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The regression of Cristiano Felicio

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The Brazilian big man has gotten off to a terrible start after signing a 4-year deal

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Chicago Bulls Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

An unknown training camp signing two years ago, Cristiano Felicio slowly built his way up into the rotation before some breakout performances late in the year solidified his place on the team. He became a fan favorite in the 66 games in which he appeared for Chicago, averaging 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds. Full of energy and a solid defensive player, Felicio offered some stability in the middle when they rolled out their reserves. His ability to help out on pick and roll defense and occasionally pitch in some baskets helped Chicago out a lot.

When Chicago signed Felicio to a 4 year, $32M deal literally minutes after the offseason began, there was some skepticism in the timing and figure. But it was mostly pushed aside given his impact on the court plus being one of the “feel good” stories on the team.

This year, however, has not gone as planned for the big man. His play has been so poor this season it’s nailed him to the bench for 5 straight DNP-CD’s. Things got even worse for him over the weekend as he was assigned to their G-League affiliate, the Windy City Bulls. Felicio had a good game for the WCB, dropping 22 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. But there still is concern over his overall play.

In the NBA this year, Felicio has seen his rebounds per game drop to a mere 2.9 and his box plus/minus numbers are horrific with a -2.9 BPM rating (-2.8 offense and -0.1 on defense). Also for the first time in his career, Felicio’s VORP has dropped into negative numbers with a rating of -0.1. But probably the worst stat of all is his overall +/- total for this year. While raw +/- can be a deceiving stat at times, it’s not in this case. Felico’s total +/- is at a horrific -153. That’s really bad.

There are a couple of reasons as to why Felicio’s play has been so poor. One of the main reasons could be Chicago’s point guard play, which is something Felicio relied a lot on. Felicio isn’t the type of player who can create offensive plays for himself. You aren’t going to see him really post up his guy or even attempt to take someone off the dribble. So he needs point guards who can get him the ball in advantageous spaces. Last year, Felicio was able to get easy points off the PNR cause defenses would be more focused on the guard instead of him. Guys like Dwyane Wade would often draw double teams coming off the pick and it would lead to easy lobs or layups for Felicio. Just take a look at this play:

This year is a little bit different. With Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant as the main point guards, playmaking isn't always there with both of them. There are times where both of them miss an open man. Teams also don’t view them as a big offensive threat coming off the PNR. So teams are way less likely to double either Dunn or Grant. Also given the duo’s inconsistencies shooting the ball, the defending big man is going to sag back into the paint, taking away the space for Felicio to get the ball and go up with it. The procession of Chicago’s point guard play is out of Felicio’s control but there are other factors which he can control, which are affecting his play.

Defensively he’s experienced a sudden loss of rebounding productivity and is failing to effectively blitz the ball handler in pick and roll. It a general concern that he doesn’t look like he’s as quick as he was in previous years, as K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune pointed out in a mailbag column:

But the four-year guarantee is looking like an issue unless he returns to the athletic, defensive player that he had previously shown. From this perspective, he doesn’t look like he’s in the same physical shape to do so

Johnson also suggested Felcio could try to be doing too much on the court, which is another viable reason to his poor play. He’s not focusing on his strengths, which are near the rim offensively and hedging just outside the paint defensively.

Chicago also having a number of excess big men also doesn’t help Felicio’s case. Robin Lopez is entrenched as the starter. The breakout play of Lauri Markkanen with the returning Nikola Mirotic has forced Fred Hoiberg to experiment at times with Bobby Portis playing at the 5, taking away more minutes from Felicio.

Felicio is not going to be an absolute game changer for Chicago, we all know that. His role is to be a solid bench player and be an energy guy the Bulls can rely on, and right now he’s not bringing it on either side of the court. Given that this is a rebuilding team plus the contract he’s been given, the scrutiny on Felicio’s play is at its peak. Things are not looking good on Felicio Island.