Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE
Some notes and trends from the first week of the Bulls' season.
So the first week of the NBA season is over, and the Bulls have gotten out of it a respectable 2-1. They probably should have been 3-0, but a clunker on Saturday night ruined all of that.
It's hard to put TOO much stock into what happens in the first few games of a season, but I'm going to go ahead and to so anyway. So prepare yourself for an episode of "Bulls Small Sample Size Theater."
I've harped on this a couple of times already in recaps, but the Bulls' three-point shooting is absolutely non-existent. The Bulls are dead last in the NBA in three-point attempts at 12 per game, and when they do actually shoot them, they're 27th in the league at a wretched 25.0 percent.
So far, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli are the only credible threats from deep, as Robinson is at 40.0 percent and Belinelli is at 37.5 percent. Luol Deng is just 1-of-9 from deep, while Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton have not made a three yet.
One big reason the Bulls haven't taken many threes is that they have settled for a bunch of long twos. According to Hoopdata, the Bulls have taken 71 shots from 16-23 feet, making 21 of those. That's a not-so-hot 29.6 percent.
Simply put, this is not good enough. For a team that will struggle at times in the halfcourt, the Bulls need to create and make more three-point shots. Last season, the Bulls were able to make up for the loss of Derrick Rose because they had a slew of guys who hit threes at a decent clip. Kyle Korver took over four a game and was at 43.5 percent. Deng took four a game and hit nearly 37 percent of those. Both C.J. Watson and John Lucas III were around 39 percent.
Last year's team still did not take that many threes in relation to the rest of the league, but they were tied for third in percentage at 37.5 percent. So it's not like the Bulls have to just start gunning from deep. But turn a few of those long twos into threes and increase the percentages a bit and you're looking at a better offense.
This has obviously been a hot topic ever since Tom Thibodeau came to town. It's no surprise that Deng leads the team at 38.3 minutes per game, and that number would be higher if the Bulls didn't smash the Cavs on Friday. In the two close games so far this season, Deng played 42 and 43 minutes. It appears that if the game is close, no matter the opponent, Deng will be playing over 40 minutes. It's just the way it is at this point.
What is surprising, however, is that Deng has company at the top, as Joakim Noah is also averaging 38.3 minutes per game. This comes after a season where Noah played only 30.4 minutes per game. And his career-high in minutes is 32.8 per game.
These big minutes for Noah can certainly be traced directly to the loss of Omer Asik, but I'm really surprised that Nazr Mohammed has seen such little time, especially after a strong preseason. I wasn't expecting much of Mohammed coming into this year, but once I saw that he was competent in preseason, I figured he would get minutes close to or a little less than Asik got the past few seasons. Instead, Nazr has, for all intents and purposes, been buried on the bench, averaging 7.7 minutes per game.
On a somewhat related note, I think we all figured Taj Gibson would be in line for a minutes bump. Whether it was playing more power forward or also spending some time at center, I figured Taj would get at least 25 minutes per game this year. So far? Gibson is at 19.7 minutes per game, which is less than the past two seasons. In the loss to the Hornets, I felt Thibs pulled Gibson far too quickly in favor of a struggling Carlos Boozer in the second quarter. Thibs did recognize his mistake in the second half, going with Gibson down the stretch, but I was still befuddled by that first half substitution.
Finally, BaB favorite Jimmy Butler is at 11.3 minutes per game. That's slanted by the 17 minutes he got against the Cavs. He saw six minutes against the Hornets and 11 against the Kings. Ultimately, I think the somewhere around 12-15 minutes per game is perfect.
The BaB whipping boy has been the epitome of a mixed bag in his first three games back in Chicago. I'll start with the good. Hinrich has been mostly marvelous on the defensive end, as the Bulls have an 82.0 defensive rating with him on the floor according to NBA.com. He was great against Kyrie Irving before getting into foul trouble, and has been excellent at pressuring the ball and forcing turnovers.
Offensively, Kurt has proven adept at pushing the pace and making things happen in transition. He has run the team fairly well, with 5.7 assists in 23.7 minutes per game.
The major problem lies with Hinrich's shooting/scoring, which was a huge worry coming in. I mentioned earlier that Hinrich had not hit a three yet. Well, overall, he's shooting a paltry 26 percent and is putting up 4.7 points per game. Watson, the guy the Bulls waived, scored 15 points in his debut for the Nets.
Hinrich will improve his shooting, at least I would hope to God he does because it's hard to get any worse. Still, even with improvement, what's his ceiling offensively? This start is validating many of the concerns expressed on this site over hard-capping the roster for a player on the down side of his career.
In the past, Thibs has shown a propensity to stick with bench guys down the stretch if starters aren't playing well. We did see a brief Gibson/Boozer frontcourt late in the Kings game, but the starters played the majority of the last few minutes outside of some very late substitutions.
The Cavs game was obviously out of hand, so that one gets thrown out the window. But in the Hornets game, Thibs went primarily with a lineup of Robinson/Belinelli/Deng/Gibson/Noah down the stretch. This is somewhat similar to what we've seen in year's past when the Bulls would close games with Rose(or Watson/Lucas when Rose was hurt)/Korver/Deng/Gibson/Noah.
I'm interested to see how often Thibs goes away from the starters down the stretch. I would imagine Gibson will see quite a few fourth quarter minutes, and as Doug Thonus noted this morning on Bulls Confidential, Robinson may become the primary closer at point guard simply because he's one of the only guys on the team that can actually create his own shot. We saw this against the Hornets, as much of the fourth quarter offense was Nate trying to do everything himself because nobody else wanted to do anything.
But will Belinelli really become Korver and steal a bunch of fourth quarter minutes from Hamilton? I think Thibs went with Marco on Saturday because he was playing well and Rip was trash. Whether or not that becomes a regular thing remains to be seen. I'd certainly prefer Hamilton, because I don't trust Belinelli in tight games at this point.
Big Positives: Defense and Free Throw Shooting
I'd like to close with a few of the major positives so far. The defense has been stout, as one would expect a Thibs-coached defense to be. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Bulls are first in the NBA in defensive rating at 93.4. They are second in the league in points allowed at 87.3 per game. They have also forced a bunch of turnovers, which has been uncharacteristic of past teams. Sure, the opposition hasn't been all that strong, but holding teams to under 90 points per game is pretty damn good no matter who you play.
Offensively, the Bulls have somewhat made up for the lack of three-point shooting by getting to the free throw line at an impressive rate. The Bulls are are currently tied for fifth in free attempts per game at 29.3. And they have done a good job converting on those opportunities, hitting 78.4 percent of those attempts, good for 10th in the league. Noah (6.0 attempts per game), Deng (5.3 attempts per game) and even Boozer (4.3 attempts per game) have done a good job getting to the line so far.