Breaking Down the Numbers Behind Chicago Bulls' Most Effective Lineups

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Breaking Down the Numbers Behind Chicago Bulls' Most Effective Lineups
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When we break down the numbers behind the Chicago Bulls' most effective lineups, the results are compelling as well as illuminating.

Looking at lineups is different from looking at players. Looking at players tells you how individuals perform; lineups tell you how groups perform. Sometimes a group may be greater than the sum of its parts, and sometimes it may be less.

Looking at lineups can also reveal which players might have hidden impacts that don’t show up in box scores. They can account for defense, tell you which groupings give you the most offense, the best rebounding and so on.

Let’s take a look at how the various lineups have played this year.

 

Minutes

First, let’s look at the lineups with the most minutes. Here are all the lineups with at least 40 minutes played this season.

The most striking thing about this is the brevity of the minutes. While Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have both played heavy minutes per game, their own injuries, as well as the injuries of the others in the starting lineup, have made it difficult for the Bulls to give their starting five significant playing time.

Their starting five (not counting Rose) has only played 429 minutes this year.

When you compare that with the rosters of teams who have been able to stay mostly healthy this year, it’s apparent how many issues there are. The Thunder's starting lineup leads the league. They have 1292.7 minutes played. That’s three times more minutes than the Bulls' most frequent lineup.

The Bulls have had 14 different starting lineups this year, and none have been the result of a promotion. The lineup with the most wins is Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton, Deng, Carlos Boozer and Noah. The Bulls are 17-8 when they start.

The lineup with the best winning percentage is Hinrich, Butler, Deng, Boozer and Nazr Mohammed, who are 5-2 together, a winning percentage of .714.

 

Offensive Rating

The problem with just looking at starting lineups and records is that it can overlook who the “bench” is. When the starters are replaced by bench players, players further down the bench take more time in the rotation.

Sometimes you look at the missing starter and you think the difference in performance is between the starter and the backup. Actually it’s the difference between the starter and the third-team player that matters, because that’s the player who is really replacing the bulk of the starter’s minutes. The backup would be getting most of his minutes anyway.

So another thing that can be helpful is looking at what the lineups do when they are playing together.

Here they are based on offensive rating, which is how many points they score per 100 possessions. They are still in order of how many minutes they play.

What’s striking here, and the point to notice, isn’t so much that the “best” lineup is the Marco Belinelli, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah lineup that appears at the bottom. It’s that in all the above-average lineups, two of the threesome of Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Belinelli are represented.

When that trio is in the lineup together, the Bulls are at their best offensively, scoring 109.1 points per 100 possessions. If the Bulls need to score a lot of points fast, their best bet is to send them out.

 

Defensive Rating

What do they do if they need to get some stops, though? Here’s a look at defensive ratings.

You can see, not surprisingly, that when you look at the better lineups, you see the names, Noah, Deng and Gibson popping up a lot. They represent the Bulls' best defensive trio, and when those three are on the court, the Bulls give up just 92.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s the equivalent of one full standard deviation, represented by the blue line.

The other thing worth observing is the lowest and highest numbers share three common players: Deng, Butler and Noah. When you add Robinson and Boozer to those three, you get a really bad defense. When you add in Hinrich and Gibson, you get a downright selfish defense that gives up 74.7 points per 100 possessions. When the Bulls need a stop, that’s the quintet they need to send out.

 

Net Rating

So what about both offense and defense? Here’s a look at how players are in net rating, which is the net difference in scoring per 100 possessions.

Overall, it seems that the best rotations include Noah and Deng, though most of the time when Butler is substituted for Deng, you either get no difference, or improvement on the Butler end.

The best three-man group the Bulls have is Butler, Gibson and Noah. They are a net plus-17.1 when they are on the court together.

The other thing that really pops out about this, and why a chart can be helpful, is the visual representation of the Bulls' inconsistency. They have lineups that are really good and really bad, but not too many that are “meh.” It seems they are either dominating or getting dominated, which is actually what watching them feels like.

 

Conclusions

There are three things we can take home from this little foray into lineup analysis.

First, the Bulls should be starting Butler, even after everyone is healthy. He’s established himself as the best defensive shooting guard the Bulls have and the best offensive option they have. Looking at the lineups reveals that the team is better on both sides of the ball when he’s in.

Second, the team is a lot better on offense when Nate Robinson is playing. His numbers are also much better in reserve mode than as a starter. In fact, by calculating the numbers for players coming off the bench, (minimum 1,000 minutes) Robinson is second in the NBA per 36 minutes. Here are the top 10 scorers, along with their passing and rebound stats.

Player

PTS/36

AST/36

TRB/36

Jamal Crawford

20.3

3.0

2.0

Nate Robinson

20.2

6.0

3.3

Ben Gordon

19.7

3.3

3.0

Marcus Thornton

19.6

1.8

3.8

Andray Blatche

19.2

2.0

9.5

Gordon Hayward

19.2

3.7

3.9

J.R. Smith

19.2

2.9

5.6

Ramon Sessions

19.1

5.0

3.7

Ryan Anderson

19.0

1.4

7.3

Vince Carter

18.5

3.2

5.6

 

Robinson also shoots a lot better off the bench (.486 effective field-goal percentage starting compared to .518 in reserve).

The Bulls are a better team letting Hinrich run with starters, but having Robinson step in when they struggle offensively.

Third, Gibson’s hidden value is apparent. When he’s on the court, he makes players better. He’s worth every dime of his contract. It seems he is invariably in the best lineups.

Overall, it’s apparent that this team would be an outstanding team if they could just stay healthy. It would be interesting to see how these numbers might change if they weren’t always playing with two players hurt and another one hobbled.

It would be even more interesting to see what would happen if Derrick Rose returned.   

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