The Bulls have played noticeably better over the last month, even if the results haven’t gone their way. In their last three, while there are no moral victories in competitive losses to the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics, the Bulls have largely given their fans a sustained performance — something that was far from the norm during the opening two months of the season.
Though the team has played at a more acceptable level of late, ironically it is these narrow losses to quality opponents that have truly emphasise the choices coach Jim Boylen continues to make.
I know what you’re thinking, this has to be about Boylen quickly burning all his timeouts in the loss to the Boston Celtics or then his curious post-game justification. It’s nonsense, but on this occasion, I will let it slide.
Instead, this focuses on the coach’s decision to deploy an 8-man rotation. Chandler Hutchison has (sort of) returned from his shoulder injury, but was still inactive for this one. All of Arcidiacono, Valentine, Harrison received DNPs after playing in recent contests.
Here’s why this decision was illogical.
The Bulls don’t have the depth to do this
It’s really that simple. Especially without Otto Porter, the Bulls do not have enough top-end talent to go with only eight players.
And it wasn’t put together this way in the first place. This team was built with a thin margin of error, one which would try to overcome the talent gap by deploying a deep bench with a sustained high-energy style. Boylen deserves some credit for at least experimenting in the face of so many losses, but this was not the move.
And thus it’s noticeable when checking the box score and seeing Kris Dunn (40), Zach LaVine (39) and Tomas Satoransky (38) all played 38 or more minutes, while center Wendell Carter Jr. played 36 minutes.
Increasing the work load of the starting perimeter trio was bound to happen, but it didn’t need to be to this extent. But when you chose to only use one guard off the bench, rookie Coby White, no wonder Dunn, LaVine and Satoransky played so many minutes.
Furthermore, with White and Daniel Gafford in the first half of their rookie season, Boylen ensured his rotation would be even more inexperienced and immature than it typically is. Against one of the best team’s in the Eastern Conference, this was never going to work.
Forcing the wings
White being the only guard off the bench essentially forced Boylen into playing Thad Young at small forward. Something that has been shot down all season, until yesterday it seems this was part of Boylen’s plan.
“I wanted to give it a look. And I played three big guys together. This was the team to do it against. And I liked it. I’ll have to evaluate it. I’ll have the numbers [Sunday]. But I liked it. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. And we’ll see.”
Playing a three big man lineup against the Celtics, a team armed with more wings than they possibly need, is certainly not the team to do it against — Young should never be trying to guard Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward on the perimeter.
In another bit of disconnect, Young himself was questioning Boylen’s overall rotation after the game:
“I think when you start shifting guys, it throws a lot of different things off with what we do as a team. This is very unusual territory when you start moving guys in and out of the lineup and stuff like that. It’s one of those things that we just have to continue to figure out as we go.”
Why try this now?
This was a just a random January NBA game, and pure idiocy of using so few players so soon in a season. But it’s even worse when considering the immediate schedule ahead.
After a stretch of home games, the Bulls now hit the road for five of their next seven.
First up, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, who own the best offense in the league this season. Will the defensive task be made more difficult after the rotation has been shortened, forcing even more responsibility on fewer players?
Guarding Doncic alone is almost impossible. If the Bulls are planning on asking Dunn to do so while playing 40 minutes, that is a nearly guaranteed impossibility.
The overall scheme should be hampered as well. The Bulls defense encourages hunting out and creating turnovers in passing lanes, and aggressively trapping pick-and-roll coverage. So far, this has surprisingly worked. But using such a scheme constantly forces its players to expend even more physical and mental energy. That reality is why Boylen has previously suggested he runs a deep a rotation, to give his players the necessary rest they need to recover.
That being so, why has the rotation now been shortened?
If the Bulls want to continue to run this type of defense — as well as run its offense in transition — depth is important. It makes sense for this scheme, but also for the tough schedule that has yet to come.
So is it again about winning instead of development?
Serious question: What is the point of this season?
A 13-23 record would suggest another losing, rebuilding result, one where its plates had not grown (?) at the rate the team hoped.
But going into the year, winning was the primary objective. Boylen made that clear when he boldly proclaimed the playoffs would be his team’s season-long goal.
Then after the losses began to pile up — thanks in part to Boylen’s odd in-game strategies — suddenly the Bulls felt it needed to be emphasized that actually developing an entire 15-man squad was the relevant motivation.
Boylen saying weird, contradicting, and confusing shit isn’t a new trend. Still, his words are conflicting with his actions. The decision to shorten the rotation to eight players is a move typically done during a postseason run.
Of course, we’re months away from the playoffs. They won’t if they continue to only rely on eight players so early into season. And if they do, does this mean the development of those outside the rotation no longer a priority?