Is that because Deng was dealt or it is mere coincidence?
Before addressing that argument, let’s be clear. We’re talking about only the offense here. There is no question that the defense—and the team as a whole—was better with Deng.
According to NBA.com (subscription required), the Bulls were outscored by 6.1 points per 100 possessions with Deng on the bench and outscored the opposition by 2.2 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court. That’s an 8.3-point difference, so without question, the team was better with him.
However, is the offense better now? More importantly, does it matter for the future if the defense is giving up more points anyway?
Why Is the Offense More Efficient?
There is no question of “whether” the offense is more efficient or not. Even with Deng on the court, the Bulls' offensive rating was 97.9. Overall, it was just 96.3. Since the trade, it’s been 99.2. That’s a bump of nearly three points.
Let’s stipulate that singular-causation reasoning is the biggest reason IQ points are lost on the Internet. To merely ascribe the offensive differences to just Deng being traded is silly. There are many things that go into the mix.
D.J. Augustin has emerged since Deng was traded. The roster has stabilized, with fewer injuries impacting the Bulls. The schedule has been easier.
I discuss all these things at greater length here.
There are also things that work in favor of Deng’s time, such as the shooting woes of Jimmy Butler since returning from his turf toe injury and especially for the first 10 games after the trade, when Butler was trying to step up into a new role while playing hurt.
Over that stretch, Butler shot just .310 from the field and .174 from three. His true shooting percentage was just .396. That kind of horrendous shooting definitely had a negative impact on the Bulls' offensive efficiency.
On the bright side, he’s looking better of late, averaging 15.7 points per game with a true shooting percentage of .566 over his last six.
So, there is still the possibility that a part of the equation is the departure of Deng. How does a team lose its leading scorer and improve on offense?
The answer is in balance and possessions. Sometimes, the most damaging thing a team can do is try and make someone a go-to guy when he isn't one.
More than anything, basketball is a game of possessions. Both teams will typically have the ball the same number of times and the team which averages the most points per possession will win the game. Ergo, the key to good offense isn’t to score a lot but to score efficiently.
This is where advanced stats can really help. Usage percentage tells what percentage of the time a player uses a possession. Turnover percentage tracks how many times per 100 possessions a player turns the ball over. Assist percentage reveals what percentage of the time a player assists on his teammate’s field goals.
Finally, true shooting percentage takes into account two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throws to determine how efficiently a player uses the possessions that end in scoring opportunities.
Prior to leaving, Deng had had a usage percentage of 24.9. He was also averaging 19.0 points per game, with a true shooting percentage of .536, a turnover percentage of 12.6 and an assist percentage of 11.9.
Since the 1977-78 season—as far back as such stats can be measured—only 48 players have used possessions that often with results that inefficient. Deng’s not on the list there because his Cleveland stats are included.
Now, here’s the kicker. This year’s version of Carlos Boozer is also on that list.
In other words, the Bulls offense prior to Deng leaving spent too much time trying to force the ball to Deng and Boozer, who aren't very productive at scoring the ball, were prone to turning it over and weren't typically doing a great job of passing the ball out either.
Put that together, and it amounts to a lot of bad possessions because the Bulls were trying too hard to go to their "go-to" players.
Since the trade, the Bulls have been forced to share the ball more. Prior to the trade, they had an assist percentage as a team of 63.4. Since the trade, they've had 66.3 percent of their field goals come off assists, the second-highest percentage in the NBA during that span.
As a result of their passing, their true shooting percentage as a team has risen from 50.4 percent to 50.9 percent. That’s still not great, but it’s better.
It’s easier for defenses to focus on one player than it is on five, especially if the one player is not a gifted shot-creator.
Part of the reason that the Bulls offense is getting better without Deng is completely counterintuitive: Chicago is actually so bad that it's getting better. Not being able to rely on any one person means the team is relying on everyone, and that actually works better in this case.
The Bulls are simply finding the player with the best shot via the pass. Because they’re neither great shooters as a team nor great shot-creators, they’re still bad, but they’re slightly less bad.
Does It Really Matter If the Defense Is Worse Too?
You might ask, quite reasonably, "What difference does it make if the defense is also worse?" The reason it matters is that there are more chances for the defense to improve without Deng than there are for the offense to improve with Deng.
Since the trade, the defense has been pretty stellar when the starters are in, yielding only 85.2 points per 100 possessions. When D.J. Augustin is running with the starters instead of Kirk Hinrich, the defense gives up more, but it’s still a relatively stingy 96.9.
Either way, it shows that the defensive problems are with the bench and not the starters.
While Butler is technically the replacement for Deng, that’s only partly true. Butler was starting already. Mike Dunleavy was Deng’s backup and has slid into the other starting wing role. However, he was already logging solid minutes.
The player who has really picked up his playing time is Tony Snell, so that’s where it’s worth taking a look.
Thibodeau runs one of the most complex and demanding systems in the league. Especially with a rookie like Snell, it takes time to learn how to play in it. As he gains experience in the system, the Bulls should improve.
That’s already proving true.
Prior to Deng being traded, the Bulls' defensive rating was 101.2 with Snell on the court. Since then, it’s been 98.0. That’s an indication that he’s not only playing more, but he’s playing better on defense.
He has good defensive instincts and great length with a 6’11.5” wingspan. He’s the type of player that Thibodeau can turn into a great defender, and he’s already doing so. Snell still makes mistakes and is late on assignments from time to time. He looks like he’s trying to process the system instead of just reacting.
As he adjusts, though, you see the processing time getting shorter. He’s making the transition from “Microsoft minutes” to real minutes.
Deng’s upside had been reached. Snell’s hasn’t been. Eventually, it’s reasonable to believe that the defense will improve too. Certainly, a defensively viable Snell, with his pure stroke, will fit well alongside Derrick Rose when he returns again next season.
Some might view this as a slam on Deng; it’s not. As previously mentioned, this is not to suggest that the Bulls are a better team because they traded Deng. They aren’t.
However, they are a more balanced team, and that’s leading to more efficient scoring. As Snell’s defense catches up, they could actually become a better team in a year or two—particularly since he’ll be growing more comfortable and growing up on offense as well.
When you factor in the cap space saved, the protected Sacramento Kings first-round pick they gained and the potential for Snell to shine, the early indications are that the Bulls won the Deng trade.
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