The Chicago Bulls are a team searching for an identity. The Three Alphas plan quickly went off the rails, the team’s point guard rotation is regularly a surprise to the players in it, and other than All-Star forward Jimmy Butler, the rest of the team is in shambles. Since a strong start to the 2016-17 season, the Bulls have proven to be a mediocre mess of a team.
The results are a problem, but the sadder reality is that they were almost inevitable. In the second year under Fred Hoiberg, management served him up a roster of ill-fitting pieces, and more or less told the head coach to figure out his “pace and space” style in spite of lacking the players to execute it. In less than shocking fashion, Hoiberg has been unable to find answers.
Now we’re midway through the 2016-17 season, and the Bulls aren’t merely mediocre. They don’t seem to have a plan, night-in, night-out, which is reflected by their constantly changing point guard rotation. One game Rajon Rondo is starting. The next night, he’s out of the rotation and Jerian Grant, a recent DNP-CD, is in the lineup. It’s gotten confusing for the players involved.
That seems like a matter of communication issues more than anything, but it’s fitting for a team that never seemed to have a plan in the first place. That’s how you construct a roster almost completely devoid of three-point shooting, then serve up a bad offense despite having players who can attack the basket, rebound, and draw fouls. Those things were never going to make up for being the worst three-point shooting team in the league by far.
Over the first half of the season, the Bulls have averaged 103.8 points per 100 possessions, good for 19th in the league. That’s not terrible, but other than a good start to the season, the team has been thoroughly below average:
October: 114.7 points (1st)
November: 103.9 points (16th)
December: 101.3 points (30th)
January: 104.3 points (24th)
This is in spite of some key areas where the Bulls are actually quite good. The team is fourth in the NBA in free throws made per 100 possessions (21.2) and third in offensive rebounds per 100 possessions (12.6), per NBA.com. They’re middle of the pack in turnover rate, and only four teams get their shots blocked less often.
But the core of any modern NBA offense, and especially a “pace and space” offense, is shooting. All of the movement and misdirection created by offenses now is to shake defenses from their structures and force mistakes. You need to constantly pressure each defender to make hard, fast decisions about what to do and who to cover, so eventually one of them slips up.
The Bulls’ offense struggles to do that to opponents because there’s little threat from long range shooting. There are decisions the defense doesn’t need to make — you don’t need to close out on that guy, you don’t need to go over the top of this screen, etc. — that suddenly makes their jobs a lot easier.
This isn’t to say that every NBA offense needs to be popping off three-pointers with reckless abandon. But it’s become a fundamental necessity in the league that you can at least threaten to shoot a three on any possession, and that reality forces defenses to react in ways that ultimately benefit the offense. The Bulls built a team so lacking in effective shooters that it can’t even muster that. They’re dead last in the NBA in three-point attempts (20.9) per 100, makes per 100 (6.6), and three-point shooting percentage (.316).
And despite being very good in some areas, it just doesn’t really matter if you can’t shoot. When defenses don’t need to take away those options because you’ve already done it to yourself, they have a lot less to worry about.
Consider the value of catch-and-shoot points. The top three teams in the league (Golden State, San Antonio, Houston) are currently 1-2-3 in the NBA in catch-and-shoot points. It’s no coincidence because the best offenses are built on movement, which puts defenders out of position and opens up catch-and-shoot opportunities. When you can do that and nail your shots, it’s almost unstoppable.
The Bulls have an opposite approach. They’re last in the league in catch-and-shoot points at 20.5 per game, well below the Warriors’ league-leading 34.5 per game. In terms of catch-and-shoot threes, they make just 4.7 per game. Nobody else in the league makes fewer than 5.9 per game. The net result is an effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the value of free throws and three-pointers, that’s also last in the NBA by a significant margin. There isn’t much pacing or spacing going on here.
Even the Bulls’ best shooters have seen their numbers suffer as defenses know to take them out of the offense. Nikola Mirotic shot 39 percent from deep a year ago, now he’s down to 30.7 percent on a similar number of attempts. Doug McDermott was at 42.5 percent last year, and now he’s down to an average 36 percent. Butler is the only other Bull shooting above 32 percent threes. Part of that stems from the lack of good catch-and-shoot chances that so many teams feast on.
And when your team is so clearly lacking a plan like this, chaos naturally ensues. All the talk of Three Alphas before the season was predicated on somebody stepping up to hit three-pointers around them. The defense was predicated on those guys staying happy and motivated. None of those things happened, and now the Bulls are basically a one-man show as Butler, a legitimate NBA superstar, tries to drag them to the playoffs.
The problem is that it’s hard to envision how this season could’ve gone differently. None of the team’s three point guards (Rondo, Grant, Michael Carter-Williams) can shoot well, and their big addition at shooting guard, Dwyane Wade, hit seven threes during the entire 2015-16 regular season. Even with Wade trying to expand his range, this was never a team built to play the “pace and space” style that Hoiberg was supposed to deliver. And it’s not apparent what the plan was to make up for that, other than hoping historically bad shooters would suddenly get better.
Three-point shooting is just too important in the modern NBA, and the Bulls are just the latest proof that you’ll pay gravely if you try to overcome that. Even though the team has found success in various areas like rebounding and free throws, an ability to make shots consistently undercuts everything the offense tries to do. The Bulls probably should’ve seen this one coming.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.