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The Bulls Live At The Rim But Can’t Afford The Rent

The how’s and why’s of Chicago’s prolific inability to finish in the paint in the 2019-20 season

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Chicago Bulls
It’s more likely than not that this was a miss.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

It’s become one of the 2019-20 season’s most quoted statistics: the Bulls comfortably lead the league in restricted area attempts and rank dead f*cking last in shooting percentage from that range. That dichotomy looks bad for the Bulls all the way up the decision-making food chain, petrol for Molotov O’Donnells next firestorm. It also could be anomalous; that improvement will come merely via regression to the mean over time. But here we are past the quarter pole of the season and the gulf remains. Merely playing more games doesn’t feel like it’s going to fix this.

It turns out there are multiple things at work in the Bulls’ struggles near the basket. Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong and then - gird your loins, outrage addicts - propose some solutions.

  • Too many missed opportunities to get to the free throw line.

The Bulls ranks fourth in the NBA with 52.2 drives per game but rank 14th in free throw attempts. Contested shots aren’t efficient, but shots near the rim double as high percentage opportunities to get to the line - basketball’s most efficient shot. It’s one of the reasons they’re valued so highly by coaching staffs and front offices.

Lavine ranks 6th in the NBA in restricted area FGA but is 101st in FTr (free throws per field goal attempt). While he’s shown flashes of improvement of late, the bulk of his work going to the basket is predicated on avoiding contact.

To his credit, he’s really good at it! There are few more slippery going to the basket than LaVine:

There are two problems here. Knowing how to leverage contact in the air is a skill that LaVine doesn’t have, likely because he doesn’t practice it. He has the tools to go up and over anyone but seeing a defender in the way tells him he can’t.

Empty lane? Look out:

A big looming to contest? Deploy countermeasures:

This happens far too often. Lavine can and should MASH this all over Tristan Thompson if he dares to jump (which by the way he decided not to do). It is a statement dunk and likely foul turned into a very skillful dipsey-do with a much higher degree of difficulty. This skill of avoidance hurts the team in the way a young Derrick Rose’s same predilection did prior to his MVP season (that’ll be the end of such comparisons here). Putting aside the missed opportunity to bang on somebody and energize the team and the crowd, decisions like these add up to lower percentage attempts and fewer free throws.

Second, LaVine gets caught playing for the foul far too often:

Perhaps we should acknowledge the post-ACL tear hesitation LaVine might feel, and that not everyone is wired to attack the rim. But given his talent and his self-confidence in his game, this feels like a failed approach. Make an aggressive play on the rim and let the refs sort out the wreckage. Don’t ask for calls, force calls. What would LaVine reaching his full attack potential look like? Kobe is the best example I know of. Vince Carter is the second. Ja Morant has a late submission for candidacy.

Those are all-time dunks of course, but LaVine is on that level athletically. He has it in him to attack the rim and embarrass defenders:

The difference is that Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter did this to paint lurkers night-in, night-out for their first six years in the league and Morant seems hell-bent on following in their footsteps, cameramen be damned. I just counted the number of times Zach has done it in his career and still have a finger left over to give to Bulls ownership. For Christmas, I would like someone to hire a hypnotist, send him to United Center and tell LaVine that everyone’s forehead is a bullseye and his nutsack is an arrow.

The Bulls shooting issues at the rim are not all Zach, to be clear. He may show the most potential for improvement but he’s far from the biggest problem.

Lauri Markkanen shows hints of a mean streak, unfortunately it’s as elusive as LaVine’s. How does one get a kind-hearted Finn angry? Lament the cost of social services? Piss in his pickled fish?

Markkanen’s horrific start to the season is finally trending upward, shooting 60% in the paint over the last month, but his prior struggles leave him at a ghastly 50% for the season. In positive trends, Lauri’s FTr has gone from .193 to .245 to .322 in his three years in the league, but thus far his usage hasn’t been high enough to goose the Bulls’ overall shooting percentage out of the cellar.

Thad Young’s pivoting, hook-y inside game has never gotten him to the free throw line with any kind of consistency. To boot, he’s shooting 49% in the paint this year after averaging over 60% for his career.

Coby White has been frighteningly bad in the restricted area, ranking 241st in FTr and shooting a god awful 45% on more than 10% of the team’s attempts! One might be inclined to suggest he spend the entire offseason working on his forays to the hoop. Are stepback layups a thing?

Sprinkle in a couple of Shaq Harrison meth-drives and a few Denzel Valentine Toonces-level forays to the hoop and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

  • The Bulls don’t have a primary offensive creator

The Bulls have the fourth worst AST% on drives in the NBA. Not having a player who can attract multiple defenders AND displays canny passing vision means the pile of easy dunks and layups off of said creation that would vault their shooting percentage into the acceptable middle just doesn’t exist. It’s worth mentioning that it has also been their primary short circuit in late game situations. LaVine and Markkanen can finish but rarely see open teammates on drives, to say nothing of being totally unable to pass them open. Satoransky, Dunn and White are all profoundly below average at finishing at the rim and drawing fouls and none passes well enough to offset the shortfall (although Sato’s getting closer). Wendell Carter Jr. can dip his toes in both pools but as of yet isn’t a high priority in the offense, which feels like a coaching failure.

  • The lack of physical presence is a glaring roster hole that shows up in all facets of the game

After the ClippersMontrezl Harrell got done absolutely eviscerating the Bulls’ front line at the United Center last week, an awed Stacey King accurately described his play as “beasting”. Go watch that game if you haven’t already, there are still chunks of Markkanen coming out in Harrell’s stool.

The thought occurred: what Chicago Bull could you even imagine having a night on offense that could be described that way? WCJ and to a lesser extent Gafford are the only plausible options and neither feels like a bet I’d put my own money on.

There are players that make their presence felt on the court. The sort that make defenders wake up sore the day after guarding them. Players like Steven Adams, PJ Tucker, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and yes... sigh... Jimmy Butler. While Carter Jr. and Dunn have emerged on defense, the Bulls have one of the least imposing rosters in the league on offense:

THE NERD EVERYONE WEDGIES

Kornet (motion to never speak of the Kornet games’ existence again).

THE PUSHAROUNDS

Arch, White, Markkanen 80 games a year

THEY MIGHT THROW A LUCKY PUNCH

Sato, LaVine, Valentine, Markkanen 2 games a year

THE GUYS WHO CAN’T GO OUT FOR RECESS BECAUSE THEIR CAST WILL GET WET

Porter, Hutchison, Felicio (for some reason he’s always in the cafeteria)

BIG DUDES CLUB

Harrison, Thad, Gafford

BULLIES

WCJ, Dunn

You see the problem - the primary offensive players are at the bottom of the list. It might sound like coachspeak malarkey, but the Bulls best players need to learn to impose their will physically to take a step forward on offense.

Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford give the Bulls some juice around the rim but until the highest usage players start going to the rim with bad intentions more than once a fiscal quarter, the team’s statistical ineptitude is likely to stay right where it is.

As Chicago continue to rain shots from beyond the arc despite subpar returns, the Boylen-or-the-egg coaching quandary rightly persists: should the Bulls’ offense fit their personnel or should its personnel fit the offense? One can’t will more three pointers to go into the basket, perhaps the Bulls shouldn’t be asking their players to take shots they can’t make?

Going to the rim, though, is a different story: it falls at the feet of Markannen, LaVine, White and the rest of the roster to shift their mental approach and start attacking the rim more frequently. For a team with such a thin margin of error, tweaks like these have the potential to boost efficiency, help minimize crunchtime droughts, and - hold onto your butts - put a few more notches in the win column this season. I hear that’s the point of this whole thing.