The Bulls are 11-5. They're third in the Eastern Conference. They've beaten teams like the Cavaliers, Thunder, Spurs and Pacers. They've been much better defensively than expected. That all sounds great, right?
It certainly sounds great, but every time I watch the Bulls play, I usually feel dissatisfied after the game is over. I WANT to feel good about this group. I WANT to feel good about Fred Hoiberg. But I can't do it. At least not yet.
This sounds like a personal problem, but I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. Seerat Sohi wrote a pretty scathing take on the Bulls over at The Comeback, and from fans in the comments to beat writers to other bloggers on this very site, nobody seems to know what to make of these Bulls:
I think we can safely say the Bulls are a pretty good team. You don't rack up an 11-5 record with multiple huge wins and not be a pretty good squad, even with the mediocre 0.7 net rating that ranks 15th in the NBA, per NBA.com. The reason why myself and others have been so meh on the Bulls this year has been because of the wretched offense. Hoiberg was supposed to bring in this shiny new system, and yet, the Bulls' offense has been significantly worse than last season. They have an offensive rating of just 97.4 points per 100 possessions, which is 27th in the league.
That'll happen when so many of your supposed best offensive players are struggling. Derrick Rose can't hit anything, Pau Gasol (last night aside) has regressed in a system that doesn't seem to suit him well and Nikola Mirotic can't find a rhythm. There are numerous other problem spots as well.
Things get even uglier when you look at the "clutch" numbers, with clutch defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter/OT and the point differential at five points or less. The Bulls have an offensive rating of just 85.3 in 55 clutch minutes, which is a small sample, but also note that it's tied for the second-most clutch minutes in the league, confirming the closeness of many of the Bulls' games.
It should also be noted that the Bulls' pace in the clutch is a snail-like 94.21 possessions per 48 minutes, the second-lowest mark in the league. Hoiball becomes Hoiball no more, instead often turning into the same bogged-down mess we grew accustomed to under Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls really do grind it out late in these close games, and that's also evidenced on the other side of the floor, where they've been absolutely stifling opponents. Chicago is giving up just 81.9 points per 100 possessions in the clutch, which has helped them win games when its offense goes in the shitter (prime example: game vs. Spurs). There have been several other game where the defense has come up with the key stop to win (Cavaliers and Pacers, to name a few).
The Bulls' defense has been pretty great in general (fifth in DRtg), although one thing I've noticed is that teams seem to be missing a good amount of open looks. Entering the Nuggets game, the Bulls were allowing roughly 39 percent on uncontested shots, per SportVU, and Denver shot 35.6 percent on those looks Wednesday.
Determining what's a contested vs. uncontested shot is an inexact science, so there's some noise there, but this is something that's stood out to me. Is the Bulls' defense a bit lucky?
Partially so, and analytics guru Seth Partnow tweeted out an interesting graph yesterday:
The Bulls' expected eFG% allowed is one of the best in the league, but they also have one of the biggest differentials between expected eFG% allowed and the actual eFG% allowed in their favor. So they're good and lucky, but notice that all the best defenses in the league are down in that bottom left corner with the Bulls, so that's a theme.
What does this all mean? I have no idea. It's really hard to imagine the Bulls' offense being this bad all season, and I'm still expecting the defense to regress a bit. Chicago doesn't look the part of a contender right now, but how many teams really do at the moment?
I don't know, perhaps this team jells soon and becomes the clear-cut second-best team in the East and top challenger to Cleveland. I'm not going to say that's impossible. For now, we'll have to live with them stacking wins while shutting teams down and hope there's significant offensive improvement as the team gets more comfortable in the new system.