Bulls' stagnant offense leads to season-low assists in loss to Knicks

Bulls' stagnant offense leads to season-low assists in loss to Knicks

One of the expected benefits of dealing Derrick Rose this offseason was that it would help free up a Bulls offense that stagnated too often on their way to missing the playoffs last season for the first time in eight years. Rose returned to the United Center on Friday night for the first time in a visiting uniform, but it was his Knicks that looked like the sharper, crisper offense, while the Bulls stumbled to their second consecutive loss.

The final box score numbers don’t tell the entire story. The Bulls – in the 117-104 loss – still topped the century mark for the fifth straight time to begin the year. Dwyane Wade scored a season-high 35 points on 12-for-20 shooting, and Jimmy Butler also managed a season-high with 26 points – he made all 11 of his free throw attempts. Even Nikola Mirotic was impressive again, tallying 14 points – though just two after halftime – while Taj Gibson grabbed four offensive rebounds that helped the Bulls to 20 second-chance points.

Those positives masked the main issue that plagued the Bulls against a below-average Knicks team. The Bulls, which entered Friday’s action with the third most efficient offense, handed out a season-low 15 assists, and just two in the decisive fourth quarter; the Bulls’ second-to-last assist came at the 8:48 mark. It was the second consecutive night the Bulls had a season-low in helpers, as Wednesday night’s 21 assists against the Celtics also resulted in a loss.

“It wasn’t nearly as good," coach Fred Hoiberg said. "You look at the assists, 15 (assists) and 13 turnovers. They have 32 assists and five turnovers. That tells you all you need to know.”

Rajon Rondo continued his slide after two brilliant performances to open the season. The Bulls’ point guard missed nine of his first 10 shots as the Knicks defense sagged in and dared him to shoot outside shots in the opening period. When he didn’t, New York’s 26th-ranked defense was waiting for him in the lane. Rondo tallied just five assists, marking the third straight game he’s tallied five or fewer. Last year he led the NBA with 11.7 helpers per game, but has only reached double-digits once this year.

Michael Carter-Williams’ absence hasn’t helped matters, as Isaiah Canaan and Jerian Grant combined for two assists in 19 combined minutes.

Butler was aggressive, driving to the basket at will, and his 11 trips to the line admittedly lowered what that assist total could have been. Wade, the brightest spot on the Bulls offense Friday night, tallied just one assist. He did his damage in the scoring department, topping the 30-point threshold for the first time with the Bulls. When he and Mirotic were at their best, scoring 20 of the Bulls’ 34 points in the second quarter, the offense was moving the ball its best. The Bulls tallied six assists, 40 percent of their total for the game, in the only quarter they won (34-24).

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But it stalled again in the second half. The Bulls managed to get into the paint early in the third quarter, and were helped out by five offense rebounds that turned into eight points. But in the fourth quarter a 10-0 Knicks run sent the Bulls into an iso panic, with Wade and Butler perhaps forcing the issue in an attempt to slow down their opponent. Butler and Wade made nine field goals in the second half, and only one was assisted.

The Bulls entered Friday’s action averaging 329.5 passes per game, which ranked fourth in the NBA. Their 26.5 assists per game were fifth in the NBA, and despite the season being just four games old it was clear from watching them that the ball was moving well thanks to Wade, Rondo and Butler. That wasn’t the case against the Knicks and Rose, a player who caught criticism in Chicago for looking too often to score as well as careless turnovers.

Instead, Rose and the Knicks tallied a season-high 32 assists. Rose had 11 of those, the first time he had reached double-figures this season. Playing with a chip on his shoulder in his return to his hometown, he was a step quicker than the Bulls defense, and though he committed three turnovers, his corner pass to Carmelo Anthony for 3 with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter put the game away.

Even Joakim Noah, who twice led the Bulls in assists per game before leaving this summer via free agency, was sharp on his passes. He finished with four assists, while adding 16 points and nine rebounds.

The Bulls offense doesn’t appear to be bending. But the ball isn’t moving as well as it had the first week of the season. Wade said after the game he’d have to look at the film to determine exactly what went wrong with moving the ball, but that not matching the Knicks’ intensity in the opening 12 minutes was a factor in them playing from behind much of the night.

The good news, as Gibson said after the game, is that the Bulls will get a chance to turn around and right their wrongs. They’ll square off Saturday on the road against the Pacers, a team that they handed out a season-best 34 assists on in a 118-101 win last week.

But for one night, the Bulls’ new additions who had made them one of the best passing teams in the early season, struggled to find open passing lanes and shooters against a defense that two days earlier had allowed 25 assists to the Rockets.

 “It’s been very strong,” Hoiberg said of his team’s ball movement. “Again, we were looking to come into this game, third in the league in passes per game and assists per game. It wasn’t moving like it needed to, obviously.”

Options if the Bulls trade down: Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura

Options if the Bulls trade down: Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura

On draft night, there is a decent possibility that the Bulls front office looks at their draft board and collectively decide that they can get a player with No. 7 pick value later in the first round. They could be inclined to feel this way more than in most years due to the 2019 draft class being such a toss up after the top three picks. If the Bulls traded down in the draft, I am assuming they would be netting a valuable future first-round pick, likely with some minimal protections. In this series, we will be looking at prospects the Bulls could take should they trade down in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Rui Hachimura per The Stepien:

71 percent at the rim

44.2 percent on short midrange

47.6 percent on long midrange

52.1 percent on NBA 3s (12/23)

Boylen talked a ton this season about “toughness” being a key tenet of the new Bulls culture moving forward. The idea of that “toughness” didn’t translate on the court heavily, though the Bulls did improve slightly in rebound rate under Boylen.

From the time for Boylen took over, the Bulls ranked 14th in defensive rebound rate and 25th in total rebound rate, up from 16th and 28th respectively under Hoiberg. Those numbers are a bit of smoke-and-mirrors with all the factors at play this past (weird) Bulls season.

But Boylen did have a much heavier focus on generating points inside first, with the team ranking third in the league in points in the paint per game during his tenure. Rui Hachimura fits in extremely well with the idea of the Bulls punishing teams inside with low-post scoring depth, resulting in open looks on the perimeter.

Hachimura stands 6-feet-8-inches tall, 230 lbs., with a 7-foot-2-inch wingspan. He is a very physical player and utilizes his wingspan incredibly well in traffic. Hachimura posted a 17.4 percent defensive rebound rate over his three-years at Gonzaga. I mentioned above how Hachimura embraces contact and his career average of 7.5 free throw attempts per 40 minutes helps showcase his ability to be a wrecking ball in the paint.

He has the potential to excel as a small-ball center with the right personnel surrounding him. The fact that he can grab a defensive board and initiate the fastbreak makes him an even more valuable prospect. But when you consider that lineups with he and Markkanen as the two bigs on the floor would have five capable ball-handlers, the idea of Rui in Chicago becomes even more enticing.

Overall, Hachimura is a great prospect with a solid skill set that should allow him to be a decent scorer from day one, it all just depends on how much of an opportunity he gets.

The Bulls--as John Paxson has reiterated many, many times now--feel comfortable with the starters they have at the two, three, four and five positions, with point guard being their main area of weakness. While the Bulls don’t necessarily need another big, they do need to add productive players who are young. With Boylen’s emphasis on having multiple ball-handlers, driving the ball and points in the paint, Hachimura would be a logical selection, though No. 7 overall could be a bit of a reach for the 21-year old big.

His defense definitely has a long way to go--as with most NBA draft prospects--but Hachimura’s situation is unique since he literally had a language barrier to overcome when he first got to Gonzaga in 2017. The belief right now is that Hachimura is in a comfortable spot right now in terms of both speaking and understanding English, as reporting from Sam Vecine of the The Athletic (LINK is behind a paywall) and others has backed up.

With that being said, the Japanese forward still makes too many mistakes on the defensive end of the floor to be a surefire top 10 pick.

He is at his core an offensive-minded player, and as a result has not exactly developed much in the way of defensive intensity over the years. Hachimura averaged 0.6 steals per game and 0.5 blocks per game for his NCAA career.

For comparison’s sake, his steal and block rates are almost identical to Marvin Bagley III during his time at Duke. Bagley had a highly productive rookie season with the Kings--landing a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First-Team--but the Kings defense was still four points worse when he was on the floor per cleaningtheglass.com ($).

Despite having similar measurements to Bagley, I don’t believe that Hachimura posses quite the level of athleticism that Bagley does, making his path to becoming an above average defender that much harder.

Ultimately, if Hachimura’s awesome shooting numbers from NBA 3-point range (41.7 percent) on a small sample size (36 attempts) aren’t smoke-and-mirrors, he will greatly outplay his draft position. Hachimura shot 52.1 percent on his NBA range 3-pointers and also has a career 74.6 percent free throw percentage. Whether he was diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls with Lauri spacing the floor, or playing in a high/low offense with another big on the bench unit, there is a clear path to Hachimura being effective in Chicago. It would just take a ton of patience from the Bulls new-look coaching staff.

Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Bulls need a point guard. The Bears Top 100 list continues


Sports Talk Live Podcast: The Bulls need a point guard. The Bears Top 100 list continues

0:00- Will Perdue drops by to talk hoops. What will the Bulls do this summer to address their point guard need?

7:00- The Bulls need a point guard. Derrick Rose is a free agent. Should they bring him back home?

11:30- Carman says the Bulls should consider trading for Lonzo Ball. Kap yells at him.

16:30- Will talks about this year's playoffs and if anybody will be the Warriors?

20:00- The Bears Top 100 list continues to dominate discussion. Chris makes the case for Jay Cutler to be higher. He gets yelled at.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: