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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SportsTalk Live Podcast: NBA, NHL seem close to return, MLB lurks in distance


SportsTalk Live Podcast: NBA, NHL seem close to return, MLB lurks in distance

Laurence Holmes, David Haugh and Jay Cohen join Kap on a Memorial Day edition of SportsTalk Live.

0:00 - It looks like we’re getting closer to the return of team sports. The NBA is in talks to resume its season at Disney World, while the NHLPA approved a 24-team playoff format.

5:00 - MLB and the players continue to negotiate their restart plan.

13:00 - Sam Smith tells a San Francisco radio station the Michael Jordan lied in “The Last Dance” when he said he would have considered returning.

20:00 - The guys share their favorite non-title clinching moments in Chicago sports history.

Listen here or below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast


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Top 'Last Dance' moments to get you through first Sunday without Michael Jordan

Top 'Last Dance' moments to get you through first Sunday without Michael Jordan

So you’re sitting around Sunday night, missing “The Last Dance.” We get it, we wish it was still on too.

To help us all get through this first week without it, we’ve compiled some of our favorite “Last Dance” stories so that we can remember the good times together.

Whether it’s your first time seeing some of these, or just a fun look back, we hope you enjoy.

Recounting the best quotes from “The Last Dance”

We’ve got Jordan, we’ve got Kobe Bryant, we’ve got Dennis Rodman-- and yes we’ve even got some Carmen Electra for you.

Michael Jordan jamming to different songs takes over Twitter

If there was one thing more fun than simply watching “The Last Dance,” it was talking with your friends and family about “The Last Dance.” Some of the after-show interviews with athletes, coaches and pundits added incredible insight. And sometimes a memelord would create something so fun that you couldn’t help but watch and laugh. This is one of those latter moments.

Rod Thorn: Michael Jordan didn’t ask for Isiah Thomas to be left off Dream Team

One of the biggest beefs in basketball has a light shined on it. But after all this time, there are still conflicting reports as to what happened back in 1992.

Did Utah pizza give Michael Jordan food poisoning and was it intentional?

The “flu game” is one of the most iconic performances in Michael Jordan’s career, but now we’ve learned it wasn’t the “flu game” at all! Certainly one of the most intriguing new wrinkles out of all the details we learned across the series.

Scottie Pippen on Jerry Krause: ‘The greatest general manager in the game’

The beef between Pippen and Krause was well documented, especially early in the series. But by the end even Pippen had to give it up for Krause.

Why Scott Burrell appreciated Michael Jordan's harsh leadership style

Arguably the most emotional moment we saw during Jordan’s interviews was when he described his leadership style with his teammates. It’s clear Jordan pushed the Bulls very hard, and it’s easy to see how it could rub some people the wrong way. But not Scott Burrell.

How Bulls helped Scottie Pippen earn millions more on way out of Chicago

After one early episode of “The Last Dance,” many people on social media were incredulous that Pippen’s long-term contract was never renegotiated considering his important contributions to the team. However our K.C. Johnson set the record straight for how the Bulls made things right with Pippen when he was on his way out of town.

Why running it back would not have yielded the Bulls a seventh title in 1998-99

To finish this post off, we’re going back to K.C. Johnson who tells us why the 1998 title would’ve been the last for the Bulls dynasty, no matter if Jordan, Jackson and co. returned, or not.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.