Five reflections as the Bulls' season enters the second quarter

Five reflections as the Bulls' season enters the second quarter

With December officially upon us, we’re roughly one month (and change) into the NBA regular season. The Bulls’ campaign began with talk of a playoff berth, All-Star appearances and a years-long rebuild finally realized. Twenty games in and they’re on pace for 24.6 wins.

Here are five reflections, roughly at the regular season’s quarterpole:

1. The Bulls’ shot distribution is resulting in more dissonance than wins

At one point, Jim Boylen deserved credit for implementing an offensive system that, based on tendencies alone, profiled as quintessentially modern. And maybe he still does. But over a month into the season, a chasm between those tendencies and actual efficiency persists:

Statistic Value Rank
Restricted FGA per game 33.8 2nd
Restricted area FG% 55.4% 30th
3-point att. per game 35.3 10th
3-point % 34.1% 26th
Midrange FGA per game 7 27th
Offensive Rating 102.9 29th

(via NBA Stats)

All of that amounts to a shot-chart that bulges in the right spots, but lacks the proper coloration:

Boylen insists that positive regression is just around the corner, and there’s still time for these numbers to stabilize. In fact, that process may have already begun: Since posting their worst 3-point shooting performance of the season against Houston on Nov. 9 (4-for-32, 12.5%), the Bulls have shot slightly above league-average from long-range — 36.8% on 35.9 attempts — in their last ten games. They shot 31.4% on 34.7 attempts per game in their first ten.

But the team’s offense, en masse, hasn’t really benefited from that uptick; they own the second-worst offensive rating (103.9) in the league since Nov. 10. Here, their rim looks are dragging them down. According to NBA Stats’ database, 37.2% of the Bulls field goal attempts come in the restricted area, but they have only two players shooting above the league-average mark in that area: Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford. 

Meanwhile, Zach LaVine and Coby White account for nearly a third of the team’s restricted area attempts, and are shooting a combined 50.5% on them. As a team, the Bulls are being blocked an alarming seven times per game by opponents.

At present, it’s unclear if the Bulls have the personnel to bank on season-swinging positive regression in either of these areas. One of their few proven, high-volume and efficiency 3-point shooters (Otto Porter Jr.) is currently sidelined without a precise designation to return, and their best interior scorer, Carter, is only ninth on the team in usage rate. Regardless, they’ll likely stay the course. 

2. LaVine and Markkanen must get on the same page

The potential of this duo had fans, pundits and Bulls management salivating before the season. At the very least, Markkanen’s wing shooting ability and LaVine’s gravity as a ball-handler should have made for a potent two-man offensive pairing, even as both of them developed other areas of their game.

The clip above is from 2018-19. Markkanen is shooting only 27.7% (36.5% career) on above-the-break 3-pointers this season — a shot he attempts more than any in his arsenal. LaVine has assisted on 13 Markkanen field goals this season; none have been on pick-and-pop 3-pointers.

But that hasn’t panned out. Both players have been up-and-down individually, and have yet to catch fire together. Markkanen’s field goal attempts (11.5), 3-point attempts (5.5) and efficiency (34.9% FG, 28.2% 3P) have all dipped from his sophomore campaign, his defensive rebound rate is down from 23.1% (83rd percentile for bigs, per Cleaning the Glass) to 17.8% (53rd percentile) and his field goal percentage at the rim has tanked despite an increase in attempts. He has only two double-doubles this season after logging 20 in 52 games a year ago.

LaVine has been more hot than cold of late, and at times, it’s been exhilarating. Over his last four games, LaVine is averaging 32.8 points per game on 49.4% shooting (54.8% from three on a plain silly 10.5 attempts). In those games, the Bulls’ offensive rating has plummeted from 113.6 to 68.1 with LaVine off the floor.

Markkanen over that stretch: 8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds on 27.5% shooting (10 field goal attempts per game), 30% from three (five attempts). This brand of disparity has become pattern.

Together, they were supposed to push the team’s offense to new heights. Instead, lineups featuring LaVine and Markkanen currently have a -7.5 Net Rating, per Cleaning the Glass (104.1 offensive, 111.6 defensive — both abysmal). If the Bulls season flips, this is where it will have to start.

3. Through all the noise, Wendell Carter Jr. has been the Bulls’ most valuable player

Carter is the only Bull that, over an extended period, has made the team appreciably better on both ends. And appreciably might be putting it lightly.

Per Cleaning the Glass, with Carter on the floor, the Bulls score at a pace of 108.1 points per 100 possessions and allow 107.2, good for a +0.9 Net Rating. Without him, they score 98.3 points per 100 possessions and allow 109.8 (-11.5 Net Rating). That +12.4 on/off differential is by far the highest of any Bull.

To put it another way, with Carter on the floor, the Bulls are a slightly above-average offensive and defensive team in 2019. Without him, they’re the 2015-16 76ers

What makes Carter so valuable? His strengths counteract many of the Bulls’ greatest weaknesses. On a bottom-of-the-barrel rebounding and paint-scoring (by efficiency) team, Carter ranks third in the NBA (among qualified players) in offensive rebounds per game, is shooting 70.2% in the restricted area and is among the most efficient second-chance scorers in the league: He averages 1.44 points per possession and shoots 73% on putbacks — third and fourth in the NBA for those with over 20 putback attempts, respectively.

And yet, he remains underutilized. His assist rate is down drastically from his rookie season and he currently sports the ninth-highest usage rate on the team. Certain elements of the Bulls’ scheme seem to have left him behind — chiefly, their complete eschewing of midrange jumpers and an aggressive ball-handler blitzing defensive style that draws him out of the paint with regularity

And he’s making a leap anyway. Protect him at all costs.

4. Coby White has his work cut out for him

When players — especially young players — progress (or regress) lineally, it makes the job of people like me a whole lot easier. I love consistency, I love patterns. Observable trends sustain me.

Coby White has no interest in making my life easier. But often as not, he makes it a heck of a lot more fun:


Bulls fans can relate to that sentiment. Unfortunately, White isn’t yet making the Bulls a better basketball team — per Cleaning the Glass, they’re four points per 100 possessions worse offensively with White on the floor, he negatively impacts the team’s rim- and 3-point efficiency, and, for his usage (23.6%), his assist rate of 13.3% is paltry.

The hot streaks come and go with the wind — his game-over-game shooting percentages read like a vitals chart (appropriate, because he’s been the heartbeat of the United Center multiple times already in his young career). He’s the youngest player to ever hit seven threes in a quarter. He’s also averaging 13 points on 12.8 attempts per game.

In other words, he’s a rookie. But the Bulls will take his standout shot creation (this group needs it), live with the spotty efficiency and bank on him one day becoming a productive offensive player that factors into the team’s long-term plans. A month in, that bet still feels safe enough. 

5. Snakebitten, yes, but the Bulls will rue not taking advantage of early-season slate

The Bulls have sorely missed Otto Porter Jr. over the last 11 games. They’re 3-8 since he went down on Nov. 6 with a left foot contusion (they were 3-6 with him), but his 3-point shooting (or even the threat of it) makes the Bulls a more efficient group in just about every offensive category. And with Chandler Hutchison in and out of the lineup, as well, Boylen has been forced to go small even more often than he’s usually wont to, throwing out of whack everything about the team’s rotations. (See: Friday’s game against Portland.)

Porter is set to be re-evaluated some time this week. The Bulls will just have to hope it’s not too late to salvage the season. According to Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report, the Bulls have played the fifth-easiest schedule in the NBA (fourth-easiest in the East) so far this season, but things are about to escalate rather quickly. As it stands now, Basketball Reference summates that the Bulls have the most difficult remaining schedule in the East (sixth-hardest in the NBA). 

That makes the team’s next three games — against the Kings (8-10), Grizzlies (6-13) and Warriors (4-17) — absolutely essential, especially after dropping the first three games of their current West Coast road trip to under-.500 clubs. If they’re not already, the Bulls are currently on a trajectory to look back at this segment of the season as one littered with missed opportunity.

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Bulls look for second win of the season over Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

USA Today

Bulls look for second win of the season over Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

The Bulls will look to snap a three-game losing streak when they welcome Trae Young and the 6-18 Atlanta Hawks to the United Center tonight. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago —until then, here's what to watch for:

Hawks’ last five (2-3)

  • Dec. 10 — L at Heat: 135-121 (OT)

  • Dec. 8 — W at Hornets: 122-107

  • Dec. 4 — L vs. Brooklyn: 130-118

  • Dec. 2 — W vs. Warriors: 104-79

  • Nov. 30 — L at Rockets: 158-111

Storyline(s) for each team

For the second time this season, the Bulls and Hawks are set to square off (the first a 113-93 drubbing by the Bulls on Nov. 6), and for the second time this season, the Hawks enter said matchup on the second night of a back-to-back. On Nov. 6, Atlanta laid an egg the night after a hard-fought win over the not-yet-disappointing Spurs in San Antonio. This time, they’re coming off an excruciating overtime defeat in Miami (something the Bulls can relate to). The Hawks’ loss to the Heat may have been even more painful than the Bulls’, if only because of the virality of it:



Overall, the Hawks have underwhelmed this season, one in which their young and exciting core of Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter, and co. were expected by some to push the franchise closer to contention (hey, the Bulls can relate to that, too!). They enter play 6-18 (3-15 since Nov. 6) and still without Collins, who is 19 games into a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA's Anti-Drug Program. This is a winnable game.

The Bulls are banged up and fast-falling from the Eastern Conference playoff race, but strung together a couple — all things considered — quality performances against two of the league’s best teams in the Raptors and Heat earlier this week. The moral victories won over the course of their recent real-life defeats will resonate a little stronger if they can come out and play a complete game against this Atlanta team tonight. 

Player to watch: Jabari Parker (and Zach LaVine)

Screw it. These are two not-great basketball teams that chuck a ton of 3-pointers, so if the aesthetic of this one doesn't end up all-together pleasing (likely), it’ll at least be fun to watch Parker, a son of the city, go to work. He’s currently in the midst of something of a bounceback campaign — averaging 16.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 13.2 FGA on 50.2% shooting — with an emphasis on the 'bounce':


This also has the potential to be a big Zach LaVine game. It feels like you could posit that every night, but this Hawks team truly is a juicy matchup for him — Atlanta enters this game the 29th-rated defense in the league (114.3) and lacks a true lockdown presence on the wing to throw at him. Just two weeks ago, remember, James Harden torched the Hawks for 60 points and eight assists en route to a 158-point team performance. LaVine, shooting 33.3% and averaging only 2.3 fourth-quarter points in the Bulls’ last three games, feels due.

Matchup to watch: Trae Young + Hawks’ secondary playmakers vs. Bulls defense

On Nov. 6, the Bulls put together one of their most impressive defensive performances of the season, holding the Hawks to 6-for-30 3-point shooting and forcing 24 turnovers (the most they’ve forced in a game this season; they lead in the NBA in opponent turnovers per game).

It was a banner night for the Bulls’ blitzing pick-and-roll coverage schemes — in the game, they completely corralled Young, the Hawks highest-usage (33.4%) and most dynamic player, holding him to nine points, three assists, four turnovers and 3-for-12 shooting (0-for-8 from 3-point range). On the season, he averages 29.4 points and 8.7 assists per game on 38.2% 3-point shooting (9.3 attempts). 

Without his most reliable playmaking screen-and-roll partner in Collins, the Bulls were able to cut the head (Young) off the proverbial snake of the Hawks’ offensive attack the last time these two teams met. Tomas Satoransky (season-high 27 points on Nov. 6) and Kris Dunn's length and activity were key to containing Young off screens, and they'll be huge factors tonight, when the emphasis will again be on forcing the ball out of Young’s hands and into the hands of Atlanta’s secondary playmakers (primarily, their forwards). Those players weren’t able to make the Bulls pay last time, and based on the team’s league-worst 32.1% 3-point shooting percentage, there’s a solid chance they could fail to do so tonight, as well. 

After that aforementioned Nov. 6 game, Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said, of the Bulls' defensive strategy, that they'll "never let Trae [Young] have an easy game for the rest of his career." That quip, of course, was in reference to Young’s 49-point outing against the Bulls last March. Pierce's theory will be tested again tonight.

Injury/miscellaneous updates

Yesterday, news broke of another Otto Porter Jr. injury setback — he is now set to be evaluated over the course of the next four weeks, the latest in a series of alterations to his original recovery timeline. Needless to say, a return isn’t in sight, for him or Chandler Hutchison, who is still dealing with a bruised shoulder. Even beyond Porter and Hutchison, the Bulls’ injury report is beginning to lengthen, but chalk most of these up to the wear and tear of the regular season:

As of this writing, the Hawks’ most significant absence will be Collins. Other than that, they come into this one mostly healthy.

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Otto Porter Jr. suffered an injury setback, where could the Bulls look for wing help?


Otto Porter Jr. suffered an injury setback, where could the Bulls look for wing help?

The Bulls are in a dire spot in terms of their wing depth and that was something that was true before Otto Porter Jr. suffered another injury setback

Chandler Hutchison and the then returning from injury-Denzel Valentine served as the Bulls only real small forwards behind Porter on the depth chart, and Bulls head coach Jim Boylen did not make Valentine a significant part of the rotation until early December. Now, with Porter out and Hutchison still out nursing his persistent shoulder injury, the Bulls are starting guard Kris Dunn at the three with Valentine as his backup. 

Starting the 6-foot-3 Dunn at small forward is quite a tough ask for a Bulls team that has struggled heavily rebounding all season long (Bulls currently rank 29th in the league in rebound percentage). So with the 8-17 Bulls looking nothing like the Eastern Conference playoff contender that they expected themselves to be, they will need to string together a sustained stretch of good basketball to prevent themselves from becoming a clear-cut lottery-bound team (yet again).

The Bulls haven't announced any intentions to make a roster move, but with the buyers and sellers starting to become clear, who are some wings that could potentially help the Bulls and are reportedly available?:

Robert Covington 

Robert Covington is the least likely option for the Bulls in terms of available wing help. It was reported by The Ringer's Kevin O' Connor that title-contending NBA teams have been monitoring the Minnesota Timberwolves and Covington, who has long been one of the league's premier 3-and-D forwards. This season Covington is averaging 12.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game while shooting 36.9% from 3-point range. Covington is shooting 5.5 attempts per game from 3-point range and is hitting a career-best 90.2% of his free throws. 

Covington has been heavily linked to the Houston Rockets which makes a ton of sense considering that he started his career there and would be able to play a familiar role, acting as a catch-and-shoot specialist next to James Harden. Though Covington makes the most sense on a contending team, he would have value to the Bulls. Covington's contract has two more seasons on it at a reasonable amount (around $11 to $12 million per year) and even once Porter returns, he would be an amazing addition to a Bulls bench that has already been outperforming the starters on a regular basis

Danilo Gallinari 

It was correctly assumed that when the Oklahoma City Thunder made their franchise-changing trades for Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari, they would be open to moving the players for the right trade offer. It has been reported that the Thunder are indeed open to trading Gallinari (and others).

The Bulls aren't in desperation mode, but that is OK in regards to Gallinari, as he is an asset that may be able to be acquired at a reasonable price. The Thunder came into Tuesday with an 11-12 record, good for the No. 7 seed in the West, but they may not care as much about making the postseason considering their long-term goal is to collect as many valuable assets as possible.

The Thunder may not necessarily enter "tank mode" but if the 31-year old Gallinari—who is on an expiring deal—is not a part of their plans for next season or beyond, he could be had for a reasonable price despite currently averaging a solid 18.3 points per game. The Bulls have their own draft picks, plus the Thunder reportedly are open to taking back salary, so any combination of Bulls players could work to get a deal done. 

DeMar DeRozan

Despite being in clear need of help on the wings, DeMar DeRozan doesn't exactly fit this year's Bulls but hey, beggars can't be choosers. The Bulls would be lucky to an All-Star talent to their roster in a buy-low move, and DeRozan potentially presents the opportunity to do just that. 

The four-time All-Star has a 2020 player option, which is likely to be accepted and represents the last year on his deal. Depending on who the Bulls gave up in a potential deal for DeRozan, they would be able to pair his proficiency as a scorer (especially in the pick-and-roll, where he is averaging 0.92 points per possession) with Lauri Markkanen and/or  Zach LaVine's abilities as 3-point shooters. 

The Spurs look to be on the cusp of missing the postseason for the first time since 1997 and could be more open to making an in-season trade than they have in the past. He is by no means a great fit in Chicago but there are a few things he does well that could make a difference. DeRozan's 5.8 free throw attempts per game would lead the Bulls and his 57.1% true shooting would be better than any Chicago wing outside of Valentine. If the Spurs and Bulls both continue to slide in the standings, even starting discussions on such a trade could become more of a reality.

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