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Chicago Bulls playoffs: Thibodeau's mantra hurting when the games matter more

Jonathan Daniel

Here's what should be a final bow on the depressing thud that was the 2014 Bulls postseason. Which it was. As much as there may have been close games, or possible slight differences achieved by adjustments, the soundness at which the Bulls were defeated reminds me of that Billy Beane Moneyball quote: our shit doesn't work in the playoffs.

As Ricky said yesterday, the Bulls were destined to be also-rans after the Rose injury and Deng trade, and any 'heart'-fueled run in the second half of this season was a mirage.

I think we're pretty guarded against this phenomenon, now, but it was still startling to see the differences between the Since-Trade-of-Deng Bulls and the postseason version. I pulled the four factors to show the difference,  incorporating what the Wizards did during the season.

Offense eFG% FTA Rate TO Ratio OREB%
Bulls STD 48.1% 0.288 15 26.5%
Wiz gave up 50.4% 0.288 16.5 24.3%
Bulls Playoffs 46.3% 0.29 14.7 27.9%

Defense eFG% FTA Rate TO Ratio OREB%
Bulls STD 47.2% 0.253 15.1 23.9%
Wiz scored 50.6% 0.248 15.1 25.2%
BullsPlayoffs 47.9% 0.32 11.5 27.8%

Some of the key ones I highlighted are mostly defensive:

  • The Wiz were one of the poorest teams at getting to the line ( uses FT/possessions as opposed to FT/FGA, they were dead last in the latter statistic)  during the season, yet the Bulls sent them there at an alarming rate.
  • The Wiz took care of the ball way better than expected.
  • The Bulls actually had a better offensive rebound rate in the playoffs than during the season (despite the Bulls fearing the Wiz transition game and trying to get back more), but their defensive rebounding suffered, allowing the Wiz to do better there than they had during the season.

And offensively, the Bulls already-poor shooting dipped even though the Wiz were middle-of-the-pack in defensive eFG%. I think a lot of this is explained by the difficulty the Bulls had in ball/player movement.

BALL MOVEMENT % of baskets assisted AST ratio Noah AST ratio
STD 66.7% 18.4 30
Playoffs 60.8% 16.6 25.4

The point-center offense that the Bulls employed in their remarkable run to end the season just wasn't working anymore. Nene effectively crowded Noah to cut off passing lanes, and the Wizards athleticism was able to drape the Bulls shooters, forcing everyone into extra passes towards even-tougher looks.

And as we know all too well, when the system can't generate a shot the Bulls didn't have a player who could bail out a possession. The assists totals that the Bulls telecast would trot out during every regular season momentum swing showed sharing of the ball, but also that there was nobody who could create their own shot. The greatest evidence of that falling apart was from D.J. Augustin, who was the team's leading scorer (seems weird every time I type it) yet had a huge drop-off in this postseason.

The Bulls not only lacked an 'extra-gear' when it comes to the playoffs, they downshifted (I repeat: I do not know how cars work). Yes, this is a sample size of 5 games versus 50, but there were a lot of red flags when it came to overrating the Bulls end of the season record: for one thing, their points for/against suggested a 64% winning percentage yet they won 68% of their games (about 3-4 wins difference over that time). Their roster was remarkably healthy, even playing a very limited rotation.

And there's just the general notion of ThibsBall's advantages creating more margins in the regular season: they prepare hard, they work even harder. Other teams may be facing the Bulls on short rest, or dealing with minor injuries, or just being in the malaise of the NBA regular season, and Thibs teams would know exactly what to do to beat them and execute that plan. However in the playoffs, everyone is prepared, rested and ready to work. Heading into this series it was still seen to be an advantage, as the chance of a somewhat-inexperienced Wizards team 'flipping the switch' seemed far from assured, but it was always going to be a lessened advantage than it was in the regular season.

And the concern then is that not only does ThibsBall lose its advantages heading into the playoffs, it becomes a disadvantage if the team is too spent racking up that record.

And that goes back to the shortened rotation. Jimmy Butler bore the brunt of it in terms of total minutes, but as Dan Bernstein (I know...) put it:

It’s not just the total number of minutes, it’s what has to be done during them with the multiple helps and recoveries, scrambling and diving for every loose ball and churning through endless offensive actions just to find one halfway decent shot attempt.

It all adds up. And while the Bulls suffered no major injuries heading into these playoffs, they certainly looked less fresh than Washington. And Joakim Noah, the focal point of an offense that was radically stalled in the postseason, was dealing with a knee injury that required a drain and possible (minor) surgery. The injury itself wasn't severe, but Thibs admitting that Noah's been dealing with it since as early as the All-Star break is pretty damning.

Because if that's the case, why play him so much down the stretch? Why not give him a day off here and there, or limit minutes in spot situations? It not only would help preserve Noah, but perhaps ready the full roster for a playoff role. Because as it stood against Washington, there was no way Thibs was going to expand beyond his magnificent seven if he didn't try it out first during the regular season.

And why he didn't try it out was because ThibsBall means winning every. damned. game. As Kelly Dwyer put it in his Bulls obit, a "THIS FEBRUARY GAME IN ORLANDO IS OUR GAME 7!"-approach.

And it gets wins, and that's the goal! But this also means not only a regular season record that is inflated compared to an actual assessment of the team, but one that comes at a cost of postseason success. Yes, the Bulls Org. did Thibodeau no favors by trading his favorite player for nothing and failing to adequately fill out the end of the bench. And using those guys they did provide would've cost Thibs some wins. But as we have seen for years now, that simply doesn't matter as much as he feels they do.

To be clear: overall, Thibs is an outstanding coach that should remain at the helm of the Bulls as long as he wants to be here. The Org. is lucky to have him, as this issue of playoff success wouldn't even be on the table if not for him. But I wouldn't be surprised if this particular message of Thibs prioritizing the playoffs correctly is what that Org. has tried to impart on him before. And if they not only feel that their efforts have been futile so far, but would be in the future, it'd be another example of consternation between them that makes this Lakers talk (and Knicks before it) not so crazy.