The Chicago Bulls Are Playing Like a Team With a Promising Future
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the Chicago Bulls' nine straight seasons of 40-plus wins was expected to come to an end. Vegas pegged them with an over/under of 22.5 wins -- the lowest total in the NBA and four fewer wins than the next-closest team (the Brooklyn Nets).
Through 22 games, the Bulls were right on track to meet those expectations. They started 3-19 and were on pace for just over 11 wins. Their offense ranked dead last in points per 100 possessions (95.9) and their defense was in a tie for the league's worst defensive rating (109.4). The product? A net rating of -13.5 -- 2.1 points worse than the Sacramento Kings and 26.4 points off the mark of the league-leading Golden State Warriors (12.9).
During their unpleasant stay in the Eastern Conference pits, the Bulls were dealing with the fallout from a preseason altercation involving Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic that resulted in a concussion and facial fracture for Mirotic. While Mirotic was forced to miss the team's first 23 games, Portis was suspended eight games for injuring his teammate.
Despite rumors that Mirotic would refuse to play with Portis and demand a trade, the 26-year-old remained in Chicago -- and that might have been the right move for both sides.
On the Come Up
Since Mirotic returned to the floor on December 8th, the Bulls have gone 10-4 and own the league's sixth-best net rating (4.0), per NBA.com. If you include the game prior to his season debut, the Bulls pick up a loss but climb into the top-5 with a rating of 3.8 points per 100 possessions. In the words of fictional pop star Hannah Montana, say what?
Not only that, but over this great stretch of play, head coach Fred Hoiberg has led his team to a pair of wins over both the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks in addition to victories over the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers. And when they've lost, the Bulls have done so by more than four points just once (a 25-point L to the Celtics).
Still ranked just 28th in our power rankings, the Bulls haven't faced either of the two teams (the Suns and Kings) ranked below them. Furthermore, only one of their wins came against a team (the Orlando Magic) outside the top-20. The fact that they're six games out of a playoff spot speaks to their drastic improvement -- on one end more than the other.
Winning with Defense
Prior to making the leap to the pros in 2015, Hoiberg coached the Iowa State Cyclones to four straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament. I mention this because, by the numbers, his success was built upon a high-octane offense. His team never once ranked outside the top 45 college teams in terms of offensive rating, but they never did better than 109th nationally on the defensive end.
But with an offensive rating of 106.5 over their last 15, the Bulls have dug their way out of the NBA gutter in that respect. They've picked up the pace (101.1, 6th in the NBA), reduced their turnover rate (12.7%, T-4th) and, as a result, have the league's fourth-best turnover-to-assist ratio (1.97) over that span.
The Bulls are playing smart offensive basketball, but they're still not a top-tier team on that end. Where they have excelled most is on defense.
|Bulls Defense||Def Rating||Def Reb||Def Reb%||Opp Reb%||Opp FTAr|
|Last 15 (Rank)||102.8 (3rd)||37.4 (1st)||81.7% (1st)||18.3% (1st)||.202 (2nd)|
Contrary to what you might expect to see, the Bulls haven't benefited from ridiculously poor shooting or turnovers. Teams are shooting 45% overall and 33.1% from three over this 15-game stretch and they rank next-to-last with an opponent turnover rate of 12.3%.
Instead of rough-and-tough turnover-inducing defense, the Bulls have forced teams to try and beat them on one shot from the field. Their defensive rebounding numbers are the best in the league and they've avoided fouling better than all but one team (the Cleveland Cavaliers).
It's a full team effort for the Bulls to keep opposing teams off the glass. Eight players are averaging at least 2.6 defensive rebounds per game, and six are at or above 4.3. Chief among those players is Mirotic, who has averaged 6.4 defensive rebounds with a team-high 26.3% defensive rebounding rate. In case you're wondering how good that is, it would rank 15th among all players -- ahead of guys like Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis.
A Sour-to-Sweet Pairing
We can all see the quick and promising development of the 20-year-old Lauri Markkanen. He is averaging 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.2 threes with 1.5 win shares in his first 34 games, but the youngster's inexperience and lack of rim-protecting has proven problematic beside Robin Lopez. The two of them have a net rating of -6.0 on the year and they haven't done much to improve on that mark, with a -1.5 rating during the Bulls' winning ways.
The NBA's most unlikeliest of duos -- Mirotic and Portis -- has been the real difference in the Chicago frontcourt. Of all two-man lineups to play at least 100 minutes, the enemies-turned-friends have been the team's second-best pairing with a net rating of 19.9 points over the last 15 games and 26 days. Together, they've averaged 34.2 points (on 47.4% shooting), 3.4 threes, 14.9 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 2.4 steals in just 14.1 minutes a game. (They rank seventh among all duos to play at least 150 minutes in the last 15 games.)
Big men like Mirotic and Portis look really good when they have guards willing to set them up in good spots on one end and playing lockdown defense on the other. That's where Kris Dunn and his breakout comes in.
After missing the first four games of the year while recovering from injury, Dunn got off to a slow start, but it shouldn't come as a surprise to see him breaking out with the Bulls turning things around. Over the past 15 games, he is posting 16.0 points, 7.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. He's still coughing the ball up an average of three times a night, but given his 38.7% assist percentage and 26.5% usage, that's awfully good for a 23-year-old with just 30 starts under his belt. When you add in his solid defensive efforts (102.5 defensive rating last 15) and even more promising potential (93.8 defensive rating in seven home games), you can see why Chicago wanted him in the Jimmy Butler deal.
Even with the Bulls' recent play, there will be question marks with such a young, unproven team. Will they be able to keep rebounding at a high level? Will Mirotic and Portis continue to co-exist? Can Kris Dunn sustain and improve upon his two-way play?
Beyond the obvious, those questions will be joined by those that come with the eventual returns of Zach LaVine and Cameron Payne. How much will LaVine play? To what extent will he and Payne steal minutes from Dunn? What will they bring to the table on a nightly basis?
We have a lot of time for the Bulls to answer those questions one way or another. There are 45 games remaining on Chicago's schedule, and a lot can change -- one way or another -- in that time. But, no matter what happens down the stretch, Bulls fans should be optimistic about their core players. Given the expectations entering 2017-18, Chicago has quietly been playing a brilliant brand of basketball for some time now.