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:
|Restricted FGA per game||33.8||2nd|
|Restricted area FG%||55.4%||30th|
|3-point att. per game||35.3||10th|
|Midrange FGA per game||7||27th|
(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:
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. We’re thankful for all of you as you continue to make twitter dot com fun.— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) November 28, 2019
Before your feast, watch Coby White feast on all these defenders pic.twitter.com/2qJBQ4g7iH
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.
Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.