After a 50-win season and a second-round exit where the Bulls were just seconds away from being up 3-1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, being eliminated from the playoffs entirely has to be considered a failure. The Bulls were never going to be among the favorites to win a title, but by all preseason expectations they were in the second-tier of Eastern Conference teams along with the Raptors.
The reasons to be relatively optimistic were pretty straightforward. Nikola Mirotic shot the ball poorly, particularly on three-pointers, after being a lights-out shooter in Europe, and with another year of getting used to the NBA game he was going to be better. Chicago was in desperate need of spacing and Doug McDermott was expected to help in his second season. Derrick Rose had played a relatively healthy season, and continuity should have helped his efficiency. Fred Hoiberg was going to bring a much-needed boost in creativity to the offense.
On individual levels, the Bulls did have some successes. Jimmy Butler is having the best year of his career. McDermott is shooting 42.8 percent on three-pointers. After a rough start to the season, Mirotic has been on fire over the past 20 games. Pau Gasol is about to become just the second player in NBA history, 35 or older, to average 16-plus points, 11-plus rebounds and 4-plus assists in a season (the other being Charles Barkley). Bobby Portis showed flashes as a stretch big and great offensive rebounder, and Taj Gibson was great defensively while putting up career-best efficiency numbers. For about a month and a half, from the end of January to mid-March, even Rose started to show flashes of his older self and shot the ball at a near 50 percent rate for a 20-game stretch.
Most of the ingredients to at least be competitive with the best teams in the NBA and challenge for a high playoff seed were there, but at a team and system level, the Bulls look fundamentally broken.
Chicago ranks 24th in three-pointers attempts, 26th in free throws attempted and last in field goal percentage in the paint. For some inexplicable reason, the Bulls are 28th in fast break points despite being above average in pace. This is not the stuff modern NBA offenses are made of. If a team doesn’t get to the foul line, shoot three-pointers, get easy points in transition or the paint, it’s virtually impossible to have a great offense. The Bulls’ offense ranks 26th in the league, scoring 101.6 points per 100 possessions, just ahead of the Brooklyn Nets and slightly below the New York Knicks.
Free throw attempts vs. drives per game. Derrick Rose is horrible at getting to the foul line at his drive rate.
In his first season as a head coach, Hoiberg’s offense has failed to produce the kinds of shots and value the things that make an efficient NBA offense. Coaches go through learning curves and the pro game is very different from college basketball, in some ways it’s a whole new sport. There’s no need to be particularly down on Hoiberg after his first year, and he may grow to be an excellent coach in the future.
A blessing in disguise
Taking the long-term view, it may not be such a bad thing that the Bulls are in a down year and forced to re-evaluate where the team is both short-term and going forward a few years down the line. The first possible outcome may have been to decline slightly, perhaps winning 48 games and grabbing a No. 4 seed and limping to the second round of the playoffs and pushing the Cavaliers just enough to look competitive, but not enough to be a serious threat.
The Bulls could have been compelled to extend Gasol with a sizeable deal when he’s about to turn 36 years of age to keep up the facade of being a competitive team. Even though Gasol is putting up great numbers, his impact on the team has declined significantly. Building a great defense around Gasol is an uphill climb, and he’s way too slow to work as an effective pick-and-roll defender. Gasol is a pretty nice rim protector, provided he makes it there on time. But especially toward the end of this season, Gasol has been a step behind on virtually every helpside rotation.
Gasol should work relatively nicely in any offense as a high-post facilitator for the rest of his career, but in the post his skills have significantly declined. Moving Gasol to center allows him to be better defensively, but offensively a bigger defender nullifies his post-up skills. Gasol is shooting just 46.9 percent from the field (51.0 percent career) and averaging 0.80 points per possession from the post, a mark that ranks him in the 40th percentile.
Particularly with McDermott and Mirotic as the most likely forward-pairing for the next handful of years, the need for a versatile and mobile defender in the middle is heightened. Joakim Noah’s shoulder injury that forced him out of the lineup for the rest of the year may actually be a blessing in disguise. Even though Noah was at one point this season the worst finisher at the rim in the league, he did look spry defensively and on the boards. Intuitively, Noah is a nice fit with Mirotic in the frontcourt provided he can bounce back a bit, at least in spot minutes in a smaller role. Noah’s injury may allow the Bulls to bring him back on a team-friendly deal.
Finding a way back to greatness
Ever since Rose first tore his ACL back in the 2012 playoffs, the Bulls have been a desperate team. Below the status of very good teams but through smarts, Tom Thibodeau’s coaching and sheer will, the team has managed to stay competitive. The failure to make the playoffs this year puts an end to that era, and it’s time for Chicago to pivot and pursue a new strategy.
The Bulls do have more than enough young talent to be in a good position for a quick rebuild. Three of the future starters on the team – Butler, Mirotic and McDermott – are 26 or under. Bobby Portis is 20 years old and next season should be pretty close to a solid contributor at the very least. Cristiano Felicio has played good minutes at the end of the year. Veterans like Gibson and Mike Dunleavy should be pluses too. Scoring shouldn’t be an issue with the right lineups, and the Bulls should be focused on grabbing a defensive center to plug in the middle, along with adding guard depth.
A change in strategy is also going to require a change in mindset. Butler has been struggling with knee problems at the end of the year, but the Bulls have been running him to the ground in a desperate attempt to make the playoffs. Butler has averaged nearly 39 minutes per game over his last six games, and it’s a huge question mark whether he should have played at all. Chicago has lost over 170 games to injury this year, the highest mark since the 2012-13 season when Rose missed the entire year. Jacob Grinyer of BrewHoop.com studied a decade’s worth injury history, and based on his study teams miss around 70 player games due to injury each season, a number the Bulls have doubled for the past five years.
This summer, the Bulls should be able to get to somewhere between $20 to $25 million in cap space, once Gasol declines his player option and if the Bulls renounce their rights to outgoing free agents Noah, E’Twaun Moore and Aaron Brooks. There are a few options available to the Bulls, the first one being able to offer a max deal to a restricted free agent (or Hassan Whiteside) or getting pretty close to the bigger 30 percent max of free agents like Mike Conley, Kevin Durant and Al Horford. The second option would be to sign two free agents, the first could likely be Noah under his Bird rights and then another player to starter level money if it doesn’t look like the Bulls will compete for the real max guys.
Whiteside will be somewhat of a question mark for every team chasing after him because of the off-court and attitude concerns, but for the Bulls, his fit would be perfect on the floor. Whiteside is a great and athletic finisher, and running a spread offense with Rose, Whiteside and shooting everywhere could be a devastating look.
Coming off a strong playoffs performance a year ago, Dwight Howard could have still looked like a great fit for a team looking for a defensive center that can be on the receiving end of pick and rolls would have been enticing. Increasingly over the past few months, however, Howard has been an absolute zero on offense and is having the worst season of his career statistically since his rookie year. Howard has a player option for next year, and before the season it was a near 100 percent certainty that he would decline it to get a final long-term contract, but Howard’s play has deteriorated to a level where even that may not be his best financial move.
If Howard does hit unrestricted free agency, he could still be valuable on the right deal, but in the NBA it only takes one team to completely break the market and any reasonable price the Bulls should be willing to offer – and it’s easy to imagine at least one desperate team talking themselves into a big name like Howard.
Another interesting name for the Bulls could be Bismack Biyombo, who is having a wonderful season for the Raptors and is just 23 years old, which fits the Bulls’ timeline around Butler. The Raptors have limited flexibility in free agency and are likely to lose Biyombo this summer. The Bulls could always use insurance behind Rose, and Jeremy Lin is a lock to decline his player option. Lin can work both on and off the ball in two point guard lineups and start when Rose playing.
Most of the good restricted free agents this summer are wings – Bradley Beal, Evan Fournier and Harrison Barnes, and while each could be an upgrade for the Bulls, it’s probably not where resources are best spent.
Recently, Butler has been in the middle of trade rumors, but dealing him would mean the Bulls are committing to not being competitive in the short term. Butler is currently in the first season of a five-year $95 million deal, which may be the best contract in the NBA quite soon. Butler is a clear max-contract player and he’s on a long-term deal that will pay him 30 percent less than other players of his skill are earning. Unless the Bulls can get an insane offer with multiple talented young players and draft picks back, the Bulls shouldn’t trade Butler. Not even a straight-up swap for the first pick in this year’s draft would be enough value for Butler on his deal.
Rose has been critiqued more than enough by now, and the health problems obviously aren’t his fault. However, it can’t be left unmentioned that Rose just hasn’t been good this season. The Bulls have been outscored by 4.2 points with Rose on the court this season, compared to outscoring opponents by 0.5 points when he sits – equalling the difference between the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards in net rating. Rose ranks 81st in point guards in Real Plus-Minus, and his True Shooting Percentage of 47.9 and unbelievably low free throw rate make him the least efficient scorer in the NBA.
More so than Rose being a problem, the Bulls have a huge cost-inefficiency conundrum. Rose is on a max deal and it’s impossible to build a great team if a quarter of your cap space is spent on a clear minus contributor – no matter how well you plan around that. Chicago’s flexibility has been limited in previous years, and again this summer, because of the strain Rose’s contract puts on them. Rose will be an unrestricted free agent in 2017, and that’s when the Bulls could sign him to a fair market deal or move on should a better option become available.
The Bulls’ season has largely been a disappointment to fans, but one down year doesn’t mean the franchise is in a bad place. They have their own draft picks and a potential first-rounder coming in from Sacramento, in addition to a couple of extra second-rounders. The roster has enough young talent and one superstar just entering his prime. But in the next summer or two, the Bulls are going to need a hit – whether it be through the draft at the lower end of the lottery, free agency or unexpected development internally. Otherwise, the Bulls could find themselves in the middle of the pack without a clear path to contention again for the next few years.
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.