Entering tonight’s contest against Milwaukee, the Bulls find themselves ten games below .500 and two back of Washington for the final spot in the play-in tournament. After trading for superstar center Nikola Vucevic at the deadline, the majority of NBA analysts predicted the Bulls would climb the standings and pose a legitimate threat to the top tier of the Eastern Conference.
As Artūras Karnišovas and company attempt a cultural overhaul within the organization, it’s important to dissect why things haven’t gone to plan since acquiring Vucevic. This will hopefully ease the minds of Bulls fans as well as identify the areas in which the team must improve and how they can do so.Let’s begin with the contributing factors which were out of the Bulls’ control and then move on to their shortcomings on the court.
Vucevic joined the team during the always-dreaded west coast swing against San Antonio, Golden State, Phoenix, and Utah. The Suns and Jazz, currently occupying the top two spots in their conference, have already secured playoff births while the Spurs and Warriors would both participate in the play-in tournament as the ninth and tenth seeds if the season ended today.
The Bulls then returned to the United Center to square off against the Nets, whom most consider the favorites to make it out of the East, followed immediately by another five-game stretch on the road. It’s hard enough to gel as a team after reconstructing the roster, but being asked to do so while being away from the comforts of home is a tall task, to say the least.
In fact, in Vucevic’s first ten games as a Bull, only one was in Chicago and of those ten teams they faced during that stretch, eight will be in the playoffs. The combined winning percentage of the Bulls’ opponents during this rather difficult stretch was .537, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a team who had to dramatically alter their style of play to accommodate Vucevic went 3-7 in those games.
Now, as Chicago fights to keep its postseason aspirations alive, the final ten matchups of the year feature nine bouts against Eastern Conference teams either in the playoffs or still in contention. This includes two against Milwaukee, two against Brooklyn, and one versus Philadelphia. If the Bulls find a way to sneak into the play-in tournament, it’ll be an astounding accomplishment.
Injuries/Personal Matters/Health and Safety Protocols
In addition to an onerous schedule, injuries, personal issues as well as the league's health and safety protocols have affected the Bulls since their blockbuster trade. On March 24th, three days before Vucevic's debut, Zach LaVine sprained his ankle against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He traveled with the team on the aforementioned west coast road trip and attempted to play against the Spurs but finished the game with just 18 points and saw only 11 minutes of action in the second half.
Two nights later against the Warriors, LaVine recorded 12 points on 4-16 shooting from the field (1-7 from downtown). After the game, he admitted to reporters he re-aggravated his ankle and would have to rest in order to come back at full strength. To his credit, he sat out the next game against the Suns but returned a few days later versus the Jazz.
Next up was Coby White who missed a pair of games for the first time in his professional career due to neck spasms he experienced before the matchup against Golden State. Prior to his injury, he was the only Bull to play in all 109 contests dating back to the previous season. Like LaVine, he was able to return against the Jazz but managed only four points on 2-6 shooting from the field and was 0-3 from long range. That same night against the Warriors, Garrett Temple strained his hamstring in the first half, forcing him to sit out for eight games.
Fast forward to April 6th when Daniel Theis was dealing with personal issues which caused him to miss the matchup against Indiana. Fortunately for the team, Theis would return two days later to square off against Toronto. The Bulls have also been without Troy Brown Jr., one of the league's premier perimeter defenders, who hasn't played since April 19th due to an ankle injury. But Chicago's string of bad luck didn't stop there as multiple players would have to miss time due to COVID-19 safety measures.
The first Bull to suffer such a fate was White, who was absent from the game against Brooklyn on April 4th and returned to action on April 6th against the Pacers. On April 15th, LaVine was the second Bulls player required to endure the league's health and safety protocols. He remains sidelined and will miss his ninth consecutive game tonight against the Bucks. Unfortunately, and much to his chagrin, reports have surfaced that he may need to miss an additional week of play.
All of this aside, it's important not to make excuses, remembering that injuries are a part of the game and every team has had to deal with COVID-related drama at some point in the last two years. Just recently, the Raptors had eight players forced into quarantine and somehow they've miraculously stayed in the hunt for a play-in birth. So, instead of focusing on things beyond the team's control, let's take a look at where they need to improve in order to make the playoffs this year and be contenders in the (hopefully) not-so-distant future.
First and Fourth Quarters
If you've followed our coverage of the Bulls this season, you've probably noticed a common thread amongst all the game recaps; sluggish first quarters in which the opposition comes out with more energy and toughness. In fact, the Bulls' average first-quarter margin is -1.3, which ranks 23rd in the league. Winning consistently in the NBA is hard and it's even harder when you're constantly having to play catchup. Typically, when a team experiences this problem, it can be attributed to age but it mainly speaks to the coaching staff not having their team ready to play.
Interestingly enough, the Bulls' average second-quarter margin (+0.2) ranks 13th and their average third-quarter margin (+1.1) ranks fifth. This tells us that while coach Billy Donovan may struggle with his pregame preparations, he's one of the best at making adjustments, especially at halftime. Donovan deserves the benefit of the doubt for now, but his team's nasty habit of starting slow is something that must be corrected by next season.
With all that said, the Bulls' biggest deficiency lies in their inability to close out games. As of tonight, the team's average fourth-quarter margin sits at -1.7, ranking 27th in the NBA. And it's not as if they're going into the final frame constantly facing large deficits as their average margin through three quarters is exactly 0.0, meaning on most nights they've given themselves a legitimate chance to win heading into the final frame.
The question then becomes, why do the Bulls struggle at the end of games? Let's start with the obvious; the team allows an average of 28.3 points in the fourth quarter, which ranks 28th in the league. But, more specifically, there are three statistics that highlight the team's poor interior defense, an essential element in crunch time that plays a large part in determining a game’s outcome.
- 49.6 points per game allowed in the paint (25th)
- 60.9% of total points allowed from two-pointers (28th)
- 15.6% of total points allowed from free throws (22nd)
On the offensive side of the ball, the Bulls rank dead last in percentage of points scored from free throws (12.7), a vital statistic in the later stages of a game. Translation; Vucevic is in desperate need of help down low. So, who can the Bulls target this offseason to play alongside their newly-acquired center? We’ve identified two players, Plan A and Plan B, who we believe would be great compliments to Vucevic.
There’s a reason why the Bulls were linked to Drummond before he was bought out by Cleveland. According to Dean Oliver’s system for defensive rating, he’s the tenth-best defender in the NBA with a score of 103, averaging 1.5 blocks and 1.4 steals per game over the course of his career. He’s also a double-double machine, averaging 14.5 points and 13.8 rebounds since entering the league in 2012.
The one downside to Drummond’s game is that, since 2017, he’s only shot 60% from the free-throw line. But, more importantly, he’s attempted 168 free throws this year and would automatically be the Bulls' leader in that category if he were added to the roster today. Of course you’d like him to shoot a higher percentage, but drawing fouls and forcing a team into the penalty is crucial, especially in the fourth quarter.
The other factor we need to consider is price. In all likelihood, Drummond has earned himself a big payday this offseason and deservingly so. If the Bulls are thinking big picture, it might be prudent for the team to look at cheaper options this summer and save their money for the loaded free-agent class of 2022. Bradley Beal, perhaps? This brings us to Plan B.
Yes, that's right, Nerlens Noel would be able to help Vucevic tremendously, and here's why. While you wouldn’t be getting the same offensive production as Drummond, Noel is actually rated as the fourth-best defender in the NBA with a score of 101 (like golf, the lower the number the better). For his career, he averages 1.5 blocks, the exact same amount as Drummond, and only 0.1 fewer steals.
On Wednesday, the Bulls were able to witness firsthand exactly what Noel brings to the table as he finished the night with eight points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals, and five blocks to go with a +24. And although Drummond is a superior rebounder in comparison to Noel, Vucevic averages double digits in that category and could offset any potential deficiencies.
Noel is also the better free throw shooter, converting a respectable 72% from the stripe over the last four seasons and, because he’s primarily a defensive specialist, will undoubtedly be less expensive than Drummond. As it stands, Vucevic and Thaddeus Young are the Bulls' top-rated defenders (110), ranking 107th in the league. Securing a defensive presence like Noel (or Drummond) would be a welcomed addition.
Plan of Action
It’s no secret the Bulls have tried to acquire Lonzo Ball and it’s been reported that Chicago is one of two teams he’d prefer to play for. This offseason, Ball is eligible to receive a qualifying offer from New Orleans which roughly comes out to $14 million. However, with Ball looking for something in the $20 million range, he’ll most likely opt not to sign, making him a restricted free agent and giving the Bulls the opportunity to pounce.
But, when combing through the analytics mentioned above, something which stood out was Chicago’s ability to defend the perimeter. In fact, the Bulls are only allowing their opponents to score 34.2% of their points from long range, fourth-best in the league. So, one could make the argument that adding Ball is an unnecessary luxury when the team already has the personnel at his position to be successful.
This sentiment becomes especially true when you realize Ball is ranked 261st in the NBA with a defensive rating of 113, the same exact number as two current Bulls, Tomáš Satoranský and Troy Brown Jr. Therefore, it’s hard to justify spending $20+ million per year on a player who doesn’t significantly improve the roster. Sure, his ability to distribute the ball is impressive, but in the grand scheme of things, the team has bigger needs.
Luckily for the Bulls, both Satoranský and Brown Jr. are under contract next year, allowing the front office to concentrate on acquiring help for Vucevic. The addition of Drummond would be exciting, but the smartest option appears to be Noel who would immediately give the team a formidable defensive frontcourt and the financial flexibility to offer a max deal to someone like Beal in 2022.
This year has been a rollercoaster of emotion for Bulls fans but, despite the team’s late-season collapse, it’s important to take a step back and understand their arrow is still pointing up. We can’t let the scars of GarPax cloud our judgment of the new regime. They deserve the chance to revel in their own victories, make their own mistakes, and carve out their own legacy. All we can do is have patience and trust they’ll bring our beloved Bulls back to where they once were.
So far, they’ve given us no reason to believe otherwise.