The Chicago Bulls just finished the toughest stretch of their 2019-2020 season so far.
After feasting on a lot of pretty sorry teams during the team’s solid December, the combined record of their last four opponents, the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics, and Dallas Mavericks, is 104-40. All four teams are in playoff position, with the Bucks and Celtics at No. 1 and No. 2 in the Eastern Conference standings.
And the Bulls went 0-4, once a Magic victory away from the 8th seed now see themselves 4 games behind.
But looking deeper than the win/loss record, what did we learn about Chicago during this stretch?
Defense is good, but not great
The day before the Bulls matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago’s defensive rating was 104.1 through 30 games played. That mark was third best in the NBA.
Predictably, that number shot up during the Bulls four-game stretch against playoff teams. During that stretch, the Bulls defensive rating was 117.0 which was sixth worst in the NBA. This had them fall to seventh for the season.
Head coach Jim Boylen deserves at least some credit for the success the Bulls have had defensively this season. Comb through their roster and the Bulls are putting up good defensive efforts with the scheme moreso than individual defensive talent. The roster has maybeh two really good defenders (Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter Jr.), and a bunch of guys in the regular rotation who aren’t (Coby White, Tomas Satoransky, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Denzel Valentine).
The eye test based on who is on the roster doesn’t scream the Bulls would be solid defensively. But despite the fact that any metric that places the Bulls as a top five defense is probably largely a mirage and this stretch showed it (besides the amount of turnovers they generate), the Bulls are far from terrible on that side of the ball. But the last few games have shown they are not truly elite.
The Bulls largely rolled with an eight-man rotation during this stretch. Per 670 The Score reporter Cody Westerlund.
“I wanted to,” Boylen said of his reasoning for the eight-man rotation. “I wanted to give it a look. And I played Thad at (small forward), I played three big guys together and I wanted to look at it. This was the team to do it against. I liked it. I just liked it.”
Only eight guys averaged over 15 minutes per game. Ryan Arcidiacono averaged 13.7 minutes per game but only played in one game. Denzel Valentine got a healthy scratch in the last two games. Shaquille Harrison got a healthy scratch in one game and averaged under eight minutes per game in the games he did play.
The Bulls have had a solid bench this season in terms of scoring. They are 13th for the whole season at 36.4 points per game. Shortening that rotation mitigates this.
In the Bulls four-game stretch against really good teams, they averaged 30.8 bench points with that shortened rotation. If that would have been their average for the entire season it would have been the sixth-worst mark in the league.
Ironically, after Boylen shortened the rotation injuries may now force him to lengthen it once again. Wendell Carter Jr. is out indefinitely with an ankle sprain and ironically the Bulls other two big men Lauri Markkanen and Daniel Gafford are also battling ankle sprains.
Depending on how all of that shakes out, the Bulls could be dusting Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio off the end of the bench. They may choose to play very small given the level of talent from the aforementioned players meaning Ryan Arcidiacono and Denzel Valentine may be reintroduced into the lineup as well.
Lineup roulette sometimes prevents players from establishing a rhythm with each other so it’ll be interesting to see if Boylen keeps switching things up moving forward. To be fair, he hasn’t found anything that works yet so maybe it’s just by necessity.
Evaluating “Competitive Losses”
On one hand, the Bulls were ‘competitive’ in all four of their losses against some of the league’s best teams.
On the other hand, continuing to push the “competitive loss” narrative sounds like loser talk. There are games every night in the NBA where a better team will have an off night and lose. The Bulls have gotten breaks in opponents players being out (Kemba Walker, Kristaps Porzingis) and/or being on a worse rest schedule, and they still can’t capitalize.
Rick Carlisle on the Bulls: "I think they are the hardest playing team in the NBA. They just come at you constantly."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 7, 2020
This is year three of the rebuild. At some point, this talk has got to stop. The Bulls are one of the most storied franchises in NBA history and play in the third largest media market in the nation in a city that loves basketball. At some point they need to start acting like it and begin considering anything less than winning as failure.
When will we get to that point?
All stats are from NBA.com.