January 20, 2018
Chicago Bulls
(Photo: Dennis Wierzbicki – USA TODAY Sports)

This young NBA season has been full of disappointments and discord. The Houston Rockets got their coach fired, the New Orleans Pelicans can’t keep healthy bodies on the court, and the Memphis Grizzlies have abandoned their grit-and-grind offense to introduce more spacing.

The Chicago Bulls were expected to experience a learning curve when they transitioned from Tom Thibodeau to Fred Hoiberg and a more wide open attack, but the fresh start was supposed to quell some of the disharmony within the organization.

After back-to-back losses to the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons—in quadruple overtime—over the weekend, this week has reached code-red, disaster levels.

Jimmy Butler, the team’s best player, openly called out his coach, lambasting his team’s efforts. Needing a bounceback win, the Bulls imploded in a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets. None of the Bulls players seem to be on the same page, no one trusts the new offensive system, and the Bulls season is quickly spiraling into a disappointing negative feedback loop.

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The coaching transition has taken far longer than hoped, and everyone is frustrated by the lack of team identity.  They aren’t who they used to be under Thibodeau (despite their gaudy defensive rating), and they certainly haven’t transformed into a ball-hopping offense. The Bulls are lost in translation and it is taking a grave toll on everyone involved.

Our identity has always been: You come to Chicago, you’re in for a war. It’s not like that right now.” Joakim Noah told ESPN’s Zach Lowe. “Just watch the games. There are 25,000 people in the building, and it’s dead quiet. It has never been like that. It’s tough to see the building that way. And it’s on us. You bring the fire, and they will love you here. But if you’re coasting, playing this low-energy game—I‘m not sure we can win like that.”

Despite an ugly start to the season, Noah has not been the problem. In fact, he’s been legitimately good of late, averaging 9.6 boards, 4.9 assists and 1.3 blocks over his last 10 games in only 23.6 minutes. Despite the second highest assist and rebounding percentages of his career, he’s stuck behind Pau Gasol in a now five-man frontcourt logjam with the emergence of Rookie Bobby Portis.

Some of those minutes will be freed at the costly expense of Noah, who separated his shoulder against the Nets—after totaling four points, eight assists, and eight rebounds in 16 minutes—and will be out for at least the next two weeks. Noah has been the fiery leader of these Bulls for some time, and weathering these tough times will be difficult without him.

To try to free up some of that space, and address the black hole the Bulls have at small forward without Mike Dunleavy, Hoiberg tried Nikola Mirotic at small forward against the Nets, and that unsurprisingly was not the answer.  Mirotic has been a major problem through his sophomore strugglesand Pau Gasol’s preferred backdown post game is dramatically clashing with Hoiberg’s intended style of play.

Hoiberg has gone all-out trying to find the right combination of players and lineups, but the fact is that the players on this team are simply not fitting.  It has become painfully apparent that a system must be built around the players as opposed to forcing the players into a system. It’s like stripping screws, and it’s pushing everyone on the team apart.

“There is no camaraderie. There’s no chemistry. I wouldn’t say it is fighting all the time or hatred or whatever,” Sources told Sean Deveney of Sporting News. “It’s just, you stay in your corner, and I will stay in mine. I don’t think there is any one trade or anything they can make that fixes that.”

It’s easy to make an argument for a trade, but for whom? Who would realistically help solve the Bulls problems? Derrick Rose has been one of the NBA’s worst sstarters this year, but moving him isn’t realistic. His contract is too big and his former brilliance still has a residual effect on his hometown in a way those outside Chicago will never understand. Moving Gasol could be an addition by subtraction of sorts, freeing up space for Noah and Portis, and allowing the Bulls to zip the ball around the floor rather than dumping it to him in the post for an eight-second backdown. If the Bulls could find a new home for him, that might make the most sense. Of course, now that Noah is down, the Bulls can’t afford to give up another big man. 

Gasol is obviously a supremely talented low-post scorer. The problem is that he demands the ball down there, which results in a lot of standing around watching him go to work. This is fine if the Bulls run a set, go through an option or two and can give him the ball if all else fails, but far too often the Bulls walk across half court and dump the ball into the post, just for the sake of playing through Gasol. It’s slow, ineffective, and it’s not Hoiball.

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Here’s an example of the “Pau’s Paradox” where he makes his presence felt at the expense of the system.

At some point, a lot of the issues can be solved by winning. But it might not be such a bad thing for the Bulls to lose. The Bulls have some serious flaws that they need to work out, and their typical style of only showing up against good teams won’t help them solve anything.

One issue with this team is the fact that they have surprised so much on the defensive end. Even though they rank second in defensive efficiency, it remains to be seen whether this is based on luck rather than skill.  Per NBA.com SportVU data, the Bulls allow a league low 41.8 percent on uncontested shots, that tracking doesn’t accurately discern whether or not the defense is affecting the shot. So, what happens when that luck regresses to the mean? Well, you’re seeing the effects of that now. The Bulls defensive rating for the month of December is 98.9, and if that continues to creep above their season average of 97.8, there will be fewer and fewer ways for the Bulls to win games.

Offense has been the more obvious issue with this Bulls team. Hoiberg was supposed to solve that, but the Bulls have somehow gotten worse. The ball sticks far too much, and the off the court, trust issues have manifested to an iso-heavy offense, bottom four in the league.  SportVU data shows the Bulls eFG reduces with the amount of dribbles taken before a shot. Yet they take nearly a quarter of their shots after three or more dribbles. Not only is that a far less efficient look, it is not the shot Hoiberg’s offense aims to get. This speaks to the fact that the players don’t trust this system and have yet to buy in.

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Field Goals2 Field Goals3 Field Goals
DribblesFreqeFG%Freq2FG%Freq3P%
0 Dribbles49.30%52.829.60%51.119.70%36.8
1 Dribble14.20%4512.30%43.11.90%37.8
2 Dribbles12.00%41.111.20%40.90.70%29.4
3-6 Dribbles15.90%39.614.30%39.31.50%28.6

7+ Dribbles

8.70%38.37.70%38.81.00%22.7

Hoiball was supposed to be easy, free flowing, up and down. It was supposed to feature threes, layups, ball movement, and cutting. It was supposed to be about drag screens and easy transition buckets. But the Bulls are 26th in the league in percent of points that come from fast breaks at 10.8 per game. They’re sixth in the league in percent of points, mid-range, 19.9 and 26th in percent three-pointers attempted at 24.9.

Their assist numbers show that they are moving the ball, averaging an assist ratio of 16.7,  11th in the league. But somehow, it seems like a misrepresentation. Here’s a variation of Pau’s Paradox, where he makes a great read and kicks it out to Doug McDermott for an open 3.

Getting points in that way counts for something. Gasol drawing a double team and kicking out to an open shooter is great. But it’s not the imaginative, Spursian movement that was expected of this team.  The Bulls have been willing passers, but not in the way Hoiberg intended, and not in a way that opens the floor for multiple opportunities.

Part of that is because the players still have the inclination to break down the defense one-on-one.  AndJimmy Butler has contributed to the problem. The Bulls average 26.1 assists with Butler off the floor compared to 21.0 with him on. Partially because he loves doing this:

Butler is not what is wrong with the Bulls by any means. If anything, he is just trying to be the best player on the floor and create offense for a stagnant team. The issue here is that this kind of offense comes at the expense of the system. Sure, the Bulls needed a late bucket, but with a brand new shot clock, is the best option is a stare-down long two, while everyone else stands around watching? Perhaps it goes back to the idea that the system doesn’t fit the players, but it’s clear that this is the monumental disconnect causing the Bulls their problems.

The players are not buying into their roles. Butler is the best player, but he’s frustrating those around him. Rose has seemed passive aggressive, deferring to Butler, and the team really suffers from that. Rose has not been good, or even average, but the Bulls still need him on the floor because of his potential to make plays. Both he and Butler still need to adjust to their new realities and find a way to share and put the team ahead of their personal agendas if the Bulls have any hope of actualizing.

Rose has to be more willing to find new ways to be effective and contribute to the team’s success. That starts with adjusting his game to match his current level of play and athleticism. Rose has caught a lot of flak for being a ball stopper, but he has actually done quite well to find openings and make extra passes. Rose has the highest assist percentage (27.8) on the team, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be better.

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That big, terrorizing number with the Bulls is Rose’s TS percentag: 41.9 (13 points below league average). This unfathomably poor shooting has led to nights where Rose is afraid to shoot the ball and that stops the offense.  Part of that would be solved if he pushed the tempo and got open layups for himself or his teammates, but he seems content to walk the ball up the court. He doesn’t initiate the offense quick enough and that puts pressure on Gasol and Butler to create shots in the half court.

Hoiberg’s message to Rose was to get the ball across half court with 21 seconds on the shot clock. But just doing that isn’t enough.

“We’re just not very efficient on the offensive end right now,” Hoiberg told KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “A lot of that, you know we need to put pressure on the rim. We need to run to the rim better in transition. We need to get to the corners (and) we have to flatten out the floor.”

This type of downhill attack has been completely absent from the Bulls offense. With a dearth of shooting there is less and less floor space for driving lanes, every basket is a struggle, and the Bulls offense is the same slog it has been for years. At this point, the Bulls only hope is to swallow their individual pride and play to the system. It may be uncomfortable, but what left do they have to lose?

The Bulls haven’t given Hoiball a real chance,  because they haven’t given themselves a chance to move on from the Thibodeau era. They need to grasp the reality of the situation and accept that they must learn a new way to win games. If the players can’t let go of the past, it might be time for the front office to blow it up and start fresh.  But until then, the Bulls continue to hold themselves to the standard that they can be the team that emerges to challenge Cleveland, but a lot has to change–and go right–until then.

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Will Gottlieb

Lifelong lover of all things NBA, I'm thrilled to share my words through bballbreakdown. Formerly a contributor at SBNation's BlogaBull, I now run Bulls Confidential. You can follow me on Twitter @wontgottlieb

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