Category Archives: Quick Bulls Thoughts

Thoughts and analysis on what’s going on with the Chicago Bulls.

Isaiah Canaan’s a one trick pony, but it’s the trick Chicago needs

Nobody seems excited about new Bulls point guard Isaiah Canaan. This is not a huge surprise, as most citizens have simply never heard of the guy. Those who are familiar with his work in Philadelphia the past two seasons were underwhelmed with Canaan’s defense, decision making, and inability to expand upon his only good skill: shooting.

Most of Bulls Twittersphere arrived at their bummed out conclusion about Canaan based on this grim profile by Jake Pavorsky from SBNation’s Liberty Ballers. The well-researched article goes deep on Canaan’s limitations as a point guard: he’s a bad floor general; he can’t finish near the basket; his defense just plain sucks, especially when forced to defend shooting guards.

Canaan’s shortcomings in Philly were amplified by the context around him. The 76ers were not a team built to win basketball games, and Canaan was forced to do things well outside of his comfort zone. It’s a bad sign that the opportunity to run the show did not result in much progress for Canaan, but do not let his failures in one facet of the game obscure the value he brings elsewhere.

Coming to Chicago presents Canaan with the opportunity to fit into a role that better suits his abilities. Between Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls do not need any more ball dominant guards on the roster. Between the #ThreeAlphas, there will be no shortage of guys comfortable pounding the air out of the ball. What this team desperately does need is shooting, and shooting is what Canaan can do.

Isaiah Canaan averaged 25.5 minutes over the 77 games he appeared in last season and jacked an unconscionable 6.3 threes per game. Despite the high volume. the Murray State product managed to connect on 36.3% of those attempts. According to NBA.com, 2.5 of Canaan’s triple attempts per game – about half – were pull up shots off the dribble. On pull ups, Canaan managed to shoot just 32% from three. But when Canaan fired away off the catch, which he did 3.9 times per game last year, he connected on 40.1% of his attempts, an excellent rate that warrants off ball attention from opposing defenses.

Canaan simply will not have the ball in his hands enough to come close to approaching the number of pull up threes he took last season. And if a few of those low efficiency attempts are shaved down and replaced by shots Canaan has shown a consistent ability to make, it’s not crazy to think his overall percentage could creep up to 38% or 39%.

Canaan will continue to be a crappy defender. It’s unlikely he will grow a few inches and improve his inside finishing. He’ll never sniff the assist totals of a guy like Rondo. But, on a team completely devoid of guards who can shoot, Isaiah Canaan will make an impact. Regardless of which of the alphas he shares the court with, Canaan will afford an extra sliver of driving space for his backcourt mate. Canaan was stretched far beyond his capabilities in Philadelphia, but as a member of the Chicago Bulls I believe he can settle into a role that maximizes his value to the team.

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The Lineup Laboratory: Let’s Make Space

We know who is going to be playing for the Bulls. A flurry of moves this offseason resulted in one point guard being shipped out and another high profile one being signed on. The Bulls followed up the Rondo signing with the (second) most surprising move of the summer by luring Dwyane Wade from the Heat on a two year deal.

In a vacuum, both of these signings are very justifiable. After the Rose trade, the Bulls were able to get a proven veteran coming off a very good season on what is basically a one year deal. Compared to some of the supersized contracts that were handed out the first week in July, Rondo is almost a bargain, and fills a clear positional need.

Wade, coming off his healthiest season in years, absolutely has gas left in the tank. The Bulls are more than a wing short of being able to contend with the Warriors and Cavaliers of the league, and adding Wade, despite the high cost, bolsters what is generally a shallow position across all 30 teams. While Wade has never figured out how to shoot threes, his herky-jerky “dad at Lifetime wearing a knee brace” game figures to age well.

These would be great signings if basketball was baseball. Baseball is a game of one on one battles, and the team that has more talent in their lineup tends to win. In basketball, simply acquiring talent is not enough. In basketball, a player’s ability to succeed is impacted as much by who he shares the court with as how good skilled he may be as a shooter or driver. Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler would make a killer 3-4-5 in a batting order. But as a 1-2-3 on the basketball court, these undeniably talented players add up to less than the sum of their parts.

The projected Bulls starting lineup – Rondo, Wade, Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez – features just one above average three point shooter. The streaky Montenegrin is going to need to improve his consistency from beyond the arc if the Bulls starting group hopes to have any space to operate on offense.

The severe shooting deficit in the Bulls backcourt will ultimately limit one of the few strengths of this roster. Between Mirotic, Lopez, Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis and Cristiano Felicio, the Bulls have a very deep PF/C rotation. Unfortunately, it will be spacing suicide anytime two of these players share the floor and one is not Niko. To cover up the flaws of the roster’s architecture, Chicago is going to need to get creative and find a way to squeeze 48 minutes of outside shooting from the power forward spot.

Already we are hearing about Fred Hoiberg‘s plan to have Doug McDermott play power forward. The 6’8″ McDermott is far too weak a rebounder to hold up at the position for long stretches. But against some of the other stretch fours in the league, McDermott may be able to provide valuable spacing on offense while avoiding his biggest weakness: perimeter defense.

I expect the Bulls will also use Jimmy Butler at the 4 at times during the season. Butler is strong enough to hold up in the post against most big men (including LeBron James). Butler has the quickness to torture other power forwards on the perimeter, and his less than great three point shooting upgrades to average when he’s considered a four. Lineups with Wade, Tony Snell and Butler will give the Bulls the flexibility to switch often on defense, the strategy used by the Thunder and Heat to stop the Warriors in the playoffs.

I imagine Taj Gibson, who has played 89% of his career minutes at power forward, will see most of his playing time come as the backup center. A Taj and Lopez pairing, which should be superb on defense, is just not going to result in a functioning offense with the spacing issues across the roster.

The real losers in this roster shakeup are Portis and Felicio, two players who desperately need on court experience to improve their feel for the NBA game. There are just not going to be enough minutes for these guys on a consistent basis. Both players showed they are not afraid to take a perimeter jumper last season, but until defenses start respecting Portis and Felicio outside the paint, their presence will only further clog the dirty drain that is the Bulls offense.

We still have a long time between now and the start of the regular season and the Bulls may not be done tinkering with the roster. Just a few hours ago it was announced the Bulls signed Isaiah Canaan, who instantly becomes the best shooter in the Bulls backcourt and will provide value off the bench and off the ball. The team could also shake things up by trading Taj Gibson, making $9 million in the last year of his contract, for a three point marksman. Should the Bulls stand pat with this group, Fred Hoiberg is going to have to get very creative with his rotations.

Defense is not the only issue for Pau Gasol

We are 130 games into the Pau Gasol era and by now I think everyone has logged their fair share of complaints. Gasol has stuffed the box scores en route to a pair of All-Star appearances, but careful observers know better. Pau has lost more than a step on defense and his effort at boxing out is inconsistent at best.

That’s why it was so disappointing when the Bulls chose to hold onto Gasol at the trade deadline. Despite allegedly strong overtures from Vlade Divac and the Sacramento Kings, the Bulls opted to retain what Gar Forman referred to as “part of our core.”

To hear Forman describe the 36-year-old free agent-to-be as a part of the team’s core is concerning. Pau cannot anchor an elite defense, a fact no person with working eyes can deny. Being a capable last line of defense is of greater value to teams in the modern NBA than being able to score inside. Pau was a solid defender at one time in his life, but those days are gone. His tremendous offensive skill set has been enough to prop Gasol up as an All-Star caliber player, but even that is beginning to slip this season.

The first change I noticed in Pau’s offense this season was his shot selection. Last year a large portion of the offense was run through Pau in the post. This season that has not been the case. According to basketball reference, Pau Gasol is taking just 24.3% of his shots within three feet of the basket. If that number stays consistent the rest of the season it will be his lowest rate of shots in the restricted area of his career and 7% lower than his rate a season ago. That 7% has migrated from the rim to the dreaded mid range. Gasol is attempting 33.6% of his field goals between 16 feet and the three point line, by far his career high.

A season ago, I wouldn’t have minded this shot distribution as much. Last year, on shots taken from the dead zone. Gasol shot over 47%. This year, with his attempts up, his accuracy has fallen down below 45%.

The uptick in mid range shots has been accompanied by a decline in other indicators of efficient offense. Pau’s free throw rate last season was .317, the highest it had been in five years. This season, Pau is taking just .282 free throws for every field goal attempt, the lowest rate of his career.

I’ll give Pau credit for trying to stretch his game beyond the arc, something he was reluctant to do in Los Angeles. Gasol is shooting 41% from three point range and has already shattered his season high in three pointers attempted and made. But even though Pau has seen his three point attempt rate double since last season, his 0.3 three pointers made per game is not enough to  make much of an impact on the offense.

Per Basketball Reference, only four players this year have usage rates at about 24%, free throw rates below 0.3 and three point attempt rates below .07: Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nikola Vucevic and Jahlil Okafor. The big difference between Pau and the other three is that Pau is the only one who’s two point and effective field goal percentage is below 50%.

A lot of the changes in Pau’s shot selection can be chalked up to the offensive philosophy of Fred Hoiberg. Isolations from the post are a thing of the past and have been replaced by more pick and roll. According to NBA.com, Pau has completed 201 possessions as the roll man in such plays, the 7th highest total in the NBA. But of the 41 players who have logged 100 of these possessions, Pau has the 32nd highest eFG%. The Bulls score on just 47.3% of these possessions, landing Pau in the 33rd percentile.

The Bulls have relied heavily on the pick and pop between Rose and Gasol. Rose’s renewed athleticism has forced defenses to collapse on his drives, opening up wide open looks for Gasol. With Pau’s accuracy on these shots dipping, it would be nice to see him back out a couple of steps and turn some of those long twos into threes. Even if his field goal percentage dips a bit further, the value of the extra point would be worth it. It would also create more space for Rose going to the hoop if Pau’s man is afraid to surrender the triple.

The Bulls would be much better off putting Nikola Mirotic in these pick and pops. Niko is a willing three point shooter who would benefit from the drive and kick action that has freed up Gasol for three wide open looks per game.

The reason I bring this last bit up is because I do not want the Bulls to resign Pau Gasol for many reasons. Steven Noh explained how it would handcuff us in free agency this summer despite the historic cap boom. Jonathon Tjarks, in an article about Jahlil Okafor, makes the strong point that a team without a center protecting the rim will always have problems.

And on top of those reasons, Pau’s slippage on the offensive end and questions about how he fits into Hoiberg’s scheme make resigning the Spaniard even less desirable. Yes, there is immense value in the possessions Gasol soaks up for a team that has struggled to find consistent offense.  But for a team with no realistic chance at the ultimate prize, the Bulls would be better served to let Pau go, take a step back next season, and allow some of the youth to develop.

 

 

Quick Bulls Thought: After Rocky Stretch, Bulls Have Rebounded

The Chicago Bulls find themselves in sole possession of second place in the surprisingly crowded Eastern Conference. The team is currently riding a five game winning streak that has seen the team play some of its best basketball to date. The good vibes surrounding the Bulls can be attributed to the stellar play of Jimmy Butler, but his heroic performances aren’t the only reason the Bulls suddenly look like a real threat to dethrone LeBron and the Cavaliers.

The Bulls were 11-8 on December 9th, but their winning percentage was not telling the real story of the team. Chicago to that point had a net rating of +0.1, the mark of a .500 team and nothing else. Since that date, the Bulls have won 10 of their 14 games and are doing so with an encouraging net rating of +4.2, sixth highest in the league during that stretch.

The reason for choosing December 9th as the arbitrary cutoff point for the tale of two Bulls seasons is because on that date Nikola Mirotic was replaced in the starting lineup by Taj Gibson.  The decision to start Taj, and break up the Niko-Gasol duo, has had one major impact on an under-appreciated aspect of the game: rebounding.

Prior to Taj being inserted into the starting lineup, the Bulls were 16th in rebound percentage, grabbing 49.8% of available boards. Since that date, the Bulls have hauled in 52.3% of their rebound chances, the fifth-highest rate in the league.

The surge up the standings is due almost entirely to a huge increase in offensive rebounding. Before December 9th, the Bulls offensive rebound rate was just 22%, 20th in the NBA. Since then, the Bulls have been grabbing 28.2% of offensive rebound chances, the fourth-highest rate in the league.

The boost in rebounding is not necessarily dependent on the presence of the athletic Taj Gibson. Instead, it seems that the Mirotic’s role reduction is the primary cause for rebound success. The Bulls rebound a team worst 47.9% of rebounds with Mirotic on the floor, and just 20.7% of offensive rebound chances.

Mirotic has been the Bulls biggest disappointment through the first third of the season. I’m already regretting the money I spent on his shirsey and the energy I spent attempting to get my girlfriend hyped for NIKOMANIA. It’s no surprise that Mirotic hurts the Bulls offensive rebounding when he spends most possessions hanging around the three point line. Nikola’s four percent offensive rebound rate is less than half of the current starting power forward. On the defensive glass, Mirotic has the third-highest rate on the team and is ahead of Gibson. But the team as a whole craters on the glass with him playing, suggesting that Mirotic is good at grabbing easy boards and doesn’t contribute much to overall team success there.

It has been a tremendous struggle to find a front court partner for Mirotic who allows the Bulls to survive on the glass.  Paired with Gasol, the Bulls grab just 46.1% of rebounds, which would be dead last in the NBA. When he shares the court with Taj, the Bulls rebound an unfathomable 44.8% of opportunities.

Fred Hoiberg’s decision to re-insert Mirotic into the starting lineup at small forward has not covered up Niko’s deficiencies. The Tall Ball experiment is not a successful one. Going into last night’s game, in the 113 minutes that Pau, Taj and Niko have played together, the team’s net rating is -6.5 and their rebound rate is 44.5%.

The one point of optimism for the Bulls moving forward has been the energetic play of Bobby Portis. With the rookie on the court, the Bulls collect 54.0% of available rebounds, the third-highest on court rate on the team. More importantly, Portis’s rebound ability seems to be immune to the Mirotic effect. The sample size is a microscopic 47 minutes (before Tuesday night), but the team’s 53% rebound rate is very encouraging.

Quick Bulls Thought: McDerrrrggghhhhmott

With just 10% of the NBA season in the rear view mirror, we are all still audience members at small sample size theater. The grind of an 82 game season tends to level off extreme performances both good and bad. But through eight games, the impact of Doug McDermott has been bad enough that it deserves some early season attention.

Judging McDermott only by his box score statistics does not capture the detriment that his presence on the court brings. The second year man from Creighton has actually been very good based solely on basketball’s most primitive data. In 21 minutes per game (up from an average of eight minutes in just 36 games played last year) McDermott is averaging 11.1 points and is shooting 53% from the field and 57.6% from three.  Those shooting splits are very impressive and fall in line with what Bulls fans expected when the team moved up to draft the sharpshooter. He’ll inevitably regress from this fantastic rate, but even a decent sized decline will still have him among the league leaders in shooting percentage. After a disastrous rookie season, McDermott is clearly playing with a new sense of confidence and is taking advantage of the sets coach Hoiberg has designed for him.

Doug McDermott appears to be an efficient role player on the surface, but digging any deeper into the numbers paints a much different picture. When McDermott is in the game, according to NBA.com,  the Bulls net rating is -15.8, by far the lowest of any player to appear in more than five minutes worth of action. The Bull with the second lowest on court net rating is the -3.3 owned by Pau Gasol (an issue for another day).  When McDermott is out of the game, the Bulls net rating skyrockets to +15.6, the highest net rating of any off court Bull by 4.5 points.

The Bulls crater on the defensive end with Doug in the game. Overall this season, the Bulls are sixth in the NBA in defensive rating, holding opponents to an impressive 96.1 points per 100 possessions. With McDermott on the court, the Bulls are giving up 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Doug thus far has looked totally lost executing any sort of defensive scheme on defense. Check out Ricky O’Donnell’s great breakdown of the myriad ways Doug has struggled guarding players in any and all scenarios.

The Bulls have been a below average rebounding team this season, grabbing just 48.7% of missed shots, 19th best in the league. With Doug McDermott on the court, the Bulls rebound rate drops to 46.6%, tied for 29th with the banged up Pelicans. McDermott is doing nothing to generate stops, and he’s not helping finish off possessions when his teammates force the opposition into a difficult shot.

The issue with Doug’s performance does not seem to be a product of Hoiberg sticking him in bad lineup combinations. He’s played 96 minutes with both Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah and the team’s net rating in those pairings is -17.5 and -19.6, respectively. In 85 minutes on the court with Taj Gibson, the Bulls are -29. The big he’s played “best” with is also the one he’s played with the least. In the 73 minutes Mirotic and McDermott have played together, the Bulls are only -7.2. The presence of Doug alongside Noah and Taj at the same time does nothing to improve their defensive rating, and when on the court with Gasol and Mirotic, the offense somehow only manages to score 88.7 points per 100 possessions.

The craziest thing about McDermott is that, despite the unsustainable hot shooting streak he’s been on to start the year, the Bulls have been the worst offense in the league with him on the court. An 89.9 offensive rating for a player who’s supposed to juice the offense is the trend that troubles me more than the bad defense. It’s the third lowest number of any player averaging twenty or more minutes a game (Jahlil Okafor and Matt Barnes are the only two players below him).

This will be something I pay very close attention to in upcoming games. In theory, having a player like McDermott forces the defense to commit a man to chasing him all over the court. Whether or not McDermott finds the ball in his hands, it should effectively create four-on-four opportunities for his teammates. This is the Kyle Korver effect, and Atlanta uses the attention the former Bull draws to create open driving lanes to the basket and find cutters moving without the ball. Why have the Bulls not been able to create offense using similar principles?

Hoiberg is still firmly in the experimentation stage with this team and I believe he will find creative ways to make the offense flow around McDermott. But it’s something to keep a close eye on.