Ever since Derrick Rose first tore his ACL in the final minutes of the first game of a first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Chicago Bulls have been in a perpetual battle to get back to greatness.
The team had the best record in the NBA in consecutive years, from 2010-11 to 2011-12. Rose won the Most Valuable Player award, Tom Thibodeau was selected as Coach of the Year and the Bulls had both a Top 5 offense and defense – the hallmark of a championship team. With a relatively young core that had the best scoring margin over a two-year period, those Bulls are one of the most notable “what if?” teams in recent NBA history.
In 2012-13 and 2013-14, we saw two Bulls teams that were feel-good stories in the regular season, grinding opponents to a halt, and winning games with defense and what looked like sheer determination. Despite an inspired win in a 7-game series against the Nets, the team just didn’t have enough talent to compete in the playoffs.
With the addition of Pau Gasol during the summer of 2014, just by looking at the names on the roster, for many it seemed like the Bulls could have an outside shot to challenge the best teams and compete for a finals spot if Rose was healthy. And hey, if you get there, who knows what could happen? During the second round of the playoffs last season, Chicago was just seconds away from being up 3-1 against the Cavaliers, and this season the Bulls were picked by many analysts to be a serious challenger once again.
The problem is, the Bulls never truly were a title contender, nor are they today. Last season, the Bulls outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, a mark nowhere near the level of any team seriously in the hunt for a championship. The Gasol-Joakim Noah pairing never clicked offensively or defensively and Rose was in and out of the lineup and wasn’t effective when he played.
So far this season, they are even further away from the best teams in the league. The Bulls are 7th in the Eastern Conference with a 27-24 record, and have been outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions, which is right in line with a borderline playoff team. Noah is out for the year and Jimmy Butler is out for at least three weeks. Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell and Aaron Brooks – three rotation players – are shooting below 40 percent, a disaster in particular for Mirotic who was expected to have a breakout season.
The offense has been a mess. The Bulls have scored 100.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 25th in the NBA, just in front of the Phoenix Suns who are tanking for a lottery pick, and just below the Orlando Magic, who have lost 15 of their last 19 games. Analytically, this is pretty easy to understand since the Bulls have the second worst field goal percentage in the restricted area at 55.2 percent, they take the fourth most mid-range attempts and the third fewest corner three-pointers.
* How many corner three-pointers teams create and allow. X-axis = corner three-pointers taken. Y-axis = corner three-pointers given up
Among the starters, only Gasol is in the positive in the plus-minus column for the season, and the Bulls have been outscored with virtually every other player on the court. Taj Gibson, Butler, Rose, E’Twaun Moore, Bobby Portis and Doug McDermott are all in the negative.
This isn’t to say that Butler isn’t a great player, he is, but that as a whole, the Bulls are not getting an advantage compared to other teams with their top players on the court. Gasol, Gibson, Butler, Noah, Rose and Mirotic are well-publicized names, but in no 5-man combination have the Bulls been a productive group.
As a positive, the defense has been very good. The Bulls rank 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 100.4, and moving Gasol exclusively to center and pairing him up with Gibson has been a great move (even before the Noah injury). Gasol is better off closer to the rim, where he’s still effective due to his lengths and smarts – provided he makes the rotation on time. Opponents have shot just 44.5 percent at the basket with Gasol defending, a mark that’s better than those by Hassan Whiteside, DeAndre Jordan and Nerlens Noel, for example.
Gibson’s mobility and versatility allows him to switch against guards, and he’s a really mobile and active defender. Mirotic is active, underrated and gets a ton of steals for his position. Dunleavy knows what to do in the team concept. Butler’s defense has declined with his increased offensive role, but he can still be great in stretches.
Possible trade deadline moves
Currently, the Bulls are $4.5 million over the luxury tax line, and if they decide that they want to reload around their younger players, they could look to dump Noah – a move that could save the team about $10 million. Noah is an unrestricted free agent this summer and won’t be able to get the Bulls any major offers. He could be moved to a team like the Blazers, who have the cap space to absorb his contract, but they’d want a sweetener along the lines of a second-round pick to do that favor for the Bulls.
Gasol is also an outgoing unrestricted free agent, and there’s a slight chance a contender could be found that could make a reasonable offer to boost their championship odds. Finding that team is more difficult. The Cavs already have enough big men, and they’re already worried about matching up with the Warriors speed-wise with Kevin Love. And for the Celtics, Hawks, Pistons, Heat and Pacers there are either obvious positional or timetable conflicts. In the Western Conference, the Mavs and Grizzlies have nothing to trade (though a Gasol brothers frontcourt would be fun even if it didn’t make much sense) and most of the other potential contenders are horrible fits.
The Thunder have previously shown an interest in signing Gasol, but they’re out of first-round picks in 2016 and 2018. The only young player on the team the Bulls could even potentially be interested in is Enes Kanter, who is on a massive multi-year deal and is probably the worst defensive big in the NBA right now. If the Bulls were willing to put together a package around Gasol for Kanter and save the Thunder from his contract, the Thunder should pull the trigger immediately.
If the Bulls want to be on the aggressive side, they have all their first-round draft picks going forward, and an additional one from the Kings that has a Top 10 protection this and next season. If the Kings pick isn’t conveyed by 2017, it will turn into a second-rounder with a Top 55 protection after which the Kings’ obligation to the Bulls is extinguished. In short, there’s perhaps a 40 to 60 percent chance they will see that pick.
They should be willing to trade any of their players, excluding Butler, for the right deal. Building around Butler is their best available move, so getting a player who fits with the 26-year old Butler age-wise is crucial.
Evan Fournier would be an interesting choice to go after. The Magic have enough players on the wing that they possibly will not want to pay Fournier this summer as well, and the Bulls can move Butler to small forward full-time to accommodate the move. A heavily protected first-rounder could be enough to pry Fournier away.
A riskier move would be to go after one of the Rockets’ young big men, either Clint Capela, Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas. The price for Capela could be a bit high, and the Bulls would have to at least send out a first-rounder with a young player, for example McDermott, to make it happen. Jones has been a disappointment this season, and Motiejunas has been out all-season with rather worrying back problems, but if the Bulls want to take a chance, both would definitely be available for a reasonable package.
None of this may sound too sexy for Bulls fans, and it’s because they don’t don’t have the mega assets to make a trade to really move the needle in an obvious way. Markieff Morris, John Henson, etcetera. Those are the names that you can get, and hope that they develop into better players than expected. Portis is currently the promising young player under the age of 24. Mirotic came into the league later than most because of his international commitments and McDermott played four years in college – there just isn’t as much upside on the roster as you’d hope.
By far the most intriguing trade the Bulls can make comes with moving Gibson, probably the best trade chip the team has. Gibson still has one year on his contract after this one at a very fair $9 million price tag. A team like the Cavaliers could really use Gibson’s defensive versatility and ability to switch out to guards, if there’s any potential way to get Love for a package around Mirotic, McDermott and Gibson the Bulls should do it.
Cavaliers can justify the trade by adding to wing depth, getting multiple assets and Gibson, who should be a perfect fit for a matchup against the Warriors. For the Bulls, pairing Butler up with another star in Love would be a home run. Personally, I really like this framework for a trade.
2016 and beyond
The good thing is that the Bulls already have the first piece they need to be great, Butler. Now, they just have to find enough supporting talent going forward, or another potential star to pair up with him.
Chicago can get up to $22.5 million in cap space this summer, meaning they can extend near max offers to players such as Al Horford and Mike Conley. It’s always an outside chance to get one of those guys, but the Bulls do have a history of recent success and some talent to showcase to potential free agent signees.
The cloud that hovers over all of this is, of course, Rose. Month by month, Rose has steadily improved his offense, and he’s actually been relatively efficient since the start of 2016.
Rose has recently been showing flashes of brilliance, and in transition he can still pick apart defenses in ways that most players can’t. Rose isn’t a special player anymore, but he still makes special plays that sometimes change the game for the better.
Overall, though, it’s hard to argue that Rose has been a positive for the team, and he’s been one of the worst point guards in aggregate for the season. Rose isn’t a threat to shoot from the outside, and he still has a bad habit of jacking up contested three-pointers for no reason with plenty of time on the shot clock.
When Rose attacks, he almost never gets to the foul line. Among 67 players taking 12 or more field goal attempts per game, Rose’s free throw rate of 18.3 percent ranks 61st. Rose turns the ball over a ton, and ranks in the 20th percentile in turnover rate among high-usage players. Defensively, he has been even worse than on offense, and he ranks 83rd among 84 point guards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, including being ranked 424th among 440 players defensively.
Bringing in a player to start over Rose would be a PR nightmare, but Rose just isn’t helpful right now. Even though he’s improved, there are reasons to be skeptical he’ll ever be an above average point guard again. Rose’s contract runs through next year, and it’s fascinating to see how his situation with the Bulls plays out.
What looks like the next iteration of this Chicago team has some intriguing pieces, but continuing with the theme of the last four years, it’s much easier to imagine how they fall just short of being able to contend than make it over the hump. It’s quite likely the Bulls stay decent at worst, and pretty good at their best – unless they hit on a major free agent or get lucky in a trade.
The worst place to be stuck at in the NBA is the middle, and the Bulls have a good chance of stagnating there, and where the upside comes from to make the next step remains unclear.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.