, new coach, new teammates and new system, the process didn’t go smoothly.

“I didn’t feel down. I felt frustrated and anxious to do better, anxious to help the team as much as he can,” coach Jim Boylen said when asked if he sensed frustration from Satoransky. “He really struggles when he lets the team down. That’s just basketball. You’re not going to play perfect all the time. He takes it to heart. I’ve spoken to him about it. I don’t need him to beat himself up. Just continue to grow and learn how we’re going to play and get used to guys. It does take some time to get a feel for each other.”

And it’s happening. Satoransky has posted nine straight games with at least five assists, the second-longest stretch of his young career. Coincidentally, his assist totals began to rise the more he looked for his shot.

“I think there’s a point where you make other people better, which he tries to do, and a point where you have to play your game. I think he’s starting to figure that out,” Boylen said. “I think he’s starting to understand where his spots are and how he makes people better but also doesn’t lose the positive things he can do individually.”

The selflessness of Satoransky is something that gets mentioned often by others when they’re asked about him. He’s someone who takes the time to read a situation before asserting himself, always trying to make the right play.

This dynamic was exacerbated by Satoransky not only joining a new team but doing so after playing a leading role for his Czech Republic national team at the FIBA World Cup this offseason.

“I think I’m very adaptable. But I won’t aggressively adapt. I’ll try to see what it is---new coaches, new offense---before asserting myself,” Satoransky said. “I knew I had to be patient, especially with a new team, new role. I’m also coming from a very different situation in the World Cup. And I’m trying to fit in and make my teammates feel the best and most comfortable around me. But I’m trying to be more aggressive because it opens up more space.

“I feel we’re more and more on the same page now.”

Satoransky’s averages of 9.6 points, 5.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 27.1 minutes are eerily similar to those he posted last season with the Wizards, his breakout season. In 80 games, including 54 starts for the injured John Wall, he averaged 8.9 points, 5 assists and 3.5 rebounds also in 27.1 minutes.

He’s shooting 39.7 percent on 3 3-point attempts per game---again very similar to last season’s 39.5 percent on 2 3-point attempts per game.

“I tell him he has to take his shots. He’s a threat,” Zach LaVine said. “He can shoot and create for others. Once he gets in the lane, he’s crafty. He isn’t just a spot-up 3-point shooter.”

Satoransky is in the first year of a three-year, $30 million deal that is only partially guaranteed in the final season. He said he is enjoying Chicago and playing for the Bulls.

“Everyone cares. We get along well,” Satoransky said. “This is my second NBA locker room, but I think this is one of the best groups I’ve had.”

Now, he just wants to improve the won-lost record to something closer to perfection.

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