The Chicago Bulls are off to a rocky yet surprisingly successful start through the first quarter of the 2015-16 NBA season. Some things had fans yelling for joy, and there were also plenty of reasons to holler with frustration.
The Bulls are currently riding a four-game winning streak. It comes on the heels of a three-game losing streak that involved horrific fourth-quarter meltdowns. So, depending on what streak you want to ponder, your feelings may sway from one moment to the next.
They have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, but they are also only eighth in point differential and only two games out of missing the playoffs entirely in a surprisingly competitive conference.
The Bulls have beaten two of the three best teams in the league: the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers. They also got crushed by the Charlotte Hornets and lost—at home—to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
So, depending on your disposition, it’s easy to find things to gloat over and/or whine about.
There are three things, though, which we can lift from all the noise that are genuine bright spots for the Bulls this season and bode well for postseason success.
It’s hard to believe that the narrative heading into the season was how the Bulls were exchanging defense for offense. Instead, the offense is worse than last year's offense, but the defense has actually improved.
With new head coach Fred Hoiberg taking over the team because of his offensive acumen, the attention was all put on that end of the court. When Hoiberg announced Joakim Noah would be coming off the bench in place of Nikola Mirotic, the rhetoric got louder.
Chicago was selling its defensive soul for a few extra points.
But in one of the least-heralded signings of this summer, the Bulls acquired Jim Boylen as their assistant head coach to run the defense. Boylen had the same responsibilities for the Spurs from 2013 to 2015. Since Boylen was hired by the Spurs, they have had the best defense in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Before coaching for the Spurs, he was the architect of the Indiana Pacers defense. The Pacers had the fifth-best defense over the two-year span he was there and were ranked No.1 in defense during his last season with them.
|Teams With a Sub-100 Defensive Rating since 2011-12|
*Denotes Boylen's involvement, directly or indirectly.
In the last five years, seven teams have had a defensive rating below 100. Through Boylen's remaining impact after leaving, he has either directly or indirectly had a hand in four of them.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Bulls’ defensive rating is not only currently No. 2—it’s better than it was in all but the second year under former coach and defensive guru, Tom Thibodeau. And the Bulls are getting even on the defensive end too, having held each of their last four opponents to fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions.
The following chart shows the Bulls' offensive and defense rating for each game. The trend lines show a marked improvement for the defensive rating (the red one) and a slight improvement on the offensive side (the black one).
Their offense has struggled, but it is improving slightly. There are some small indicators that, while still early, could be pointing in the right direction. Derrick Rose is shooting 46.9 percent in the three full games since he unmasked himself. That’s not good, but it’s not killing the team anymore either, particularly since his minutes per game have dropped to 32.4 percent.
Not donating possessions to the opposition by way of missed shots is a great way to improve an offense. And—at least in part—as a result, the Bulls’ offensive rating has been 104.2 since Rose started playing bare-faced based on NBA.com’s version of the stat (which, because they calculate possessions slightly differently than Basketball-Reference, should not get conflated with the chart above).
The Bulls defense is stellar once again, and the offense is quietly improving. But eventually, it will have to be much better for the team to be a deep playoff threat. The important thing is—the defense is good enough to sustain the team until the offense gets worked out. And there is hope for that on the horizon.
The New Rotation
On Dec. 9 Hoiberg decided it was time to switch things up in the starting lineup. But it wasn’t Noah who moved back into it. It was Taj Gibson. That has been paying off for both the first and second units.
Since then, the Bulls starting five have a net rating of 13.3 over 81 minutes. That includes a 76.9 defensive rating.
And it’s not just the starters who have prospered; the move has also helped the bench. Over the last five games, when Noah was on the court with Doug McDermott, Kirk Hinrich and Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls had an offensive rating of 108.8 and a defensive rating of 76.0. Swap out Aaron Brooks for Hinrich, and those numbers become 103.8 and 65.7.
With the bench unit, Noah is finding his place and starting to touch on some of that All-NBA form that landed him fourth in MVP voting during the 2013-14 season—especially his passing.
Noah’s 23 assists in the recent spate led the Bulls. And he’s found Mirotic and McDermott with them. The duo was 15-of-33 from the field and 9-of-14 from deep off Noah’s passes.
Here's a look at the shot chart with the foursome on the court:
In particular, the numbers for Doug McDermott are intriguing. He has already scored more than twice as many points this year as he did in all of his rookie season. And he's gotten points in all kinds of ways, from knock-down three-point shooting (45.8 percent) to layups and cuts to floaters.
The problem has been that McDermott gives up a bucket for every one he makes, but having had Noah there to back him up has elevated him from awful to hideable on defense. Since the rotations changed, McDermott is plus-35. Prior to it, he was minus-33.
Hoiberg’s toying with the rotations seems to be finding the right combinations, and it’s helping the Bulls win.
Jimmy Is Still Getting Buckets
Jimmy Butler gets buckets. He got enough of them last season to win the 2014-15 Kia NBA Most Improved Player Award. But there’s always a concern after a player wins that accolade that the next year will bring about a regression.
Goran Dragic saw his player efficiency rating drop from 21.4 to 17.4 after he received the award in 2013-14. Ryan Anderson’s PER went from 21.2 to 18.1 following his in 2011-12. And Aaron Brooks’ PER sank from 16.0 to 13.1 after he won the honors in 209.1.
Butler, though, has still improved his performance. His PER is down slightly, from 21.3 to 20.7, but that’s a negligible difference.
During Butler’s MIP year, a little-discussed secret was that his defense for much of the season wasn’t quite as good as it had been because of the extra energy spent on the offensive end. According to ESPN.com, Butler’s defensive real plus-minus was plus-1.23 in 2013-14. Then it fell to plus-0.43 last season.
This year, though, it’s back up to plus-1.56, which is the best of any shooting guard with 500 or more minutes. His offensive real plus-minus is a stout 3.24, second among shooting guards—behind only James Harden.
As the following chart demonstrates, Butler is now comfortably the best two-way shooting guard in the game.
The Bulls most certainly still have kinks to work out, and there will be some more hair-pulling moments from them this season. But there will be more things to cheer about. If they can keep playing defense and getting the most out of their depth while Butler continues his rise to stardom, they will be a very real threat come the playoffs.