Quarter-Season Grades for Each Chicago Bulls Player
The Chicago Bulls have been dreadfully erratic this season. They began the year with a surprisingly positive 8-4 record, then sped toward disaster by losing three of their next five. They recovered by trouncing the Cleveland Cavaliers but followed that up one night later by losing to the league-worst Dallas Mavericks.
The Bulls have a 14-14 record, but it’s almost as if they are two teams: One is 14-0 and the other is 0-14.
With the season over a quarter of the way through, it’s time to look at each player and evaluate his performance. Since inconsistency has been the major theme this season, consistency will be one of the primary factors in grading, along with overall performance compared to expectations. Players are listed by order of importance, last to first.
15. R.J. Hunter, SG
The Bulls acquired R.J. Hunter after the Boston Celtics waived him before the season started. The No. 28 pick in 2015's draft has only logged nine minutes in three games with the Bulls, piling up one missed field goal and a rebound.
He has played five contest with Chicago’s D-League affiliate, the Windy City Bulls, where he’s averaged 18.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.0 steals per game, according to RealGM.com. Unless there’s an injury, he’s unlikely to find a place in the rotation this year.
14. Paul Zipser, SF/PF
Paul Zipser was Chicago's second-round pick this year. He hasn’t seen much action during the regular season; the German has three points, 10 rebounds and four assists in 46 minutes. Yet he also played one game with Windy City where he scored 13 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
He played more in the preseason, during which he flashed a fluid shooting stroke, adept passing and a surprisingly complete game for a rookie. From what we’ve seen, he also seems to have a good basketball head on his shoulders. He could develop into a solid rotation piece. But he’s not one yet.
13. Michael Carter-Williams, PG
There is not much to say about Michael Carter-Williams based on the 15 minutes he played this season, except that maybe he’s gotten a lot “better” since he got injured if you’re paying attention to the local TV broadcast or my Twitter feed. MCW is a solid defender and a capable passer, but he is not going to save Christmas.
The biggest problem Chicago has is a lack of outside shooting, and Carter-Williams is 25.6 percent from deep for his career. It may be that he’ll be a better table-setter for Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic, who are below their career averages, but that’s the most we can hope for.
12. Bobby Portis, PF/C
Probably the most disappointing aspect of Chicago's season is that Bobby Portis not only has failed to improve, he's regressed. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his per-36 numbers went from 14.2 points and 11.0 rebounds to 12.4 points and 10.0 rebounds. His player efficiency rating dropped from 13.8 to 12.5.
The Bulls give up 107.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court, the worst of any player on the team, per NBA.com. And that’s no trickeration of the numbers: He’s a mess on defense, loping about like a lost gazelle, especially when he’s showing high on the pick-and-roll.
11. Denzel Valentine, SF
Denzel Valentine has not cracked the rotation consistently, though he’s had a few games where he received extended minutes. The rookie's “best” game of the season came when the Milwaukee Bucks were walloping Chicago; he notched six points, four rebounds and two assists in a shade under 22 minutes.
He seems like he can develop into a key rotation piece down the line; however, it looks like “solid reserve” is his ceiling. His shooting stroke (27.3 percent from two, 26.8 percent from three) has been disappointing, though his passing has been impressive. He sees the court, often setting up regular assists and hockey assists.
10. Isaiah Canaan, PG
The Bulls signed Canaan this offseason ostensibly for one reason: three-point shooting. He has done a miserable job of that, hitting just 25.6 percent from deep.
Without that, he has very little to offer. He’s a minus-defender and a subpar passer. As such, he’s mostly fallen out of the rotation with two healthy “DNPs" (did not play) for coach's decision in the last five games. The last contest he played in and had a plus differential on the court? Against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 26.
9. Jerian Grant, PG
Jerian Grant has a good argument for being the starting point guard, but that's a bad situation for the Bulls. All the options are horrible on offense, and Grant (11.2 points with a 39.0 effective field-goal percentage) is no exception.
However, Grant at least provides reasonably solid defense. According to SynergySportsTech.com, opponents average just .813 points per possession when he is the initial defender on the play, which puts him in the 77th percentile. According to ESPN.com, his plus-0.4 defensive real plus-minus is sixth out of 85 point guards.
The eye test shows him to be the most aware and consistent defender the Bulls have at the position. And his shot seems better (but not great) when he’s getting more minutes (50.1 true shooting percentage with 10-plus minutes, 21.0 percent in under 10 minutes).
8. Cristiano Felicio, C
Cristiano Felicio has the fifth-highest PER on the Bulls (15.3), the second-best win shares per 48 minutes (.148), and the seventh-best value over replacement player (0.1). His 17.5 rebound percentage also leads the team.
He appears to have leapfrogged Portis in the rotation, playing nearly twice as many minutes over the last 10 games (151 to 76). Hopefully, as the rotation stabilizes, he’ll continue to factor into it. He needs more consistency, but more playing time produces that.
7. Doug McDermott, SF
Doug McDermott had his season interrupted by a pair of concussions, which cost him 12 of the Bulls’ 28 games. There have been signs of improvement when he has been in, though.
His three-point shooting is a little off (32.6 percent), but we can expect improvement there. There’s nothing visibly different in his shot; it seems to have more to do with the concussion protocol causing rust. He was making 36.4 percent before he went out and has been shooting 35.7 percent over his last four games.
He’s probably going with a few too many pump fakes and drives. While he’s effective from two (52.8 percent), the Bulls really need his court stretching. His three-point attempt rate (the percentage of his shots that are from deep) is at a career low, and that’s more concerning.
His defense, while still below average, has improved dramatically. He’s giving up .932 points per possession this year, good for the 36th percentile, compared with .962 last year, which put him in the 14th percentile.
6. Nikola Mirotic, PF
Nikola Mirotic is streaky as always. When you look at his win/loss splits, it’s epiphany-level eye-opening. He averages 10.1 points and 6.8 rebounds with a 56.5 true shooting percentage when the Bulls win. When they lose, it's 7.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and a 45.7 true shooting percentage.
More compelling: Mirotic is plus-13.6 when the Bulls win and minus-17.3 when they lose. It appears his performance may have something to do with how they play as a whole. If they are “Team Inconsistency,” he is their mascot. So, he gets two grades.
Grades: B+ in wins/F in losses
5. Rajon Rondo, PG
It would be better for the Bulls if Rajon Rondo was running the second team. His primary virtue is that he’s a ball-handler who creates shots for others. But both Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler are better when they’re working with the ball than without it. That makes Rondo's placement with them counterproductive.
While he generates a lot of assists (7.3 per game) in his current role, they don’t seem to make much difference. His offensive real plus-minus (a measure of overall offensive impact) is minus-2.54. The only point guards who are worse are Isaiah Whitehead, Semaj Christon and Wade Baldwin IV.
If you’re wondering who those guys are, then that tells you everything you need to know.
Sure, he had one good game with a triple-double performance against Cleveland, but he has been miserable far more often. The Bulls are 6-4 when he has a “game score” of 10 or higher (the equivalent of an average game), but they’re 1-8 when it’s five or lower.
And he was suspended one game for throwing a tantrum at an assistant coach.
In other words, he doesn’t do much to help the Bulls win, even when he’s playing well. But he hurts them a lot when he’s playing badly. At best, he’s playing at the same level as Grant, but we know that Rondo’s not going to get better and there’s a good chance Grant can.
So why not play the guy with upside and who is a better fit in the starting lineup?
The Rondo signing didn’t make sense when it happened and it hasn’t made any more sense since.
4. Robin Lopez, C
Robin Lopez has been the most pleasant surprise on the Bulls this season. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 7.5 boards in 28.5 minutes per game. He’s consistently knocking down his hook shot (48-of-82). He’s also fourth in offensive rebounds (3.7).
He is contesting more shots (16.8) than anyone in the NBA and opponents are shooting 10.1 percentage points below their season average within six feet of the rim when he is the closest defender on the play. The Bulls defense is also 2.4 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits.
Best of all, he hasn’t attacked Benny the Bull yet.
If you were expecting more from him, your expectations were too high. Aside from Taj Gibson and Butler, he’s Chicago’s most consistent performer.
3. Dwyane Wade, SG
Dwyane Wade has had his moments for Chicago, and he’s a legitimate second threat on offense, particularly when there is shooting around him. But he’s also another problem the Bulls have had with consistency.
Overall, he’s averaging 19.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He’s made 25 threes on the season, which is his second-best mark since 2010-11—the first year the Big Three (Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh) assembled in Miami. So, that sounds good, right?
Here’s the catch: Four of those came during the season opener against Boston, five came against the New York Knicks on Nov. 4 and another five came against the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 19. Those 14 makes came on 26 attempts. Outside of those streaky ventures, he’s just 11-of-50 on the year. So “three-point Wade” was an aberration after all.
He’s also shooting just 46.8 percent from two, though that might be better if the Bulls had any shooting at all from outside.
Overall, Wade has been a positive influence. His 1.25 real plus-minus is 10th among shooting guards. And his veteran leadership is invaluable. For instance, he absorbed all the flak after the fans booed the Bulls for their performance against the Bucks, per Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:
I'm an honest guy. I was very disappointed our fans booed us. We're trying to figure it out. We win home games against Cleveland, San Antonio. And then we get our butts kicked against Milwaukee. I don't think we deserved to get booed. We're out here trying.
I'd like to see more patience and more support from everybody. Like I said at the beginning of the year, we're not winning a championship today. We're not winning a championship tomorrow. We got stages and levels to get where we want to get to. And everyone gotta understand that.
That leadership bumps him a full letter grade.
2. Taj Gibson
Taj Gibson is enjoying his best season as a pro.
His player efficiency rating of 17.6 is a career best. His averages in points, rebounds and steals are all either highs or second-highest. And his field-goal percentage is at 56.0, easily the best on the Bulls.
While some of that is due to his 68.8 shooting at the rim, he’s also shooting 48.8 percent (the league average is 40.0 percent) from the paint outside the restricted area and 41.8 percent (the league average is 39.7 percent) on twos outside the paint.
He’s doing all this while posting a plus-1.63 DRPM, 10th among power forwards.
At some point—if the Bulls front office reads the writing on the wall and has the realization this team is not going anywhere in the playoffs—they might start shopping him. And if they do, it’s hard to think of any big men who could potentially be on the market who are obtainable without upsetting team chemistry.
Not to mention, Gibson's contract is just so friendly at $8.5 million, so matching the dollars should be easy without a major overhaul.
1. Jimmy Butler, SF
While he’s cooled off a bit of late, Jimmy Butler has elevated his game yet again and is easily the Bulls' most important and best player, vaulting himself into one of the top-10 players in the league as well.
He's fourth in NBA win shares, fifth in win shares per 48 minutes and real plus-minus, eighth in VORP and 11th in box plus-minus and PER. He’s averaging 24.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 dimes. His true shooting percentage is 59.1.
And he’s doing all this with defenses keyed only on stopping him as he has no one to stretch the court for him most of the time.
If there’s anything you can fault him for, it’s pressing too hard in clutch situations. Opponents know they should crowd him and dare the rest of the team to beat them.
Butler has 46 points in 48 clutch minutes (with clutch defined as the score within five points and five minutes or left remaining in the game). But he’s shooting 32.4 percent, 25.0 percent from deep and only has four assists. He’s 21-of-22 from the stripe, so that elevates his true shooting percentage some, but there is room for more passing and less shooting.
Considering the team's lack of shooting and how much he does, that’s picking at nits, though. Even if it is a nit worth picking.