The Chicago Bulls have been making a run to close the season, and in doing so, they have generated a good deal of excitement as spoilers. But, under the surface of that winning, there are cracks in the foundation that could just as easily ruin their postseason.
With such things, it can seem there is a contradiction where none exists. The chance that the Bulls could get upset in the first round doesn’t preclude them from upsetting someone in the second round should they survive the first.
Often, the NBA playoffs are determined by matchups. Sometimes, a weaker team is better equipped to exploit certain flaws than a stronger one might be. For example, the Indiana Pacers have played the Miami Heat well because of their size inside.
Opponents can mar the Bulls’ hopes by exploiting their weaknesses.
The Bulls’ flaws are structural and can’t be remedied without addressing the roster. Those flaws will exist in the postseason, and if opponents can expose them, the Bulls may end up being nothing more than a steak dinner for a hungry contender.
Elite Point Guard Play
The Bulls should see an opponent’s elite point guard play as a pressing concern. The Bulls have been most susceptible to point guards having big games, and when that happens, the Bulls are more likely to lose.
Per NBAstuffer.com, game score is a “simple and linear version of player efficiency rating.” It measures a single game’s performance. An average game score is 10. Let’s call a “big game” 150 percent of that, or 15.
Per Basketball-Reference.com, there have been a total of 3,400 big games this season in the NBA. That amounts to 113.3 per team. The Bulls have given up just 79 of them. Those performances have come in 54 games, and Chicago’s record in them is 26-28.
That player has been a point guard 23 times. Here is the breakdown of big-game performances by opponent’s positions.
As you can see, the Bulls struggle more against point guards than any position. (Side note: Joakim Noah, wow!)
Wall has clobbered the Bulls in their two contests this season, averaging 21 points and nine assists. He has posted two of those 15-plus game scores: 16.9 on Jan. 13 and 21.2 on Jan. 17. The Wizards won both of those games.
The problem is guys like Wall are big and fast. The Bulls can either go big with Kirk Hinrich or fast with D.J. Augustin, but they can’t do both.
If the Bulls square off with the Wizards in the first round, Wall could give them a ton of trouble and even cost them the series.
When Noah Sits
When Luol Deng was traded on Jan. 6, Noah became the focus of the offense, and the Bulls started to climb. There’s a dilemma, though. Noah can’t play 48 minutes a game.
And that raises the problem of the almost-automatic run by the opponent. It seems like every game, as soon as Noah goes to the bench, Chicago’s foe takes over.
So what happens in the third quarter? In two words: Noah sits.
In raw numbers, according to the media side of NBA.com/Stats (account required), this is what it looks like in numbers.
|Noah on Bench||89.3||110.2||-20.8||13.9||46.3%||49.7%||37.6%|
|Noah on Court||100.2||92.7||7.5||20.2||52.8%||52.4%||58.0%|
There is a difference of 28.3 in the net rating when Noah sits in the third quarter. The offense just disappears. It scores 11 points fewer per 100 possessions. Scoring efficiency falls off a cliff, with the team’s true shooting percentage plunging nearly 6 percent.
And it’s not like the Bulls don’t miss Noah on defense, either. Opponents’ second-chance points more than double, from 7.9 to 16.7 per 48 minutes. Points allowed off turnovers jumps from 15.1 to 24.0. Points given up in the paint goes from 32.3 to 46.6.
In sum, the moment Noah sits in the third quarter, the Bulls collapse.
Where this could become especially problematic for the Bulls is in the second round, should they get there. Any chance of being a spoiler is contingent on them not collapsing in the third quarter. The Indiana Pacers are the best in the NBA during that frame at plus-14.5, and the Miami Heat aren’t far behind. They are third with a plus-8.8.
The last five minutes of the game won’t matter if the contest is already over. If the Bulls are getting clobbered in the third, it won’t matter what happens in the clutch, because there will be no clutch to matter.
I like to joke on Twitter that two of the three best defenses in the league are the Bulls and whoever is playing the Bulls.
Chicago’s offense is weak and often struggles. I’m not denying that. Even with Noah running it, it’s only “climbed” to the 26th “most efficient” offense in the league. But, here’s a tidbit for you:
The last team to shoot worse than the Bulls’ .469 effective field-goal percentage and match their .573 winning percentage was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, who also won the NBA title. That goes to show, you don’t have to have a great offense to win a ‘ship.
In many ways, it’s a problem that is overstated. After all, you only have to score more points than your opponent does, and the Bulls are an elite defensive team. Losing is a bear, and as the joke goes, I don’t have to outrun the bear—I only have to outrun you.
Many have speculated that because of their offensive problems, clutch-scoring will be an issue for the Bulls come playoff time. The facts say something entirely different. Here are the team’s clutch numbers since Deng was traded.
|San Antonio Spurs||14||54||11||3||0.786||125.7||98.7||27.0||70.30%|
|Los Angeles Clippers||22||62||15||7||0.682||125.3||98.6||26.7||72.50%|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||19||75||11||8||0.579||114.7||96.0||18.7||57.00%|
|Golden State Warriors||21||90||12||9||0.571||115.8||105.6||10.2||56.50%|
|New Orleans Pelicans||27||104||14||13||0.519||108.2||108.2||-0.1||51.90%|
|Portland Trail Blazers||22||93||11||11||0.500||111.5||108.2||3.3||54.70%|
|New York Knicks||16||78||8||8||0.500||96.9||110.8||-13.9||38.50%|
|Los Angeles Lakers||19||50||7||12||0.368||109.6||119.6||-10.0||48.10%|
The Bulls have the best defense, the best net rating and the best player impact estimate (PIE) of any team in that period. Most importantly, they have the best winning percentage. The Bulls aren’t just a good team in the clutch. They are the best team in the clutch.
Their offensive rating is not special, and they’re still only 19th, but their defensive rating is surreal at 75.4. The Memphis Grizzlies, the second-best defense in the clutch, give up nearly 10 more points per 100 possessions. Only four teams are even within 20 of the Bulls.
The Bulls’ remarkable clutch play shows up on the individual end too. Among players who have averaged at least 2.5 minutes per clutch game and have 20 qualifying contests, the Bulls have four players in the top 35 in PIE. Augustin is fourth, Mike Dunleavy Jr. is 12th, Taj Gibson is 34th and Noah is 35th.
This may be the proof that team ball, the antithesis of “hero ball,” is a better clutch strategy. The seven winningest clutch teams combined have two players with a usage percentage above 30 in the clutch: Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers and Tony Parker with the San Antonio Spurs. Both of them are also more than willing passers.
It is interesting that in spite of the evidence that “hero ball” doesn’t work, the Bulls would be chided for not having the necessary “hero” to run it, even though, since Deng was traded, they’re the NBA’s most successful team in the clutch. It may be to their benefit that they don’t have a hero. (But you still have to love this.)
The Bulls offense can be problematic, but as previously stated, those flaws rear up in the third quarter, not the end of the fourth. In that regard, they’ve been just fine.
The Bulls can be exploited if they hit the wrong matchup or if teams can hit them in their third-quarter soft spot.
Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls head coach, can make some tweaks to help. The problems, though, are more than schematic—they are foundational. He can’t make Hinrich run faster or Agustin grow bigger. He can’t get a new and improved backup center a week before the season ends to make the Bulls less vulnerable when Noah sits.
If opponents can pick at those faults, they can spoil the Bulls’ chances of being spoilers—or even worse—make them spoils.