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It’s been a long summer. Media Day is Monday, marking the start of the new NBA year and I’m ready to stop talking about fake trades and paths not taken and instead, talk about some real basketball.
With that in mind, and real basketball on the horizon, there are legitimate reasons to believe the 2023-24 Chicago Bulls will be better than last year’s edition.
The Bulls finished with a 0.0 net rating in clutch games last season (games within 5 points during the final 5 minutes), a record that should be reflected as roughly .500. But the Bulls went only 15-23 in such games, an indication of some bad luck and more close losses than they probably should have had.
We can all remember game winners that could have gone the other way last year (Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Suggs, De’Aaron Fox, AJ Griffin, et al.), but several no-calls also cost the Bulls a chance to win in the final moments. The NBA’s two-minute report noted there should have been a foul called on DeMar DeRozan’s attempted game-winners against the Wizards and the Cavs, that a lane violation should have been called against Donovan Mitchell which would have prevented the Cavs from forcing overtime where the Bulls lost after giving up 71 points to Mitchell.
Of course, the Bulls won a few games at the buzzer as well — Ayo Dosunmu’s putback against the Hawks and DeRozan’s clutch free throws against the Knicks.
Clutch stats find a way of swinging back and forth, and that’s exactly what happened last year compared to the year prior. In 2021-22, the Bulls went 25-16 in clutch games with a 15.3 net rating.
All things considered, luck should shift back the Bulls’ way next season just by virtue of regression to the mean.
Part of that poor clutch luck led to the Bulls tied for last in the NBA in win differential — the difference between the number of wins a team should have based on their point differential and how many wins they actually had.
Based on their +1.3 point differential, the Bulls should have won approximately 44.2 games last season. They won 40. Maybe if some of those missed calls or buzzer-beating shots against the Bulls went the other way, they’re looking at a home court play-in game that ultimately could have led to a playoff berth.
Call it bad luck or regression to the mean from the previous season when they had the second-highest win differential — 5.6 more wins than expected based on their -0.2 point differential — the Bulls fortunes should
Offseason signings improve cohesion
From the top down, everyone needs to play better. Nothing profound there.
But having addressed the biggest area of need this offseason in three-point shooting without sacrificing defense, Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley have put the Bulls in a position to improve internally with the prudent offseason signings of Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig.
Despite a frighteningly tight cap sheet, they managed to bring in role players that should fill those areas of need, and they did so on supremely team-friendly deals.
Based on Stephen Noh’s simple salary tool, Craig’s projected annual value (assuming same EPM as last season, 75 games played and 25 minutes per game) for 2024 is $8.1 million.
The Bulls signed him for the veteran’s minimum.
Based on Noh’s tool, Carter’s projected annual value (assuming same EPM as last season, 75 games played and 27 minutes per game), is $12.9 million, in line with the league’s full Mid-Level Exception.
The Bulls got him for half of that.
Slotting Craig into the Derrick Jones Jr./Javonte Green role should be an upgrade. He’s a better shooter, as reliable a scheme defender who provides snappy ball movement and offensive rebounds.
Replacing the Patrick Beverley minutes with a younger, more spry Carter should help the Bulls improve their three-point attempt rate and point of attack pressure.
All of these things should coalesce in the form of a more fluid, cohesive product on both ends of the court. A deeper roster puts more talent on the floor at any given time. More talent makes life easier on the development of young players while unburdening them from the pressure of immediate production. More shooting creates more space for drives in the half-court offense and more trust in kickout passes that lead to easier shots. All the while, staying true to the commitment to excellence on the defensive end.
Defense is legit
Speaking of the defense, I don’t think people recognize how good the Bulls were last season. Despite a starting group consisting of offensively oriented stars, Billy Donovan put together a top-5 defense on the season, and the best defense in the entire NBA after the All-Star Break.
Donovan has come under the spotlight from fans for not being a creative enough offensive coordinator, but team’s don’t fall ass backwards into first place in anything in this league. Last of which is defensive efficiency.
From Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Beverley hounding the point of attack, beating ball handlers to the spot and aggressively fighting over screens, to Nikola Vucevic meeting the handler at the level of the screen to cut off drives before they happen, to noted charge taker DeRozan and helpside shot blocker Patrick Williams as the low men help defending the rim, to solid 1-4 switching to effective rotation scrambling, the Bulls did just about everything right on the defensive end.
Even if they can’t reach the same heights on that side of the ball, they project to be above average to top-10, which should be good enough to keep them in the mix, especially if they can add some juice to their offense.
Wide open East
OK, maybe not wide open. The Bucks just added Damian Lillard. The Celtics aren’t going anywhere. But beyond that, there is some parity.
Having missed on Lillard, the Heat now have to run it back, this year without Gabe Vincent and Max Strus. The 76ers remain held hostage by James Harden. Vegas projects the Knicks, Hawks and Cavs to be better than Chicago, and maybe they are by a tier, but it’s not inconceivable the Bulls could overtake any or all of them.
The Raptors just lost Fred VanVleet for nothing. The Nets were a sub-.500 team after trading Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving away. The Pacers, Magic and Hornets should get better, but may not be ready to clear past the Bulls. The Pistons and Wizards are in a lower class.
Things will have to break right for the Bulls. That means health, luck and improvement, but those things are true for every team. And if the Bulls can finally start to share the ball, diversify their offense by adding more movement and motion to find easier shots while playing more through their best passers, they will get better.
And that’s not just wishful thinking.
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