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The Bulls are Experiencing a Massive Drop in Foul Calls

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The Bulls' offense has changed drastically in its reliance on getting teams in foul trouble. A team that got to the line early and often now struggles to get into the bonus and draw fouls.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Last year's version of this almost-identical Bulls roster scored its points in a completely different fashion from this year's HoiBulls. One of the starkest changes in the offense is the complete 180 in regards to getting points through free throws.

One big reason why Coach Thibodeau's teams were so boring to watch was because they were extremely reliant on free throws and getting into the bonus early in quarters to generate points. Last year, the Bulls were 3rd in the league in the percentage of points they earned from the free throw line. Under Hoiberg, that number has plummeted to 24th.

The style of play Hoiberg has implemented has a lot to do with this decline in free throws. The Bulls are generating way less shots in the paint and many more jump shots. It also seems like the Bulls are spending less time in the bonus.

Matt Femrite of Nylon Calculus has begun tracking bonus stats for the NBA this year, and the Bulls are near the bottom of his lists. The Bulls are 29th in the percentage of possessions they spend in the bonus.

That is unfortunate because teams get a pretty big boost in the bonus. Not only does it mean your opponents are in foul trouble, but 82games.com estimated that offenses improve by about 7 points per 100 possessions, likely because of free throws and more timid defense.

On an individual level, Tony Snell is the only player on the team to draw more personal fouls this year as compared to last year (+0.4 personal fouls drawn/game). The players best at drawing fouls have seen sharp decreases in this metric. Jimmy Butler (-0.4), Pau Gasol (-1.7), and Derrick Rose (-0.8) led the team last year but can't seem to get the same amount of whistles this year. Aaron Brooks has also seen a sharp decrease with his new role and drop in minutes.

As a team, the Bulls are averaging 3.4 less personal fouls drawn from last year's team (a drop from 6th-29th) and are shooting 4.4 less free throws per game (from 5th to 25th).


The loss of a screaming Tom Thibodeau might be affecting the drop in whistles as well. Thibs' teams were usually on the positive side of the foul ledger. Last year in particular, they were near the top of the league in avoiding fouls on defense and drawing fouls on offense. One reason for this was that Thibs was constantly badgering the refs. During a preseason game last year, ref Andy McCutchen joked to Thibs, "At least say hello first as a head coach before you start yelling."

As a rookie coach, Thibs didn't draw many techs. Towards his last few years, this changed dramatically and he was near the top of the league. Hoiberg is way more relaxed towards the refs and hasn't drawn a tech yet this season.

The effects of head coaches being as annoying as possible to refs are completely speculative, but it's my personal opinion that having a psychopath screaming at you for 3 hours is going to change the way a ref calls a game or what calls he looks for. This is part of the benefit of home court advantage, where despite reports of its death, NBA teams still won over 57% of their home games last year. Refs are influenced by fans screaming at them. There are a ton of borderline calls on every NBA play, and the Bulls seemed to have benefited more from those judgment calls last year as opposed to this year.

This is not meant to be a criticism of Hoiberg's offense or temperament. Although free throws are one of the most efficient ways to score points in the NBA (unless you're Joakim Noah), there's nothing inherently wrong with generating points in other ways.

This just means that the Bulls are going to have to be a lot better at other forms of offense, like generating more 3's (which they are doing) or getting good paint shots (which they are not). It's also a much more pleasant form of basketball to watch, and a totally different philosophy from last year's team. Let's see if it translates to winning.