We are 27 games into the season and the Bulls currently sit at 11-16 and are in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. On paper, there are a lot of ways to look at the Bulls’ situation and say they’ve gotten unlucky and that’s even with getting past Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine’s knee injuries. Dunk and Threes’ Net Rating which adjusts for luck has the Bulls 14th in their ranking. Essentially playing at the level of a .500 basketball team. This would be great considering the absence of Ball and the play of LaVine since he injured his knee.
The Bulls have underperformed their point differential and net rating largely because they have been the worst clutch team in the league. Clutch games are defined as games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes. The Bulls are 4-10 in those types of games. They have essentially lost two games at the buzzer, one to rookie AJ Griffin of the Atlanta Hawks on an alley-oop play from the inbounds with 0.5 seconds left in overtime.
The other was Jalen Suggs of the Magic hitting a 3-pointer as time ran down, only leaving the Bulls enough time for a half-court heave. Jalen Suggs is a career 23.5% 3-point shooter. Vučevic, an 85% free throw shooter, missed both free throws which allowed Suggs the opportunity to win it. The game the Bulls just lost against the Knicks was another tight one for the Bulls, this one another overtime loss.
The Knicks entered the game as the worst 3-point shooting team in the league at 31.9% from deep. The Knicks shot 18/34 from 3 against the Bulls, good for 52.9%, that’s 21% better than their previous average. So even though many people are incredibly down on the Chicago Bulls right now, it would be easy to take a step back and see that the Bulls have gotten unlucky in a handful of games, they probably should be 14-16, and they have played the 3rd hardest schedule in the league up to this point according to Power Rankings Guru. The same metric has the Bulls’ remaining schedule as the 27th hardest (or 4th easiest). I would not blame a Bulls fan for believing that the luck should start to turn around and with a much easier schedule.
The Bulls might end up being just fine and right in the thick of the 7-9 seed range that most had them pegged for as the season started. In fact, the optimist side of my brain is saying that. Unfortunately, I am writing this with the pessimist side of my brain. The Chicago Bulls are fundamentally flawed and that constantly comes out in these close games.
Before I dive further into that, let’s take a quick step back and look at the Bulls as a franchise. Since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1999, the Bulls have won a grand total of 1 conference finals game. That came in 2011 during a 4-1 series loss to the Miami Heat in the lone conference finals appearance for the franchise post-MJ. I’ll give the Bulls’ fans reading a quick break from the downer talk with this highlight of the Bulls taking a 2-1 lead over the LeBron James and Kyrie Irving led Cavs in the 2015 conference semifinals. A Derrick Rose buzzer beater.
Okay let’s get back to reality, that game was the last home playoff game that the Chicago Bulls won. That was over 7 years ago.
The ownership and overall organization of the Chicago Bulls are living in the past. The franchise peaked in the 1990s and they don’t want to leave this era. This off-the-court mindset has leaked its way heavily into their on-the-court product.
The Bulls are in last place in 3-point rate. They rely heavily on role players that purely hustle guys that are limited at best on offense. To be fair, it is possible even in today’s NBA to have a good offense without launching 3s. The Pelicans are 6th in offensive rating according to NBA.com and they rank 28th in 3-point rate. The thing is the Pelicans put an insane amount of pressure on the rim with Zion Williamson.
The Bulls live in the midrange, just like they did in the 90s. This hampers the team in their pursuit of playing efficiently on offense. The Bulls currently sit at 20th in offense. This is what is holding the team back. Despite how much people want to rip the Bulls’ 3 core players of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vučević for their defense, which I think is fair in some ways and unfair in others, the Bulls are currently the 9th best defense in the NBA according to NBA.com.
This should be more than good enough for the Bulls to be a solid playoff team in the Eastern Conference. But it all comes back to that lack of 3-point shooting. I’m sure the first thing a lot of people reading this want to do is blame DeMar DeRozan for that.
I think that is mostly unfair though I do wish DeRozan could be more of a spot-up guy when he doesn’t have the ball. DeRozan is really good at getting to the middle of the court, drawing the defense in, and then finding open shooters. The problem is that outside of Zach LaVine, the Bulls haven’t surrounded DeRozan with shooters. It’s easy for teams to send help to DeRozan and stay home with LaVine because there are usually three poor 3-point shooters out there.
As I mentioned, the Bulls filled out their roster with many hustle players that struggle to contribute much offensively. One could argue that given the defensive struggles of LaVine, DeRozan, and Vučević, since Lonzo Ball has been injured, the Bulls don’t have a two-way player ever on the court. This makes it hard for the Bulls to throw out 5 man lineups that make sense together as well as makes it really easy to gameplan for the Bulls. Both of those aspects are reasons why the Bulls struggle in crunch time.
I think there’s another aspect to it as well. The Bulls have often found themselves down by double digits as their defense has had struggles to start the game. The defense gets drastically better as the game goes along which allows the Bulls to get back into the games and even sometimes take the lead. But since they are usually not getting back into the game by getting hot from behind the 3-point line, they have to grind and fight and defend their asses off. I honestly think by the time the final few minutes come around, the team tends to run out of gas.
I just find it interesting how the Bulls are often playing catch-up because, in a sense, they already are starting the games playing from behind because of their roster flaws. In most games the 3-point disparity alone makes it a challenging game to win.
The honeymoon period is over with the new front office. This is their 3rd full season. Artūras Karnišovas is the guy running the show.
Even as someone that has always been higher on them than some, it can’t be argued the Bulls have a flawed roster, even at full strength. The team they built is flawed. Do I believe in the full-strength version of the team as a 4-6 seed in the East? Yes. The problem is that the team is entirely built offensively on DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine needing to both play at a near All-NBA level to carry the offense to the top tier of the league without having to rely on 3-point shooting. They were doing that in the first half of last season.
Then LaVine injured his knee and hasn’t been able to get to that level. On the other side of the court, the defense was entirely built on Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball being able to effectively guard the other teams’ best two players at point guard through power forward. With the lack of rim protection on the roster (another flaw), the team needs Caruso and Ball to create chaos for the offense on the perimeter. Nobody can say with any certainty when Ball will play for the Bulls again. Without all 4 of those players clicking on all cylinders, the team has no chance of competing at a 4-6 seed level.
We will find out a lot about this front office in the next year. I want to see them move away from the mindset the ownership has. If they can’t do that, then I want the next front office to be able to do that. The Chicago Bulls need to prioritize shooting and focus on bringing in two-way players. The Chicago Bulls need to stop living in the 90s.