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What up, Bulls Nation. Two weeks ago, I wrote to y’all about trying to suppress the rage that was building inside me during this final third of the season. Trying to keep everything in perspective and appreciate the positives, so long as the Bulls showed us solid effort each night.
Last week, I evaluated this season’s games against the teams the Bulls might face in their first-round playoff series, and how those teams stacked up. From those I feared most to the ones that just might give the Bulls an open door to an upset. I had the Philadelphia 76ers ranked as the team I’d least like to see the Bulls draw. Then the Bulls played the other three teams — Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, and Boston Celtics — in the span of five days and lost all three games by a combined 62 points.
Unless things drastically and miraculously change in the next week or so, it looks like the Bulls are heading for a one-and-done playoff appearance regardless of which team they face. Given the high we were all riding coming into the All Star break, that’s definitely a tough pill to swallow. I’ll admit that I even let myself — ever the realist — get swept up in the optimism for a possible deep playoff run for awhile there.
[THUD! *Matt falls hard back to Earth*. Which sucks, because I’m still nursing some wounds from when I fell off a ladder changing the battery in a smoke detector a few weeks ago. Holy crap, that is the oldest I’ve ever felt in the worst way.]
So what, exactly, has gone wrong? That’s the big question all Bulls fans are trying to answer right now.
Short answer? Lots of things.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of them. It probably won’t make us feel any better about it. But finding the clarity of causes in a bad situation rather than passing hasty, clouded judgment is always an important exercise. To me, anyway.
It’s The Pecking Order.
1. Lonzo, We Hardly Knew Ye
If you want an in-depth X’s and O’s look at just how much the Bulls miss Lonzo Ball, read this piece by my guy Will Gottlieb. He breaks it down much better and more thoroughly than I could. So I’ll just say it my way: Damn.
When Bulls players started dropping like flies with various injuries midway through the season, Lonzo is the one I worried about the most. Not only because midseason knee surgeries are always a red flag, to be taken with a marked tone of “prepare for the worst.” But because of just how much he was doing for this team.
Lonzo’s defensive play isn’t just elite on an IQ level, it’s also elite on an effort level. With those powers combined, he was able to mask so many of the defensive errors committed by his teammates. Mess up a switch or rotation? There was Lonzo. Somebody needs to deny a pass into the post? Lonzo. Somebody needs to grab a key loose ball or rebound? Lonzo. Fighting over screens, staying down on his man and even challenging bigs from behind the play when the roll man got the dump off pass? Lonzo. Picking the pocket of the guy he’s guarding to start a Bulls fastbreak? Yeah. Lonzo.
I swear, the number of plays I can recall this season when Lonzo guarded three or four guys by himself in the span of one possession … it was wild. Wild but necessary. You see what the Bulls defense has devolved into without his point of attack presence and timely help expertise. Screen door on a submarine. [Read Mark K’s thoughts on that.]
And the reason the Bulls miss Lonzo more than they missed Alex Caruso, bless his heart: the offensive X-factor. Lonzo’s offensive skillset is so unique and lethal. He’s not your typical point guard, running every set on every possession. But his high IQ, court vision and complementary passing abilities made him a vital part of the Bulls’ Top 5 ranked offense while he was playing. Whether he was playing on or off ball, his decisions and movements around the court created perfect spacing for his teammates. He made the Bulls offense positively unpredictable. Without him, it’s become grossly the opposite.
And perhaps what the Bulls miss most about Lonzo – which is crazy to think about, considering everything I just mentioned — is his longball. Lonzo led the Bulls in both three-point volume (7.4 attempts per game) and efficiency* (42.3%) this season.
[*Patrick Williams is actually shooting 43.5 percent on threes, but I decided to omit him given his long absence and just 1.5 attempts per game. But, yay Patrick! Keep shooting!]
Lonzo, we miss you dearly. Please get all the way healthy this offseason. This team looked pretty awesome when you were lacing them up every night.
2. Timid Brick-Throwing
Sounds illogical, doesn’t it? Throwing bricks but being coy about it? Yeah.
Speaking of Lonzo’s three-pointers being sorely missed. Yikes. The Bulls have been the lowest volume three-point shooting team in the NBA all season. At least for the first half of the season, they were making up for the low volume with high efficiency. They actually ranked 2nd in the NBA before the All Star break shooting threes at a 37.6 percent clip. But with Lonzo’s absence and other shooters going ice cold [hello Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, Alex Caruso, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr.] the efficiency has fallen to 33.5 percent, 25th in the NBA after the break.
On top of that, the chasm of the Bulls hoists from deep compared to the rest of the league has grown even wider in the final stretch of the season. They ranked dead last in three-point shots before the All Star break at just 29.8 attempts per game. After the break, that number has fallen to 26.6. The Pelicans, the team with the next fewest, shoot 29.7 threes per game. That 3.1-shot gap separating the Bulls (30th) and Pelicans (29th) is the same gap separating the Pelicans from the Raptors, ranked 23rd.
All that to say, the Bulls are shooting fewer threes than the rest of the league by a lot, and they’re hitting fewer of the ones they do take compared to earlier this season.
The low volume of threes model can only work in special circumstances in today’s NBA. The Bulls don’t have the personnel to be an exception to that rule, in the way the Phoenix Suns are doing it to perfection [I still don’t get it, that team is insane.]
Want more stats and insight on the Bulls three-point problem? I give you GOATlieb.
3. DeMar and Zach Are Human
DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine dazzled — and shocked — a lot of NBA viewers out of the gate this season, racking up game after game both surpassing 25 points. Hell, sometimes they’d both drop 30 or more.
Zach was his difficult-step-back-making, lane-slashing, forceful-dunking self. And DeMar told everyone who said last offseason,”He’s washed up, over the hill, can’t be an efficient scorer anymore, yada yada yada…”
“Hold this L for me, would you?”
Watching DeMar pick defenders apart while he got to his midrange spots on the court with genius-level footwork and shot fakes was like watching Monet paint. Every jab, every step, every swish, every stroke of the brush, left your jaw agape and your eyes in awe of the beauty in front of them.
Then Zach got hurt. And DeMar returned to his [still very good] human form as the season wore on.
At a quick glance, here’s the drop-off in efficiency for Zach’s shooting splits:
Pre-ASB: 48.2% / 39.9% / 86.9%
Post-ASB: 45.6% / 36.1% / 82.5%
As for DeMar, his three-point and free throw accuracies have increased in the latter stages. But his midrange game, his bread and butter, has fallen. He shot an other-worldly 50.2 percent on 516 midrange shots before the break. In his 217 midrange attempts since, he’s hitting at just 39.2 percent. That’s a huge difference, especially when you think about how many of the Bulls’ close wins earlier this season are owed to DeMar’s difficult and timely shot-making.
Zach is playing on a bad knee. DeMar is getting tired and is also dealing with a groin injury. The decline in their performance is tangible. These two propelled a dominant offense for two-thirds of a season, and their collective regression is another reason why the Bulls are faltering as we near the finish line. I don’t blame them at all, but it’s a fact.
4. “The Margins”
This was Billy’s kind and political way of telling his team they aren’t giving him — or themselves — enough effort. After the blowout loss to the Celtics on Wednesday, Billy had this to say:
“There’s a determination or fight or competitiveness that you have to have this time of year, because you are dealing on margins. You’re fighting for margins. Want to know why we have these huge losses? Because Milwaukee and Boston understand the margins and they’re fighting like crazy for them. And we’ve gotten dominated on the margins. That’s why we’ve lost by 20.” [Read this from GOATlieb if you want more Billy quotes and analysis from the Boston loss.]
Translation: “Y’all are playing soft, disinterested basketball for large portions of our games, and these teams that want it more than you are kicking your sorry asses.”
Or something to that effect. And he’s absolutely right. It’s impossible not to see it if you’re watching this team every night. The Bulls just wander their way through offensive possessions. Sometimes passing up open shots for god-knows-what-reason, sometimes standing around waiting for something to happen. Waiting for DeMar to happen. Surrendering themselves to trap defenses that are so easily countered with simple ball movement and player movement.
They’re getting routinely beaten in transition defense situations, even when they just put the ball in their opponents’ basket. They’re giving up way too many defensive rebounds and second-chance points. That’s not X’s and O’s. Sure, they’re undersized at times. That didn’t stop them from being an elite defensive rebounding team earlier this year, as they’ve fallen from 4th to 19th in defensive rebounding percentage. That’s mostly effort. Plain and simple. When the margin for error is as thin as it is given your talent limitations, a lack of effort is a death sentence.
The Bulls need to win those margins to give themselves any chance of winning the game. It’s one problem of many, but it seems like the most glaring one right now. Sure, they could use a new outfit, maybe even a spa day. But they’ve stopped caring for themselves and now their entire house is in shambles and in desperate need of redecorating.
Sadly, the Bulls might need more than a decorator to fix this season. Based on what we’ve seen recently, they might be better off hiring a demolition crew to come in and mercifully level it.
Fresh paint, throw pillows and an antique chair? Or a wrecking ball?
We’ll find out very soon.
See Red. Be Good.
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