The Chicago Bulls have a lot of problems, which is why they’re currently sitting in ninth in the East, looking up at the playoffs.
Not all of these wrong things are fixable. But some are, and if the Bulls can rectify those things, then maybe they can make some noise once the games really matter.
That, of course, is provided they’re actually in the playoffs—and that destiny is very much in their own hands. They have remaining games against several Eastern Conference playoff teams, including one at the Indiana Pacers on March 29 and a home game against the Detroit Pistons on April 2.
If they don’t win those two, then they will be fishing the day after the season ends.
Some—such as Today's Fastbreak's Morten Jensen—might argue that’s the best thing, but that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we’ll look at the things the Bulls can do to make the playoffs this year and kick up some dust once they get there.
1. Get Doug McDermott the Ball
If there is a bright spot regarding the Bulls' recent play, it’s Doug McDermott's pure fire since the All-Star break—or, more accurately, the second game back from it.
He had a breakout performance against the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 19 in which he scored 30 points on 17 shots. From that game forward, he’s been incredibly efficient, shooting 50.3 percent from the field, 46.4 percent from deep and 89.7 percent from the stripe. That’s very close to "50-40-90 club" potential.
Ten of the 13 highest-scoring games of his career have come since the start of February, yet there will inexplicably be games where he doesn’t get many minutes or his teammates won’t get him the ball.
According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, though, that is improving.
Asked McDermott if film session showed time he was alone waving arms on weakside after going 4-4 from 3.Said no but team recognizing better— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 22, 2016
For years, the Bulls have needed a truly reliable scorer off the bench. McDermott can fit that bill. He is a deep threat who can make lanes open up for Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose.
He’s getting the confidence now to shoot, but his teammates need to make a concerted effort to give him the ball as much as possible.
2. Show Consistent Effort When Defensive Rebounding
You’ll often hear how the Bulls are one of the better rebounding teams in the league. And if you check the team leaders in rebounds per game, it certainly looks that way. The Bulls are second at 46.9.
But here’s the problem with that. Rebounds are a product of rebound opportunities—lots of missed shots—and the Bulls have 87.1 of those. That’s because the Bulls own the fourth-worst effective field-goal percentage while also holding their opponents to the third-worst mark.
One other aspect tracked at NBA.com is “adjusted rebound chance percentage,” which is the percentage of recovered ricochets a team collects when a player is within 3 ½ feet of the ball. In that regard, the Bulls are 22nd in the league at 66.0 percent.
What’s more, they’re particularly bad at defensive rebounds, where they are just 25th in adjusted defensive rebound chance percentage at 73.5.
As a result of their poor defensive rebounding, the Bulls are giving up the second-most second-chance points per game (14.4). And based on their game log, there’s a distinct correlation between their defensive rating and defensive rebound percentage.
The chart below indicates the Bulls' defensive rebounding percentage (the blue line across the middle is the league average of 76.3 percent) and defensive rating for each game. Green dots denote wins, while red dots indicate losses.
As demonstrated by the trendline, the more the Bulls struggle recovering forced misses, the worse their defense gets.
In fact, during the 21 games where they’ve been above average in both defensive rebound percentage and effective field-goal percentage against, they’re 15-6. The problem is, while they’ve been better than average in defending their basket 50 times this season, they’ve only been better than average 30 times in grabbing missed opponents' shots.
This indicates that, contrary to popular opinion, the Bulls’ struggle isn’t so much on defense. It’s with recovering the ball once they force the miss, and they can remedy that with focus and effort.
3. Line Up Their Stars
The Bulls have a Big Three of sorts in Butler, Rose and Pau Gasol. The problem is that they can barely get all three on the court and playing well together at the same time.
While some of that may be due to chemistry, a lot of it also has to do with continuity. They just haven’t had all three healthy that much. For example, when Rose was recovering from his broken eye socket and was shooting horribly, Butler was playing well.
Rose has gotten things going since the break, averaging 20 points, 5.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 52.4 percent from the field, 48.3 percent from three and 81.1 percent from the stripe. He has a 55.8 effective field goal percentage and 58.5 percent true shooting percentage. That's a long way from the struggles he had at the beginning the season.
It's amazing how much better you can shoot when you only see one basket.
Now that Rose is playing better, though, Butler missed time with an injury and is struggling. And he’s not shying away from that fact.
"Yeah," he said, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell. "You see the way I've been playing lately. It's saddening. It's piss-poor. It's terrible. My teammates won't say it, my coaches won't say it, but I'm a realist. If I continue to play like this, I'm hurting this team."
Gasol has been the most consistent starter, but he’s laid a few eggs and missed some games himself.
The following chart shows the "Game Score" of each player by date. As you can see, the times where the three play well together are even rarer than when they actually play.
But the good news is when they do play well as a unit, they actually win. When Rose, Gasol and Butler have combined for a Game Score total of 40 or higher, the Bulls are 14-6. But the three have all played in just 43 of the team’s 69 games, going 23-20 in the process.
They finally have all three healthy. Now they just need to get all of them on track.
Even if they do all that, the Bulls' playoff prognosis is not strong. Fortunately, everyone in the East has flaws—even the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is as much of a free-for-all as it’s ever been.
So the Bulls do have a chance to do something. But they have to start doing it now.