The Winning Combination: A Look at the Bulls’ Lineup Data

When watching the Bulls, there are always things that stick out to the naked eye: Derrick Rose is good, Kirk Hinrich is not,  and Aaron Brooks is all over the place.

The beauty of basketball is that unlike baseball (and even football to some extent) the game is not about one-on-one matchups. With constant substitutions, undefined positions or roles, and the need to switch between offense and defense every 20 seconds or so, an individual player’s impact has a lot to do with the teammates he shares the floor with.

That is why I absolutely love NBA.com’s lineup statistics, as it provides an opportunity to evaluate players not just based on their individual stat lines, but rather how they blend with their surroundings. It also gives me ammunition to yell at the TV when I am unhappy with certain substitution patterns and personnel groupings that Coach Thibs leaves on the floor for long stretches of time.

Let’s get to it.

LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler

Because of a litany of early season injuries that has (yet again) plagued the Bulls, the amount of data available on five man units is rather thin. The most used lineup for the Bulls this season, the traditional starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Gasol and Noah, has only logged 143 minutes. By comparison, the most used lineup in the league has logged 325 minutes*, and ten five man groups have logged at least 200. Despite the limited sample size of five man units for Chicago, there are a couple of interesting facts that can be gleaned from glancing over the numbers.

* The most used lineup so far is Kobe-Lin-Boozer-Wes Johnson-Jordan Hill. That group has a net rating of -14.3 and is giving up 118 points per 100 possessions. That is unspeakable badness.

That starting five, despite its relative low minute total, is actually the most used lineup in the NBA on a per minute basis for squads that have appeared in seven games together (yes I know this is an arbitrary cutoff, but that’s how many games the starters have played together. This article will have lots of arbitrary cutoffs; just roll with me, I’m not trying to deceive you). At 20.4 minutes a game, they narrowly edge out Portland’s excellent starting unit, logging 19.4 MPG together.

The Bulls starting group has played excellently together when they’ve been out there. Of five man lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, they rank fifth in defensive efficiency (97.7), fifth in net rating (+13.3), third in rebounding percentage (55.6%) and sixth in assist percentage (65.9%). They are scoring more efficiently than the most used Cleveland five man unit (111 to 105.6) and getting to the line more frequently than Toronto’s slashing starting five.

This unit creates a balance the Bulls have sorely lacked in past seasons. The addition of Pau Gasol and the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a two way monster have given Chicago the offensive punch they sorely lacked to start and close games.

kirk pass

The second most used five man unit for the Bulls, coming in at a barely statistically significant 88 minutes, has been Hinrich-Butler-Dunleavy-Gasol-Noah. This lineup, essentially the starting five but with Kirk swapped in for Rose, has been less than ideal.

This group cannot score (98 points/100 possessions) nor defend (109.3 pts/100). Their rebound percentage of 46.4% is the lowest of any Bulls unit to log more than 20 minutes. Their eFG% is the lowest of lineups logging that same amount of court time, and their TS% is second lowest, bested (or I suppose I should say worsted) by the garbage man crew of Moore-Snell-McDermott-Mirotic-Mohammed.

The contrast in output from a group that remains 80% intact is startling, especially considering that no other lineup but the two most used has logged more than 45 minutes. The impact that Rose has on a game, even when he is noticeably less explosive and aggressive on drives, is far greater than what I expected. Furthermore, Hinrich, who has the reputation of being a plus defender, seems to mess up the mojo of this unit.

Rajon Rondo Derrick Rose loose ball

To build on Rose’s difficult to observe importance, just check out the Bulls’ defensive rating this season. Overall through December 4th, the Bulls rank ninth in defense, surrendering 101.9 points/100 possessions. While ninth still places them firmly in the upper echelon of the NBA, it is a significant fall from  the past few seasons. What is the source of that dropoff?  Is it perhaps that Taj Gibson has missed seven games, or maybe because Noah has been playing on one leg all season? Good hypotheses, but check out the teams’ defensive rating in the (albeit limited) time Rose has manned the point: 95.4.

The dysfunction of the Kirk+starters lineup is perplexing. Hinrich’s on court defensive rating is 101.4, a hair better than the overall team average. The fact that the defense becomes 12 points worse when Kirk is swapped for Rose seems to be less an issue of pure talent dropoff and more an issue of fit in the scheme. Perhaps the idea of Kirk Hinrich the point guard needs to be put to rest and Kirk Hinrich the shooting guard more fully embraced. In lineups where Kirk and Rose share the floor, lineups that do not require Kirk to guard opposing point guards,  the Bulls hold offenses to just 87.4 ponts/100 possessions.

The Bulls most explosive offensive player this year has been the resurgent Aaron Brooks. Of three man combinations that have logged 50 or more minutes, Brooks is involved in the two with the highest offensive efficiency and 11 of the top 15.

While Brooks has been an offensive catalyst, the team defense with him on the floor takes just as dramatic of a turn down as the offense turns up. Additionally, his somewhat limited role on the team makes him prone to some small sample size noise. Of the five best offensive trios featuring Brooks, none have registered 100 minutes of court time.

When the threshold for qualification is shifted to 100 minutes, a different player comes to the offensive forefront. Jimmy Butler’s transformation has been well documented, but allow me to throw in my two cents: Butler is a part of the five best offensive trios to log 100 minutes. Keeping the focus on trios, Butler is a cog in four of the top five three man units in net rating (the only trio not involving Butler: Rose, Noah and Gasol, the fourth best net).

mirotic_1200_141008

Jake did a great job covering the early returns on the rookies, but allow me to take it a bit further. Mirotic has far exceeded my expectations heading into the season, displaying a feel for the game and a level of maturity you don’t find in most rookies (although spending years as a professional in Europe probably plays into that). Mirotic, who has filled in as the first big off the bench in wake of the Taj Gibson injury, has played admirably with the right lineup pairing.

In 91 minutes of court time with Niko/Noah, the Bulls play at a +13 net rate. In 87 minutes with Taj, that number falls to +4. In 122 minutes of Mirotic alongside Gasol, the Bulls have looked ugly, scoring only 100.6 points/100 possessions while surrendering 106.3, something to keep an eye on. Thibodeau has made it clear that when Taj returns from injury, Mirotic’s role will be greatly decreased. While that is to be expected, I would hope to see a small decrease in everyone’s minutes, rather than just a huge role reduction by Mirotic. As I covered before the season began, the Bulls have the big men personnel to keep a balanced lineup on the floor for 48 minutes while also keeping everyone relatively fresh.

A final Mirotic note before I move onto Creighton’s finest: Niko and Dunleavy constitute the pairing that hast the highest net rating, eFG% and TS%, as well as the second highest offensive efficiency. Spacing is awesome.

The guy the organization, fans, and handsome bloggers thought was going to provide that spacing has been – what’s a way to say dumpster fire without sounding mean – slow to adjust to the speed of the NBA. Doug McDermott has really struggled through the first quarter of the season. Only managing to see 11 minutes of playing time a night, a number that has decreased as the year has gone on, McDermott has been predictably bad on defense. The Bulls’ defensive rating spikes to 108.7 when Doug hits the floor.

The surprise with McDermott has been his struggles on the offensive end, an area where Bulls brass assumed he would have a smooth transition. PER, a stat that doesn’t really penalize a guy for bad defense, is unkind to Doug, who is sporting a four. McDermott is only shooting 23% from three, his area of supposed expertise. Regardless of who McDermott plays with, it has been ugly. He makes up half of the four worst pairs in terms of net rating.

While the statistics and trends I have reviewed today may not hold up over the course of an 82 game season, they are important to keep an eye on moving forward. Lineup combinations, substitution patterns and creating the best matchups were the key to the Spurs’ championship run last season. Lets hope the Bulls will continue to maximize their strengths.

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