The Chicago Bulls can be infuriating, one night ripping apart the Miami Heat and then getting ripped apart by the likes of the Phoenix Suns. When the Bulls are bad, they can be pretty bad, which raises the question, "Is it coaching or personnel that leads to the struggles?"
The first thing that's worth asking is, how "Jekyll and Hyde" are the Bulls? To determine that, I added the average margin of victory in wins to the average margin of defeat in losses, which gives a kind of "Jekyll and Hyde" rating. The higher the difference, the more inconsistent a team is, being really good or really bad.
Surprisingly, the Bulls are the 10th-best team according to this kind of rating. Also, bear in mind that "consistent" can mean consistently bad, losing big often, while winning narrowly often. For example, the three most "consistent" teams are Cleveland, Washington and Charlotte.
Among teams with winning records, the Bulls are, along with the Knicks, the fifth most consistent team with a 19.3-point swing between the average win and average loss. Here are the complete rankings.
|New Orleans Hornets||-9.9||8.2||18.1||5|
|Portland Trail Blazers||-11.1||7.1||18.2||6|
|Golden State Warriors||-10.7||8.4||19.1||8|
|New York Knicks||-7.6||11.7||19.3||9|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||-7||13.5||20.5||17|
|Los Angeles Lakers||-7.9||13.9||21.8||21|
|San Antonio Spurs||-8.5||13.8||22.3||22|
|Los Angeles Clippers||-9||14||23||27|
So the Bulls, if you look at the full picture, are a bit up and down, but not nearly the roller coaster that, say, the Miami Heat are.
So the Bulls aren't as inconsistent as it seems on the surface, but this isn't taking into account the strength of who they're beating and who they're losing to. The Bulls are beating the really good teams and losing to bad teams.
What is different about the Bulls when they lose? Is it a structural thing in the way the team is composed, or is it the manner in which they are coached?
Looking at what the Bulls do differently in wins versus losses is the best way to look at it. The first thing that jumps out is that the Bulls score 13.6 more points per game in wins than in losses, the fourth most inconsistent team, while surrendering only 6.2 more points in losses, making theirs the fourth most consistent defense.
Even the difference in defense can be traced to an issue from the offense. The Bulls give up 16.5 fast-break points in losses, and only 10.1 more points off of fast breaks in wins. That's a difference of 6.4 points, which is actually a smidgen more than the difference in total points given up.
The reason they give up more fast-break points in losses is directly derived from their offensive woes. When the Bulls are winning they tend to work the ball inside, get points close to the rim and get back on defense. When they lose, they have trouble getting the ball inside and settle for long twos, which then careen out past their frontcourt and end up in the hands of the defense, who run fast breaks.
Longer missed shots result in longer missed rebounds, which result in more fast-break points.
When the Bulls win, they average 11.8 makes on 29.0 attempts from mid-range (between the paint and the three-point line). When they lose, they average only 9.9 makes on 29.7 attempts. That's 2.6 more misses from long two.
The Bulls also make only 4.0 attempts on 14.1 attempts from three in losses compared to 5.2 makes on 12.4 attempts in losses. That's 2.9 more long rebounds.
Those 5.5 more long rebounds account for more fast-break points for their opponents.
They also mean fewer points on the Bulls' end, but 5.5 more misses from deep doesn't equate to the 13 fewer points per game they score on offense. It does, however, account for the bulk of them.
The rest comes form the Bulls getting 6.1 fewer free-throw attempts, which can again be derived from the Bulls not getting the ball into the paint as often. Technically they do take 1.7 more field-goal attempts inside the restricted area, but bear in mind that most shooting fouls happen at the rim, meaning that is a bit misleading.
When a player goes to the rim and misses a shot, it's not charged as a field-goal attempts. So the Bulls are actually scoring more off of getting to the rim and getting more of their possessions inside the rim when they are winning.
This confluence of not getting the ball inside and settling for longer twos and or bad threes is the primary cause for the difference in the Bulls between wins and losses. While this is a statistical analysis, most who have watched the Bulls consistently will agree this is the problem.
So is this problem foundational or operational? Is it the way the team is constructed or the way the players are utilized?
Most teams, especially winning teams, have a player who can drive the lane and break down defenses. It's the most difficult thing to do in basketball, and that's why players who can do that are stars.
Whether it's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony or Derrick Rose, the players who can penetrate off the dribble and collapse a defense are the ones who are superstars.
Rose is one of the best in the game (if not the best in the game) at creating shots for himself. Perhaps only LeBron James is his equal right now when it comes to having both the ability to penetrate and get to the basket and find the open man with the pass.
Westbrook may be the equal in terms of penetrating to the lane, but not the passer. Chris Paul might be a better passer, but he does not have the ability to drive through traffic and finish at the rim. As a dual talent, Rose and James are alone.
That's why they are the only two active players to have both 2,000 points and 600 assists in a season.
When you have that kind of player, they can rescue a team from icy shooting. They create shots for themselves and others.
The problem is those players are rare. Teams that don't have them settle for long twos and threes. No one understands this more than Tom Thibodeau, it's the paradigm of his defense. Force long twos and challenge them.
So certainly the fact that the Bulls are relying too much on long twos and have the lowest percent of their points of any team in the NBA come from threes is not a matter of coaching. That would entail Tom Thibodeau knowingly coaching them to play stupid ball.
They also have the highest percentage of their field goals assisted. This is Thibodeau's way of trying to compensate for the lack of a shot creator. He tries to swing the ball around the perimeter, make the defense move to the ball and work the ball inside through the passing game. It just doesn't always work.
The Bulls have probably maximized the wins they can get from the roster they have without Rose. In fact, it's fair to say that most people felt the Bulls would be nowhere near where they are right now. Thibodeau has maximized what he can get out of a roster, which has proven to be better than expected.
Their struggles are an issue of personnel, not coaching. They just don't have the player on their roster who can break down defenses when the team grows ice cold.