What the Bulls Do Well (and not so well)

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I have temporary Synergy access for the next few weeks, so I decided to draft some thoughts on the current state of the Bulls based on the Synergy stats and associated video. I started pulling together video clips but quickly realized that I could only share them with others who have a Synergy account. Sorry about that. Hopefully the text-only analysis is still worth a read.

Five Observations: 2015-16 Chicago Bulls (Christmas Eve edition)

1. Exceptional Transition Defense

The Bulls astonishingly have allowed just 0.89 points per possession in transition so far this season. Not only is that the best mark in the league, but it would shatter the known record for a full season (0.99 PPP surrendered by the Cavs in 2005-06). For comparison last year the Bulls allowed 1.11 PPP in transition (17th in the league) and 0.87 PPP in the half court (4th). Their half-court defense is allowing the same 0.87 PPP this year, yet their transition defense has vaulted from middle of the pack to historically great. What are the Bulls doing differently?

This season the Bulls are beating their opponents back down the court on a more consistent basis by resisting the urge to crash the offensive boards with perimeter players. More specifically only Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol, and in limited playing time Bobby Portis regularly battle for rebounds on that end. Everyone else typically starts hustling back on defense when the shot goes up. As a result of this concerted effort to get back rather than go for the rebound, the team’s ORB% has dropped from 5th last year to 16th this year with almost entirely the same roster. Most of the perimeter players, including each of the regular starters, have seen their individual ORB% cut roughly in half from last season and from their career norms:

Jimmy Butler: 2.4 ORB% (5.1 last year; 5.0 career)

Derrick Rose: 1.2 ORB% (2.6 last year; 2.9 career)

Tony Snell: 1.5 ORB% (2.5 last year; 2.0 career)

Kirk Hinrich: 0.8 ORB% (1.4 last year; 1.3 career)

Butler’s commitment to getting back in transition is most notable, as at times he is capable of shutting down a fast break all by himself. You can call him Jimmy P. Buckets. The P is for Prevents.

The Bulls also succeed in denying transition baskets by taking care of the ball and by maintaining floor balance on offense. The Bulls have the 4th lowest turnover percentage and attempt the 2nd fewest corner 3s in the league, so they rarely find themselves in a position where the opponent has an early advantage getting down the court (obviously some of this is a double-edged sword: limiting offensive rebounds and corner 3s helps the transition defense but hurts the offense).

2. Aaron Brooks: Unstoppable Off-the-Ball

Aaron Brooks is a point guard, and an especially ball-dominant one at that. For his career he has been assisted on only 17.8% of his 2-point field goals and 67.7% of his 3s. Often he’ll attempt ridiculously difficult-looking shots off the dribble like running hooks and step-back, fade-away jumpers. His shooting efficiency has always been middling as a result, though on high usage.

However, on the rare occasions when he plays off-the-ball and has the opportunity to square up, set his feet, and take an in-rhythm outside jumper—primarily off of drive-and-kick or dribble-handoff action—he’s among the best shooters in the league. So far this year he rates in the 95th percentile on Spot Ups, 99th percentile on Hand Offs, and 100th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations (27 points in 16 possessions, or 1.69 PPP). To show that this is no fluke, last year in a much larger sample size of 138 possessions, he rated in the 96th percentile in catch-and-shoot situations.

Even though their defense may fall off a bit, the Bulls would be well-served to try more 2-pg lineups with Brooks deferring on some of the ball-handling duties in favor of spotting up beyond the arc. Last season the Bulls were +17 per 100 possessions with Brooks and Rose sharing the floor and +4 with both Brooks and Hinrich. This year they’re +28 with the Brooks/Hinrich duo in limited minutes and -28 with the Brooks/Rose duo in even more limited minutes. Give these lineups some time and see what happens.

3. Questionable Pick & Roll Mix

The pick and roll has not been a particularly effective tool for the Bulls, but I think it could be. The Bulls score 0.92 PPP using the P&R Roll Man, which ranks 25th in the league, with more than half of those possessions (56.3%) going to Pau Gasol. Using Pau so often is a problem for at least 2 reasons: (1) it’s predictable, and more importantly (2) Pau isn’t a great roll man.

Optimally the roll man should be someone who poses a threat immediately after the screen because either he can explode to the rim, ala Tyson Chandler or DeAndre Jordan, or he can step back for an open 3 like Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson. The pick-and-pop with a stretch big man has become one of the most effective commonly-used plays in the league, and a good mid-range jumper just doesn’t bring the same efficiency as a decent 3-point shot. In essence, the Bulls should be using Nikola Mirotic (3s), Taj Gibson (dives to the rim), Bobby Portis (both), and even Jimmy Butler (same) as the screener much more often and Pau much less.

The numbers bear this out, as each of the latter 4 players rates in the 75th percentile or better, with 1.1+ PPP as the screener, whereas Pau sits in the 17th percentile at 0.81 PPP. Yet those 4 have combined for just 30% of the P&R screener opportunities, just barely over half of Pau’s total.

For an example of a team that runs the pick and roll more effectively look at the Charlotte Hornets. They rank 4th with 1.09 PPP by splitting opportunities roughly evenly among their 5 big men, including Al Jefferson (who like Pau is the traditional high-usage post player and mid-range shooter), Cody Zeller (who fares best cutting to the rim like Taj), Marvin Williams, Spencer Hawes, and Frank Kaminsky (all 3-point shooters hovering around the 35% range like Mirotic, who actually leads the Bulls in PPP as the screener with 25 points in 18 possessions).

4. Doomed Taj Gibson Post Ups

Taj Gibson should not be posting up nearly as often as he does. In order to succeed as a post player in the current landscape, one must (a) have good vision and ball-handling skills, (b) possess a nearly unstoppable post move, or (c) be able to exploit mismatches in size or athleticism. Durant and Dirk are among the league’s best post players because they arguably meet more than one of those criteria. Taj Gibson meets none of them.

He has poor recognition of when to post up and often finds himself in terrible situations, like shooting a mid-range turnaround jumper over Anthony Davis (blocked) or attempting a hook shot over Kenneth Faried while fading to the baseline (air ball). Even when he gets a mismatch, his post moves are so deliberate that by the time he gets in position to score the defense often has recovered and collapsed on him. Taj has improved as a distributor somewhat from earlier in his career, but he hasn’t reached the point where he can dribble out of a tough spot or survey the whole court to find an open man.

As a result, it is not particularly surprising that Taj rates very poorly in the post, scoring 0.60 PPP (11th percentile) on 47 possessions. Including passes out of the post, Taj rates in just the 9th percentile by PPP on 62 possessions. This play type accounts for 28.3% of his total offense.

Instead of wasting all of those possessions in the post, the Bulls should involve Taj more as a screener, cutter, and spot-up shooter—areas where he comparatively excels. When he gets moving toward the rim he can still finish with authority (1.07 PPP around the basket excluding post-ups, 1.4 PPP diving to the hoop as the roll man), and he hits open spot up jumpers when given the opportunity (he’s 10/15 in catch-and-shoot situations this year).

5. Horrific Finishing Around the Basket

This has been mentioned in recent articles but it bears repeating: the Bulls rank dead last in PPP at the rim by any measure. Even the Sixers, who continually reach new depths of offensive futility, fare better.

A major culprit is the lack of spacing resulting from the lack of outside shooting threats. Defenses are free to pack the paint because Rose’s jumper is broken, Noah’s only taken a few shots outside 10 feet all year, Gasol and Gibson have limited range, and Snell and Hinrich, despite good 3-point percentages, have slow releases and are hesitant to shoot in the face of even a half-hearted closeout.

Rose and Noah also have struggled to adapt to diminished athleticism and have been especially poor finishers thus far, particularly compared to their pre-injury selves. Rose has been trending slightly better lately, but the Bulls need him to be a lot better both near and far from the basket to bring the offense up to even an average level of efficiency.

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