The State of the Chicago Bulls


Each year, the President of the United States delivers a highly anticipated State of the Union Address, in which the President presents information on the condition of the country and future policies he/she hopes to enact. This speech allows the people of the United States to be informed about what is going on in the country and what we can expect in the future.

Although I’m just a senior in high school who has suffered through several brutal years of Chicago Bulls basketball, I thought I would deliver my own State of the Chicago Bulls.

Let’s begin by examining second-year head coach, Fred Hoiberg. What kind of coach is Hoiberg? What kind of offense does he run? What kind of personnel would thrive in a Hoiberg-style offense?

Well, Hoiberg’s personality is the polar opposite of his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau. Drill sergeant Thibodeau built his reputation on intense, hard-nosed, team defense. Not known for giving rookies and young players significant minutes, Thibodeau eases inexperienced players into gameplay, making them earn every single minute. He also was heavily criticized for overworking his players and overplaying the leaders of the team, most notably Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, who combined for seven seasons in the top five for minutes per game.

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune
Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

Hoiberg on the other hand is much more calm and relaxed compared to the drill sergeant personality of Thibodeau. He has been more empathetic with Bulls players the last season and a half, which may have led to Jimmy Butler calling him out for being too soft on them. Directly contrary to Thibs, Hoiberg has given his young players every opportunity to prove their worth (with a few exceptions), including starting rookie Paul Zipser and sophomore Jerian Grant.

Hoiberg runs a pace-and-space, free-flowing offense, and he preaches running in transition and looking to score quickly. In transition, he wants his two wing players to run to the corner, filling their lanes, and will use a quick ball screen with the point guard and the trailing big man to get a quick score.

If Hoiberg cannot get a quick score off of a made basket or in transition, he will often try to feed the ball to guards in the post because many guards are not comfortable defending down low. He does this by screening up for a guard up top or by screening on the baseline for a guard on the perimeter.

In order to get players open, Hoiberg utilizes an abundance of screens and dribble handoffs. As I mentioned before, he uses screens to open up guards in the post, but also to get clean looks from behind the three-point line. Hoiberg’s offensive sets hardly call for isolation, which is very different from Thibodeau who relied on skilled offensive players to get the Bulls buckets.

The biggest key to a Fred Hoiberg offense is pace-and-space. Whenever his team has the opportunity, he wants them to push the ball, get set up quickly, and look to score immediately. The majority of his offensive sets require four wing players and one post player, spacing the floor to open up the lane to set continuous screens.

As a Bulls fan, I was cautiously optimistic when the Bulls hired Fred Hoiberg to coach the Bulls. Although this was going to be his first stint as an NBA head coach, he brought a fresh change of pace to the Bulls offense. With Thibodeau at the helm, the Bulls relied on Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, and Jimmy Butler to create offense, putting a massive weight on their shoulders. With Hoiberg taking over, the Bulls offense can flow freely with a lot more movement to get open shots, taking some of the weight off of Rose and Butler’s shoulders.

Unfortunately, this vision of a better Chicago offense did not come to fruition. After missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Bulls are sitting at 24-25, sixth in the Eastern Conference (thanks East for allowing the Bulls to compete for a playoff spot during this roller coaster of a season).

So the million dollar question that must not be a million dollar question if the majority of NBA fans can answer it: why have the Bulls struggled so mightily the past two seasons with Hoiberg running the show?

If you answered because Fred Hoiberg is running the show, you are incorrect.

What did I say was the biggest key to success in a Fred Hoiberg offense? Pace-and space. What do the Bulls do? Play slowly while shooting horrendously from behind the arc.

According to basketball-reference (as of 1/24/17), the Bulls are 24th in the league in pace at 94.4 possessions per 48 minutes. I mentioned horrendous shooting. They are dead-last in 3-point attempts (20.4/G), 3-pointers made (6.4/G), 3-point percentage (.316), and effective FG% (.471). It is very hard to run a pace-and-space offense without pace or spacing.

The Bulls roster consists of some of the worst three-point shooters in the league. Here are the three-point percentages and rankings for their main wing players. Some of the players haven’t shot enough threes to qualify, so their rankings are out of more players.

NBA.com
NBA.com as of 1/25

Doug McDermott is the best shooter on the Bulls, which is no surprise. What is a surprise, however, is the fact that he is only shooting .357 from three-point range. Although that is not a terrible percentage, right around league average, you do not want your best three-point shooter to be an average shooter. Also, Nikola Mirotic, who is supposed to be dead-eye three-point shooter, is shooting a hideous .307 from three.

Spacing is one of the keys to any basketball team’s success, not just a team coached by Fred Hoiberg, but if you place players who lack a deep shot on the perimeter, the defense does not have to respect them and can pack the lane. This makes it impossible for Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, players who thrive close to the basket, to score the ball because the defense just clogs the paint.

If the Bulls surrounded a player like Jimmy Butler with top-notch three-point shooters, the defense would have to respect the shooters, opening up shots for themselves and for Butler inside. This is very similar to what the Rockets have done with James Harden, what the Heat did with LeBron James, and what the Magic did with Dwight Howard.

This is the number one issue with the Bulls. A lot of people will place the blame for their sub-par season on Fred Hoiberg, which is just unfair. It is no surprise what kind of offense he wants to run. I’ve said it over and over again in this State of the Bulls Address: pace-and-space. It is impossible to accomplish this with the worst three-point shooting team in basketball, plain and simple.

The Bulls front office has done a poor job constructing a team to the liking of Coach Hoiberg, which has resulting in some disgusting basketball games.

Imagine if you were tasked with writing a paper, text, email, letter, etc. However, you were only allowed to write in Spanish. Since English is the only language you know how to write, you are having a bit of trouble. You remember some Spanish from grade school, but that was a long time ago, so most of your writing makes absolutely no sense and the recipient is frustrated.

This is the situation Fred Hoiberg is in. He wants to write in English because that is the language he knows and is successful writing in, but Gar Forman, the Bulls general manager, is only allowing him to write in Spanish.

It’s as if Hoiberg told Forman, “I need some good shooters to run a successful offense.”

And Forman responded, “Well, here’s Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. Good luck.”

If Forman gave Hoiberg the players that fit his system, who knows how successful the Bulls would be, but they sure as hell would be a whole lot better than they are now. Instead, Forman signed Rajon Rondo, a career .292 shooter from deep, and Dwyane Wade, a career .287 three-point shooter.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In a press conference following the Bulls’ immensely disappointing season last year, their front office presented the direction that they would take that offseason in order to prevent them from suffering the same fate. That direction was to become “younger and more athletic.”

Whether or not this direction is the one they should have pursued is not the issue. The issue is that they failed miserably in accomplishing this. It seems like the Bulls did everything in their power to not get younger and more athletic.

They drafted Denzel Valentine. Again, this wasn’t a bad pick, but Valentine was a senior, which is not a common sight anymore in the NBA Draft. Valentine built a reputation on being a tremendous all-around player at Michigan State, becoming the third player in MSU basketball history to record multiple triple-doubles (joining Magic Johnson and Draymond Green, pretty good company). However, he was mainly criticized coming out of college for being a very poor athlete. Mike Schmitz from Draft Express wrote: “[He] is not a great athlete by any stretch, lacking much in the way of quickness and explosiveness.” So who did the Bulls draft? Among other characteristics, an old, unathletic player in their attempts to get “younger and more athletic.”

This was just the beginning. The Bulls proceeded to sign 30-year-old, Rajon Rondo, to a 2 year, $28 million contract and 34-year-old, Dwyane Wade, to a 2 year, $47 million contract. Usually you don’t know how a certain move will play out, and if it fails, it is easy to say you knew it would after the fact. However, when the Bulls signed Rondo, it was easy to predict that it would not be a success. He is a miserable fit in Chicago, and this was not difficult to foresee when he signed. Something Rondo has done well, though, is he has worked extensively with the Bulls’ young players, so at least he has this going for him.

Regardless of how Wade and Rondo fit in with the roster at the time of the signings—and they fit terribly, which is an understatement—these two signings contradicted everything the Bulls’ front office had said previously. What good is “transparency” when nothing that is said is followed through?

So, I’ve made it very clear that the Bulls cannot shoot, but what evidence is there that solid shooting results in better overall play by the Bulls? I’m glad you asked. Here are the Bulls three best five-man lineups in terms of plus-minus per 100 possessions (per basketball-reference as of 1/26). Notice any trends?

1. Wade, Butler, McDermott, Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio: +38.8/100 possessions

2. Rondo, Butler, McDermott, Mirotic, Taj Gibson: +23.0/100 possessions

3. Rondo, Butler, McDermott, Mirotic, Robin Lopez: +22.4/100 possessions

There is a very clear pattern between these three very successful lineups that the Bulls have used: Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic. Can you guess what the Bulls best three-man lineup is? If you guessed Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic, you are correct. They are +20.6 per 100 possessions when all three of them are on the court.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Of course the Bulls are a better team with All-Star starter Jimmy Butler on the court, but what does this success say about McDermott and Mirotic? One word. Spacing.

Even though it is an understatement to say that Mirotic has been atrocious from three this season, teams have to respect his ability to shoot because that is what he is known for; that is what is in the scouting report. With McDermott and Mirotic on the wing, Jimmy Butler has plenty of space to operate in the paint because defenders are glued to McDermott and Mirotic, afraid of leaving them open from three. Butler also commands plenty of attention from opposing defenses, allowing him to kick the ball out to McDermott or Mirotic who are spacing the floor next to him.

Remember when I said that if you blame Fred Hoiberg for the Bull’s cringe-worthy season you were wrong? Well, you wouldn’t be 100 percent wrong; Hoiberg does deserve some of the blame.

Hoiberg has been constantly changing the Bulls lineup, disrupting the consistency of some players, especially the point guards. Rajon Rondo, the opening day starting point guard, has started 29 games and has come off the bench in 11 games. He was also benched in favor of Michael Carter-Williams, coming off of the bench for a few games. Rondo was then out of the lineup completely for five games in the middle of the season before coming off of the bench, and after several games, he has been very productive, including ten assists last game.

Michael Carter-Williams has started 12 games and has come off the bench in six games (he missed significant time due to injury). However, MCW has been out of the lineup completely the last four games, getting benched in favor of second-year player, Jerian Grant.

Jerian Grant has started nine games and has come off the bench in 29 games. Grant received inconsistent playing time for the first 25 games, has been given eleven DNP-CDs (Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision), and has started the last four games for the Bulls. However, even when Grant has started, he hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in a game as Hoiberg has decided to play Dwyane Wade at point guard in recent games. It’s just been a revolving door at the point guard position.

Hoiberg has also been inconsistent in managing the backup small forward position. When Jimmy Butler needed rest for the majority of the first half of the season, Hoiberg turned to Doug McDermott. Although McDermott has been inconsistent to say the least during his short career thus far, the Bulls traded two first round picks to move up in the draft in order to take the former Creighton star.

Recently, Paul Zipser, a second round pick from Germany, has taken over the backup small forward role. After not playing more than nine minutes in a game for the first 39 games and receiving 29 DNP-CD, Hoiberg chose to start Zipser over McDermott against the Knicks when Butler was out with illness. Following this start—in which Zipser played just over 34 minutes—he got another DNP-CD and has followed that up with eight games of at least fifteen minutes of playing time, including 29 minutes last game against the 76ers.

Although Zipser has been solid the last few games—he’s averaging 13.5 points and shooting .526 from the field over the last two games—he is less of a part of the Bulls’ future than McDermott is. Chicago traded up to draft McDermott, and his lack of consistency has made people second-guess whether or not that was a smart move by the Bulls front office. When his minutes are being snatched by a second round pick, it can be hard for McDermott to expand on his development, and he has shown flashes of being a fantastic scorer in this league.

Kamil Krzaczynski/AP
Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

I am not saying that Hoiberg should scratch all of Zipser’s minutes because Zipser does something that not many players on the Bulls can do: space the floor. And if I haven’t made it clear by now, spacing is very important. However, I have wanted McDermott to be the focal point of the Bulls offense when he comes off of the bench because he is capable to score in more ways than the Bulls give him the opportunity to. He is used almost strictly as a spot-up shooter even though he is a very skilled scorer in the post and off of the dribble. McDermott didn’t score 3,150 points in college (which is fifth all-time) just by spotting-up behind the arc. Also, he isn’t called Dougie McBuckets for no reason.

I could write a whole book on the next issue that has plagued the Bulls this season. Chemistry. You might have heard about the almost comical—it was probably very funny to some non-Bulls fans, but I didn’t enjoy it that much—situation involving the “three alphas,” Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Rajon Rondo. If you didn’t happen to catch what happened after the Bulls loss to the Hawks on January 25, here are a few quotes from Wade and Butler from after the game:

Wade: “I’m 35 years old. I have three championships. It shouldn’t hurt me more than it hurts these young guys. They have to want it.”

Wade again: “I can look at Jimmy and say Jimmy is doing his job. I think Jimmy can look at me and say Dwyane is doing his job. I don’t know if we can keep going down the line and be able to say that.”

How about another Wade quote: “It just doesn’t mean enough to guys around here. And it pisses me off.”

Butler: “We don’t play hard enough. This is your job. I want to play with guys who care.”

These are only four of the many Butler and Wade quotes hinting at their frustration with the lack of effort from the rest of the team. Very subtle, right? And of course, Rajon Rondo had to respond with this Instagram posts:

img_0646

After this little fiasco, everyone on the Bulls said it wasn’t personal and carried on like business as usual. However, if Wade and Butler feel this strongly about their teammates, there is definitely some trust issues between them and the rest of the team. Also, this has been brewing for probably three months, and it is hard to play with teammates when this is the kind of relationship you have. Like I said, I could go on forever about this one issue, but I’ll just leave it at this: whatever the atmosphere was like in the Bulls locker room before, the Bulls do not look like a team that has enjoyed playing together.

On a different, but related note, the constant trade rumors that have been swirling around the Windy City for the last year have just added to the turmoil around the Bulls.

Put yourself in Jimmy Butler’s shoes. You have left everything on the court in every game you have played, have given everything you have to the franchise, and yet, everyday you are looking over your shoulder, waiting for the fateful day when you will be packing your bags and putting on a different uniform.

I have obviously made it clear that I don’t want the Bulls to trade Butler and think it would be a grave mistake, but the same could be said for Taj Gibson and pretty much every player on the Bulls’ roster. It is hard to play at your best when you know you could be traded at any time.

To make a long story short, the Bulls are a mess right now, but the blame cannot be placed on one person. There is a formula that has proven to be successful, and that is to surround Jimmy Butler with shooters. The front office has made some questionable decisions to say the least in the past, but if they follow a certain path, which has been a harder task than anticipated for Gar Forman and John Paxon, the Bulls can compete in the weak Eastern Conference as soon as next season.

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