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How concerned are we that the Bulls can't beat top teams?

Will Gottlieb Avatar
March 16, 2022

One of the main and most concerning storylines of this Bulls season has been the team’s inability to compete against the league’s elite. The Bulls are 0-9 against the three teams ahead of them in the East standings. They’re 1-1 against the fifth place Celtics, but that win came back on November 1. They aren’t faring much better against the top teams in the West either — 1-6 against the top four. 

Despite it all, they are simultaneously clinging to a top-four seed for dear life, and only a half game out of second. So they have a real opportunity to position themselves for an ideal path to the Conference Finals if they can go on a streak to end the regular season. As I detailed in my weekly look ahead on Monday, the schedule is not getting any easier. It’s a hike that only goes uphill.

After Monday’s inexcusable loss to the Kings and a brutal stretch coming up against the Jazz, Suns, Raptors and Bucks, ten of the final 14 games are against teams better than .500.

The playoffs start now for the Bulls. Mark and I try to figure out why they can’t seem to get a win against the top teams. Should we be unphased or talking each other off the ledge?

Will: 0-4 against Miami, 0-3 against Philadelphia, 0-2 against Milwaukee. Some games have been closer than other — we know they match up better against the Bucks than say, the 76ers. But at the end of the day, they’re still winless. If you had to boil it all down to one reason, why can’t the Bulls can’t seem to figure it out against any of these teams?

Mark: If I’m only allowed to choose one specific reason why the Bulls have failed against premier competition, it is due to the thin margin of error this team is operating with compared to most other elite teams.

By this, I mean, that the Bulls are rolling out lineups without a true transcendent, sure-fire Hall of Fame-level superstar, unlike, the Bucks and the Sixers. I don’t want to diminish this (De)marvelous DeMar DeRozan season, and I truly appreciate Zach LaVine posting All-Star numbers despite battling through a lingering knee injury, but the Bulls’ scoring wings aren’t on the level of the games’ truly elite talent. 

That matters. Outcomes in basketball can be entirely defined by the best player on the floor. The Bulls don’t have that guy. Their only path to overcoming other title contending teams is ensuring the sum of the parts is greater than other teams’ star power – with Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball, and cast of others out for extended periods due to injury, the Bulls’ margin for error was miniscule.

Will: I like that you emphasized failed here. This is not a massive conspiracy. It’s not concerning because the Bulls are simply not as good. They won’t have the best player on the court in matchups against the Bucks or 76ers and it could go either way against the Heat and Celtics. 

Now, does this mean they can’t compete with these teams? Absolutely not. They may not be favored, and they may have to play mistake free basketball. But they could win a series against any of these teams (except maybe the 76ers, I am terrified of them.)

The big key for me is an obvious one, but it’s worth emphasizing: health. The Bulls will ultimately close with a lineup of Caruso, Ball, LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. That groups has played only 16 games together, 189 possessions, but have a +20.5 net rating, per Cleaning The Glass. That’s a top-8 lineup in the league and it’s only been available in four of the 11 games, including the win against the Celtics. 

The Bulls definitely have the firepower to compete when healthy, but that’s a big if with LaVine operating at less than 100% and Ball still yet to return from his MCL surgery.

Are there any other specific X’s and O’s-wise you’d want to see in order to give themselves a better chance against any of these groups?

Mark: Right now, DeRozan and the Bulls need to learn how to operate against trapping defenses. It’s been very evident that opponents have started to alter their defensive strategy against the Bulls – defenses are more frequently sending two to the ball in order to trap and force DeRozan into passing out of a live dribble option. 

Opponents have begun toying with this scheme as the Bulls have so few on-ball creators beyond DeRozan. This rings especially true if LaVine continues to battle through the season with one healthy knee.

Will defenses be trapping and doubling DeRozan and the Bulls when they send out their idealized closing five? I think we’ll see it some, but the Bulls have far more optionality in punishing this scheme. 

(Gazes off into the distance with smile on face, thinking about Ball being the open on the 3-point line rather than Javonte Green)

Really, though, I think the success of the Bulls offense will be determined by how their opponent guards the pick-and-roll. We know DeRozan and LaVine want to get to the mid-range area. Drop coverages often give up this look in its scheme. Trouble is, very few of the best teams out East run drop as their base coverage; the Heat and Celtics have the capability to switch most screens; the Bucks want to be aggressive in pick-and-roll coverage, especially when Antetokounmpo is in at center; the Sixers play a traditional base defense, but as we know, the Bulls have no answer for Embiid. 

Put another way: I’m not sure the Bulls have a real, tangible scheme option that is going to push them past a more fancied rival. Maybe you disagree and see something I don’t?

Will: I’m concerned about the lack of adjustments the Bulls have made over this stretch of the season where offense has been harder to come by. As great as DeRozan has been, it’s foolish to bank on him putting up Wilt Chamberlain numbers to keep the Bulls alive.

I’d be happier facing switches than doubles at this point — at least DeRozan could play one-on-one. When defenses trap him, he just has to get rid of the ball and no one seems to be taking advantage — the Bulls are averaging 0.76 points per possession against traps and doubles. Not good.

The Bulls can’t rely on live ball turnovers, transition baskets, flowy ball movement and easy one-on-one opportunities when things slow down and defenses zero in on DeRozan. Someone else needs to emerge as a safety valve scoring threat. The Bulls have options in LaVine, Vucevic, Ball and White as shooters and playmakers, but injuries and shot making have not been kind. It’s silly to have the main adjustment be “just make your shots” but that’s where things are landing for me. 

We keep coming back to the idea of ‘margin for error’, so I think it’s a good place to wrap things up. This Bulls season has been a breath of fresh air and a ton of fun, but perspective is key. Being the top team in the East for the first few months of the year doesn’t mean much at this point. They need to adjust and execute as the landscape changes around them. 

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