Bulls Midseason Breakdown

The Bulls are 24-17, putting us at exactly the midpoint of Chicago’s 2015-16. The (D)Roses and Thorns crew is back once again to go through some of the biggest storylines surrounding the remainder of the season.

In our Quarter Season Breakdown, we took a look at the early returns on Fred Hoiberg‘s new offense, Chicago’s different lineup combinations, the ongoing struggles of Joakim Noah, and the necessity of a freed Bobby Portis.

The offense has actually improved greatly in the second quarter of the season. While Derrick Rose still isn’t distributing the ball to the best of his abilities, his scoring output has been fantastic. In that time, Rose has averaged 18.7 points on 45.9% shooting, massive improvements from his horrid start to the season. Furthermore, Jimmy Butler has continued to blossom into an elite two-way player, pouring in both a 40 point half and 53 point masterpiece while also increasing his assist rate.

Unfortunately, the defense has fallen off after a fantastic start. With Joakim Noah likely done for the season, Fred Hoiberg has no reliable frontcourt combinations when the Bulls need a stop. Taj Gibson is the only plus defender left, and pairing him with Pau Gasol does not fully combat the elder Spaniard’s poor efforts and mobility. Neither Niko Mirotic or Bobby Portis is an impactful defender at this time, meaning the Bulls have no choice but to try and beat opponents with offense now.

As a whole, the Bulls are on pace for 48 wins after a healthily dramatic first half of the season. Joakim’s injury hurts badly, and Mike Dunleavy‘s continued absence has left the Bulls without a reliable small forward. Still, encouraging signs from Derrick Rose and Bobby Portis have left us with some optimism yet. The Bulls probably won’t win the NBA Finals this year, but there’s plenty that makes this team worth watching.

Without further ado, let’s break it down, midseason style.

–Jake Weiner, (D)Roses and Thorns Editor

butler rose fred

Fred Hoiberg’s Report Card: Incomplete — Drew Hackman

If this year feels like a melting pot of players, coaches, styles, and personalities, that’s because it is. And so far, instead of a homogeneous complementary blend of talent, catalyzed by the offensive mind of Fred Hoiberg, it has been a close your eyes and pick a flavor of the night. We were expecting drag screens, fast breaks, a spaced half court, three pointers galore, easy paint points, and a chemistry and ball-sharing of new-age basketball never before seen during the Thibodeau era. It hasn’t quite been that.

The Bulls have shown flashes of picking up Hoiberg’s offense, glimpses of how great they can be, but they’ve also shown an utter lack of focus, communication, and rhythm, sometimes even in the same night, indicative of the discomfort and pains of going through a transition from a coach with the tough-minded, traditional style both in personality and in play of Tom Thibodeau, to the more relaxed and free-flowing Fred.

The Bulls are 24-17 under Hoiberg, which by most metrics would be a pretty respectable mark. It’s too early to tell whether Hoiberg is the right fit for this team, or what kind of coach he is at the NBA level. He comes into a city on the heels of four straight postseason runs with high expectations, this season no different, a fan base clamoring for a shake-up in the methodology and approach, and something new. He was said to bring a new and exciting offense to this team, with the players that could make it work. But what we’ve seen so far is ups and downs, a lot of post-play courtesy of Pau Gasol, and some frustrated players wishing he was more forceful. There have been signs of it (the halftime reaming the Bulls got against the pitiful Sixers), but nothing has taken hold.

This city expects greatness, a championship, heart hustle and muscle, and above all, effort. This team is not doing that right now, but a rookie coach can only do so much. The players need to step up and take ownership. Management needs to give the coach the tools; and the Bulls do not have the tools. Not with Pau Gasol unable to run the floor and Niko Mirotic shooting under 40%, and only two or three guys that can run an effective fast break. This season is not and will not be a failure for Hoiberg – the jury is still out, as are the results of the season. If and when the Bulls lose in the second round of the playoffs, or at best in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Cavs, the Bulls will hopefully re-tool and acquire some talent that fits into this offense. Then we can finally give a more accurate assessment of Hoiberg as an NBA coach.

Getting up for good teams and playing down to their competition has been the motus operandi of this team for at least two years running – a rookie coach can’t change that overnight. The players have to decide to show up with intensity. No amount of yelling or shaming from a coach will fix that.

This season may not matter if you take the long view – we’re hurtling towards either a Warriors-Cavs or Spurs-Cavs Finals. Hoiberg can only do so much with the personnel he has right now. This year is long from over, and there’s plenty of growth and excitement forthcoming, but it’s next year and the year after that have me truly wondering what Fred Hoiberg is capable of, once the front office decides to make some moves.

snell

The Confounding Tony Snell — Jacob Bikshorn

Tony Snell is perplexing. Not perplexing like my inability to understand where magnets come from and how they work. That’s more like being in awe of a natural force. That is not how I would categorize my Tony Snell confusion. What perplexes me about the third year forward is the great disconnect between what I see with my eyes on the basketball court compared to the numbers I read in his statistical profile.

Tony Snell does not grab the attention of the casual viewer. He’s started in 24 of the 39 games he’s appeared in, but is only averaging 22 minutes per game. He averages a modest six points, 3.5 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game. He is making a career best 37.4% of his threes, but is only attempting 2.9 of them per game. Snell has been horrendous from two point range, connecting on only 36% of his shots inside the arc. He’s only attempted 22 free throws all year. On the defensive end, Tony holds up well in isolation, but is not a particularly great team or help defender off the ball.

Looking beyond the box score is where things become strange. According to NBA.com/stats, the Bulls have a net rating of +5.6 when Tony Snell is in the game, the highest of any Bull. When Snell is off the court, the Bulls net rating falls to -3.4, the lowest on the team. Tony Snell, who appears to do very little to impact basketball games, somehow has the greatest impact on the team’s success.

What is causing this bizarre statistical trend? I have a couple of hypotheses, but none of them can be well supported by any objective measurement at my fingertips. The first hypothesis is that the other small forwards on the team are so bad, that Snell’s robust mediocrity is, by default, a massive boost. Doug McDermott has shot the ball well this season, but he still has a long way to go as a defender and rebounder; his presence on the floor is typically a predictor of poor results. For the second year in a row, Nikola Mirotic has been miscast as a small forward. Any advantages Niko provides on offense are erased when he’s forced to play alongside two other big men. While Snell has not done anything overwhelmingly positive, he at least does his best not to take anything off the table, something that can’t be said of Doug and Niko.

My other theory has to do with the short leash Fred Hoiberg has Snell on. There are certain games where Tony is just feeling it. When that first three finds the bottom of the net, it’s usually a sign of good things to come. On nights like that, Hoiberg extends Snell’s minutes and trusts him to add space to an offense that is constantly lacking it. But on other nights, when Snell clanks his first few attempts off the rim, Hoiberg is quick to send Tony to the bench. Guys like Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol are counted on for big minutes every night. Even on off nights when the shots aren’t falling, these three remain on the court. In theory, if Snell only gets to play on nights when he’s playing well, his on/off numbers would be heavily skewed.

I don’t have any great answer for the Tony Snell question. But I am excited to spend the second half of the season trying to figure it out.

BPtime

Bobby Portis Deserves More Minutes — Jason Schwartz

It’s time to address the issue of reserve power forwards for the Bulls. The two that reside there (Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis) are heading in opposite directions production-wise while Fred Hoiberg continues to give the majority of the minutes to the less productive of the two.

In the past few games, Hoiberg has gone with a starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Snell, Gibson, and Gasol, demoting previous starter Nikola Mirotic to sixth man duties. However, there is no great reason going forward why Mirotic should be getting more minutes than the rookie, as the difference in production is glaring.

While Mirotic showed a lot of promise in an exciting rookie campaign, some of the glaring deficiencies in his game have made him unplayable at times this season. Niko is not a consistent defender and has regressed offensively as well.

Enter Bobby Portis, the fresh-faced rookie who found a place at the end of Fred Hoiberg’s bench to start the season, playing in no more than 10 minutes in any game until December 19th against the Knicks, when he promptly put up 20 points and 11 boards. Portis would presumably improve the defense and rebounding as the first man off of the bench as well as help out the offense. Portis is shooting the ball at a 46.2% clip, compared to Mirotic’s paltry 38.1% from the field. The real improvement, however, is the improvement in athleticism from the rookie on both sides of the floor.

Anyone who was unfortunate enough to watch the game against the Warriors on Wednesday was greeted to Mirotic constantly getting blown by on the defensive side of the ball while bricking his only four shot attempts of the night. This may have been the reason he only played 14 minutes against the stacked Warriors squad. And in those short minutes, he managed to record an astounding +/- rating of -16. This Bulls team needs more athleticism going forward, that is no secret, so there is no harm in giving the rookie a shot to make his mark so the front office can see what they have for the future. The numbers back up this philosophy, especially with Joakim Noah’s injury effectively ruining Chicago’s long championship odds.

In Bulls wins, Bobby Portis is averaging more points and nearly twice as many minutes as he does in losses (17.5 mpg and 9.9 mpg respectively). On the other hand, Niko is averaging 6 less minutes per game and less points per game in Bulls wins. While Portis has provided a chunk of these stats in garbage time, it seems clear there is a correlation between more Bobby and better results.

P-PAU!

Will the Bulls Make a Deadline Move? — Jared Wyllys

Recently, our own Jacob Bikshorn did an excellent job of outlining some of the trade possibilities as the deadline approaches. At the time of Jacob’s post, Joakim Noah looked like a real possibility for one of the players to be moved, but of course, his season has essentially ended, so he is off of the block for now. So where does that leave us? The Bulls are not known for being particularly active at the trade deadline, but the time looks right to be shopping players like Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and possibly even Nikola Mirotic.

Prior to Christmas, the Bulls had been pretty actively shopping Noah and Taj Gibson, and while they might still be looking to move Gibson, Noah is set to be a free agent this summer, so his future is much more unclear.

Outside of the Noah related rumors, the Bulls trading market has been very quiet, which could mean that without Noah as a trade possibility, they may not look to make a move at all, though that’s not the approach that I would hope for them to take.

As it stands now, the Bulls would have the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, but it is a very tight field, and that spot shuffles regularly. And after being thoroughly trounced by the Warriors on Wednesday night, the Bulls don’t have a very easy stretch of games to finish the month of January, so this can change significantly.

As for the trade deadline next month, though I expect that the Bulls can remain competitive enough to finish with at least a seed in the top four, I think they are in a position where they need to be thinking beyond just this season. Realistically, we are looking at a team that would struggle to get out of the first or second round anyway, so I would prefer to see them build for the years to come. Jimmy Butler and Bobby Portis look like essential pieces, and beyond those two, my hope is that the front office is willing to move on from a lot of the current roster.

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