With the departure of Omer Asik and the lack of an adequate replacement to take his place, many figured we would see the Bulls play a little small ball this year. The idea, of course, was that Luol Deng could play the 4 alongside either Joakim Noah or Taj Gibson (or hell, perhaps even Carlos Boozer) at the 5.
That hasn't happened that much this season, with Tom Thibodeau usually preferring to keep a pretty standard three-man big rotation along with a little Nazr Mohammed thrown in. Prior to last night's game against the Bucks, we had seen the Bulls go small on a few occasions, with pretty mixed results.
The most frequent small ball lineup the Bulls have rolled out this season is Nate Robinson/Marco Belinelli/Jimmy Butler/Deng/Noah. That group has played 39 minutes together, sporting a +/- of -3 and a net rating of 3.1. The offense for the unit hasn't been all that bad, scoring 105.3 points per 48 minutes and posting an offensive rating of 104.7. The overall shooting percentage is just 40.3 percent, but they've made up for it by knocking down threes at an effective clip of 38.9 percent and by doing a nice job getting to the line (and making those freebies at an over 90 percent rate). The rebound rates for this group is a tad below the Bulls' team averages, but there certainly isn't a huge discrepancy.
The problem then for this group has been on the defensive end, where they have given up 109.0 points per 48 and have a net rating of 101.6. However, it should be noted that most of those defensive issues came when they played together in December when the Bulls were struggling a bit more. In January, that defensive rating is a 58.1 in seven minutes.
The only other small ball lineup that has played over 20 minutes this year is one of Robinson/Belinelli/Butler/Deng/Gibson at 23 minutes. That lineup has been a tad more successful defensively than that first unit, but has been a train wreck offensively. The offensive rating of the unit is 92.2 and scoring 77.9 points per 48. It's no wonder the group has a net rating of -7.6 and a +/- per 48 of -4. The caveat with this unit is that most of those minutes have come when the game hasn't been close.
So based on these results and the fact that the sample sizes are so small, it seems apparent that Thibs isn't too trusting of these small ball lineups. But with Boozer sidelined last night and the Bucks putting out smallish lineups of their own, we actually saw some extended small ball time for the Bulls. And for the most part, it worked out nicely.
The primary small ball lineup was Kirk Hinrich/Robinson/Butler/Deng/Noah, and they finished a +9 in eight minutes of play. They got action in the second, third and fourth quarters, with most of the damage happening in the final frame as the Bulls put the nail in the Bucks' coffin. The group wasn't all that impressive shooting the ball, but they did great work on the glass, grabbing 11 rebounds in the eight minutes, with five of those coming on the offensive end. Deng was especially active on the offensive glass, it was just too bad that he couldn't finish his put-backs. Butler did finish his, but that's to be expected. And of course, they absolutely locked down the Bucks on the defensive end.
There were a couple other small ball variations used last night, with, you guessed it, mixed results. The same lineup as above with Gibson subbed in for Noah was a -6 in three minutes, and forced Thibs to go back to Noah in the fourth quarter when the margin got back down to 10. A lineup the same as above with Belinelli in for Hinrich was a +2 in six minutes.
What does any of this mean? Probably not all that much. The sample sizes are small and considering Boozer shouldn't miss too much time with his hamstring injury, the Bulls will likely go back to their normal bigs rotations when he comes back. Still, it was nice to see Thibs throw in the small ball wrinkle, as it could potentially be something we see against teams like the Heat or Knicks.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com.