By Brian Sampson
The Chicago Bulls started out the season winning only three of their first 23 games, but then something miraculous happened. They’ve now gone 10-2 in their last 12 and appear to have righted the ship. Sure, they’re shooting a little better and taking care of the ball a little better, but the biggest difference has been the addition of Lady Luck by their side.
During the Bull’s slow start from Oct. 17-Dec. 7, they were one of the worst teams in the entire NBA. Their offensive rating of 96.1 (last in the league) combined with their defensive rating of 109.0 (28th) gave them the worst net rating in the NBA (-12.9). To make matters worse, Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis each missed a handful of games due to the fallout of their preseason fight.
They were a team led by a misfit of mediocre characters with no clear path to improvement. One of their leading scorers during that time, Justin Holiday, is playing with his fifth team in four years. Another, Kris Dunn, was thrown to the Wolves (see what I did there) after just one season of disappointing play. And Chicago still wasn’t sure what they had in Lauri Markkanen, who had mildly impressed during the first quarter of the season.
Defensively, opponents were shooting 46.9 percent against them, 24th in the NBA. And it only got worse the further out opposing teams went, as they knocked down 38.2 percent of three-point shots (27th). Fred Hoiberg and co. just didn’t seem to have the personnel to compete this season and everyone knew it. Thus, the tank was on.
Mirotic then rejoined the team on Dec. 8 against the Charlotte Hornets and that’s when the winning play began. But that’s all just smoke and mirrors.
Don’t get me wrong, it looks pretty. Real pretty. Since his return, the Bulls have experienced a complete 180-degree turn. Offensively, their rating has taken a nice leap to 105.7, 16th best in the league since that time. Their effective field goal percentage has also bumped up 4.6 points to 52.3 percent, 15th in the league.
Mirotic deserves some of the credit for this turnaround from awfulness to mediocracy, as he’s been en fuego. His per 36 averages of 24.3 points and 10.8 rebounds while shooting 50.4 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from downtown are all career-highs. This incredible shooting has done wonders for his team:
As Dunn pushes the ball up the middle of the floor, he sees two Bulls’ players at the blocks in front of him clogging up the driving lanes. Fortunately, Mirotic spots up on top of the key, providing Dunn with enough room to operate at the free throw line area. After a real slick hesi-dribble, Dunn searches out Mirotic and hits him with a nice pass for three points.
This type of spacing provided by the fourth-year forward has been a welcome addition. But it’s only brought them to mediocracy on the offensive end-nothing that will typically carry you on a nice win streak similar to what they’ve experienced.
However, that’s where defense gets inserted into the equation and is where the biggest improvement occurred. Their defensive rating since Dec. 8 is the second-best in the NBA at 100.6, which is an astronomical turnaround. Opponents also saw a significant dip in shooting by only knocking down 45 percent (10th) of their shots from the field, including 30.8 percent from downtown (second).
I warn you not to be too quick to give Chicago all the credit for this turnaround, as Lady Luck deserves a lot of it.
During this streak, the Bulls are actually allowing more fastbreak points, more second-chance points, and a hell of a lot more points in the paint per 100 possessions. All of these are indicators of a defense getting worse, not better.
Fortunately for Chicago, today’s game relies heavily on a teams ability to knock down shots from the outside and this is where they’ve benefited the most, as opponents have experienced a 7.4 percent drop in their three-point shooting percentage. At first glance, I thought they were doing something dramatically different on that end of the floor because I knew Mirotic, an average-at-best defender, wouldn’t have that type of impact on the perimeter. However, after scouring through film, I can’t find any dramatic changes they’ve made to their defensive scheme. What I did find was good fortune when it came to opposing teams missing shots.
Up until Dec. 7, the Bulls were allowing teams to take 3.4 shots per game that were either very tightly contested (0-2 feet) or tightly contested (2-4 feet) according to NBA.com. In return, the opposition was connecting on 35.4 percent of those shots. When it came to open (4-6 feet) or wide open (6+ feet) shots, Chicago was allowing opposing teams to hit on 38.8 percent on 26.3 attempts per game.
Then boom! Something dramatic happened, and the percentages went in the complete opposite direction.
Since Dec. 8, Chicago is tightly or very tightly contesting fewer outside shots per game (2.6), yet allowing a lower percentage (28.6 percent). They’re also giving up more open or wide open shots (27.6) than before, but even fewer of them are falling (31 percent) as well. They’ve experienced an inordinate number of possessions that end similar to this:
After Giannis Antetoknoumpo begins to back his man down in the post, Dunn comes over for the double-team to force the ball out of Antetoknoumpo’s hands. The ball is then swung to the top of the key and Markkanen does a great job of rotating off his man, Tony Snell, to stop the ball. However, as Eric Bledsoe continues to pass it around the perimeter, the Bulls’ fail to continue their defensive rotation and Snell is left wide open on the wing. As a 43.1 percent three-point shooter this season, this is a shot he usually knocks down, but Lady Luck strikes again.
Here’s another example of Malcolm Brogdon, a 39.3 percent outside shooter this season, missing an open attempt after the defense collapses:
These occasions aren’t uncommon for Chicago, as they’ve held opponents under 35 percent shooting from downtown eight times over their last 12
games. In two of the other three games where the opposition shot above league average, Chicago went home with an L.
It’s unfair to blame the Bulls’ for playing their part during this cold-shooting stretch they’ve witnessed against them. They’re simply taking advantage of the cards they’re being dealt. On the other hand, it’s also unfair to let this tin-hat phenomenon go unnoticed while they’re racking up the victories.
This stroke of good fortune, or misfortune depending on which way you look at it, is unlikely to continue for the rest of the season. When it disappears, Chicago will come scorching back to earth and experience a defensive performance closer to their first 23 games. Yet, there’s no saying when that will happen, so they might as well continue riding their luck.