Nov 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) dunks the ball against the Orlando Magic during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Believe it or not, we’re already 15 games into the NBA season.
The season on the whole is still in its infancy — 15 games is just under 20 percent of the way through. But whether or not teams are ready, their identities are starting to crystalize.
As for the Chicago Bulls, their identity is still a work in progress. Billy Donovan has mentioned multiple times that teams continue to improve over the course of the season and that the new elements he wanted to implement into the offense will take time. But the Bulls are 5-10 and 12th place in the East. They’re closer to a stop-four lottery spot than the Play-In Tournament. And with all the noise and drama, what the team is actually doing on the court has been lost in frustration.
But the Zach LaVine trade drama will likely not be resolved until January 15 or even the February 8 NBA Trade Deadline. There’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and then, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the Bulls continue to evolve going forward.
So far, the Bulls are ranked 26th in the NBA in offensive rating, off to a worse start than last season. Why are things manifesting the way they are through 15 games?
This is going to be a high level overview of the Bulls offense that details how the Bulls are getting their offense and whether it’s as bad, better, or worse than it should be.
Before we get there, let’s take a look at what the team is doing to generate shots and whether it’s leading to them taking shots from more premium real estate.
How are the Bulls creating their shots?
Dating back to training camp, head coach Billy Donovan has advocated for a more diverse shot profile, and the way he planned on getting there was getting more paint touches.
An active focus on the paint generates more shots at the rim, which will draw more fouls and earn trips to the free throw line. Furthermore, playing at the rim allows for more offensive rebounding opportunities — one of their biggest weaknesses last season — and perhaps most importantly, creates more open looks from behind the arc.
The Bulls, to their credit, have gotten much better at getting into the paint — one of Billy Donovan’s top stated priorities heading into the season. Up from 28th last season with only 17.8 paint touches per game, they are now getting paint touches 20.4 times per game, 21st in the league.
The Bulls are also risen to 12th in drives per game this season, up from 25th last season. So in that sense, they are doing the things they need to in order to generate better offense. But interestingly, there aren’t any real indicators from a play type perspective that put this into context.
The Bulls are running just as much pick-and-roll as last year. Their isolations have gone up marginally. They’re cutting less, running slightly more handoffs, but for the most part, none of their play types have changed all that much year over year.
Transition is the one area they wanted to improve and haven’t. They’re 29th in pace and 28th in frequency of offense coming in transition.
It was always going to be difficult to overhaul an offense without changing the personnel. So if the team is largely unchanged, and the rest of the league is improving around them, the output will be worse.
Where on the court are the Bulls taking their shots?
Shooting percentages are volatile game-to-game, but how the Bulls generate their shots, and where on the floor they are taking them, is something which they have control.
Here is a comparison of the shot profile from 2023-24 (top row) and 2022-23 (bottom row). The percent figure is the frequency of total offense from each shot zone, while the figure in the colored tile is the rank 1-30. For example, the Bulls are 11th in the league, with 34 percent their total shots that come at the rim.
By driving more rather than settling for mid-range jumpers, the Bulls have been able to boost their overall three-point volume from 29th last season to 20th so far this season. A pretty incredible feat given the lack of roster change.
The Bulls are way down in mid-range attempt, going from top-five last season to 15th so far in 2023-24. They’ve redistributed those to threes, where they have shown small improvements from the corner, but a significant one on above the break threes.
However, the frequency of attempts within the two most important and efficient areas of the court — at rim and corner threes — are roughly the same. While the rank appears more promising, the percentages have changed by less than half of a percent. This suggests the Bulls haven’t evolved, but the rest of the league is taking more mid-range attempts.
The above is a step forward, to be sure, but not something the Bulls will really feel as it relates to their offensive production on a game-to-game basis.
Is the offense better, worse, or as good as it should be?
By leaning into continuity, the Bulls argued they adjust and improve their offense. So far, that has yet to materialize.
Here is a comparison of the offensive four factors — Pts/Poss or offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate — from the 2023-24 season (top row) and 2022-23 season (bottom row).
With a 109.5 offensive rating this season, the Bulls are worse, both by rank (-2 spots) and efficiency (-3.5 points per 100 possessions) than last season.
Still, there are a few positives.
The Bulls have done a tremendous job all season — and really since DeMar DeRozan arrived in town — at taking care of the basketball. No one is better so far this year. They have also followed through on their commitment to offensive rebounding, improving from 28th last season to 20th this season.
Both of those areas have helped give the Bulls a chance to win the possession battle on a nightly basis. If they generate more possessions and shot attempts than their opponent, any in-built deficits from the three-point line can be negated.
Despite the improvement in getting inside and attempting shots at the rim, the Bulls have not been able to draw fouls at the same rate they did last season. Slippage there has really hurt, as free throws, especially for mid-to-high 80s shooters like LaVine and DeRozan, are the most efficient source of offense the Bulls can find.
But perhaps the most staggering statistic is the Bulls effective field goal percentage (eFG%)— field goal percentage adjusted for the additional point on three-pointers. Where the Bulls were slightly above league average last year, they have fallen all the way to 29th, 4.4 percent lower than last year.
Cleaning the Glass allows you to adjust a team’s eFG% to league average, and based on where the Bulls are taking their shots, they’d be 54.8 eFG%, much closer to their marker from last season.
So if the Bulls are attempting to alter their game, and slowly reconfiguring the way they generate shots, but simply aren’t making them, you have to think the offense would improve greatly if the ball started going in.
Based on their current stats, the Bulls are projected to win 29 games by Cleaning the Glass and 32 by ESPN. Their -4.8 point differential translates to roughly 28 wins. Their pythagorean win percentage is 37 percent which equates to 30 wins over a full season.
However you slice it, the Bulls offense has been bad. And while they’re trying to do some of the right things, the output hasn’t been to the level required.
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