There's been something off about the Bulls all season. Despite a good record (including a brief stint at No. 1 in the East) and continued excellence from Jimmy Butler, the feel is just a little rougher than you'd expect.
Butler thrust the Bulls into the national conversation this week by calling into question new coach Fred Hoiberg's fabulously relaxed style of leadership. Those comments -- first made after a Saturday loss and reinforced on Monday -- have stoked that smoldering concern into a bright flame.
Groomed under totalitarian Tom Thibodeau, Butler wants Hoiberg to hold players more accountable. That is not Hoiberg's style. And so, an impasse.
But, as Nick Friedell notes, both Butler and Hoiberg are the futures of the club. The Bulls aren't going to bend either for the benefit of the other. Management is going to let them work this out, because there's no other solution. And in fact neither Butler nor Hoiberg is the reason the Bulls are flitting about on a three-game losing streak, nor are they the reason Chicago has only a half-game lead on the East's No. 9 team.
The reason Chicago is struggling is because no one but Butler and Pau Gasol can score. The reason Chicago is struggling is because Derrick Rose can't finish around the rim. The reason Chicago is struggling is because Joakim Noah has lost all confidence in his offensive game. The reason Chicago is struggling is because the frontcourt -- seen as a bastion of power for the Bulls -- is actually pretty one-dimensional and mediocre right now.
But here's the thing: This could all work out. This is all fixable. The Bulls can still be great if a few things break the right way. Let's start with that frontcourt.
THE BULLS' FRONTCOURT IS NOT AS GOOD AS IT SHOULD BE
On paper, having four starter-quality big men should be a point of strength for any NBA team. But through a mix of poor performance and bad fit, Chicago is actually struggling to find strong combos up front. Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic are the regular starters. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson play substantial minutes off of the bench. Mirotic played power forward almost exclusively until Hoiberg gave him the start at small forward on Monday, and the Bulls play little small ball.
There have been five core big man combos who have seen regular minutes. The table below shows how the team has performed (per 36 minutes) with each combo on the floor. (The Gibson-Mirotic combo is not one of the five core big man combos Hoiberg has used much.)
The Gasol-Noah combo -- one featured heavily last season, too -- is strong. Gasol-Mirotic (the most heavily used combo) is fine. Neither combo featuring Gibson, nor Noah-Mirotic, have been successful. Noah-Gibson, in fact, has been a real disaster despite Noah and Gibson having partnered for years.
Why is this the case? The Bulls went to an East finals with a Noah-Gibson battery, and neither is exactly old. Both still defend well. They are primarily playing against bench units. Why do all the successful big man combos feature Pau? It's not the defense: all four players have been between good and great on that end. (The average big man field goal percentage is 45 percent. All four are holding opponents under that rate.)
The reason all the best big man combos feature Pau is because Gasol is the only big man who combines some modicum of scoring prowess and defense. Mirotic is way under 40 percent from the floor this season and sits below 34 percent from long-range. Gibson has never been a scorer -- that's never been his role and it isn't now. Noah is ... we'll get to Noah later. For now, let's note that he's shooting less frequently than any other Bull and still sits way below average in efficiency.
On paper, the Bulls have enough talent up front to never play a bad combo. In practice, three of the four guys in the rotation are either offensive minuses or non-entities on that end. There is no good offensive combo here right now, though there also isn't a bad defensive combo. And in fact, there's only one great combo in practice: Gasol-Noah.
This lack of scoring prowess isn't limited to the big men. Only three Bulls are shooting above the league average FG percentage (44.5) and taking at least 10 FGAs per 36 minutes: Butler, Gasol and Doug McDermott. Because he takes so many threes, Mirotic's overall scoring efficiency (measured by True Shooting percentage) is slightly higher than that of Gasol. Both Gasol and Mirotic are far more potent than Gibson and Noah on offense. That's evident in this chart showing each big man's performance when on the floor with Butler, the clear offensive alpha.
|Player||MP w/ Butler||+/- w/ Butler||Per 36 Min|
When Gibson and especially Noah are out there with Butler, there's just not enough supplemental offensive help to overcome the deficiencies. The obvious answer -- and something analysts have agitated for persistently -- is to pair Gasol and Noah in the starting lineup. The problem is that you consign yourself to perhaps the worst deep-shooting starting five in the NBA with that unit (maybe No. 29 ahead of Milwaukee).
Hoiberg wants to run a modern motion offense that capitalizes on three-point shooting. His best frontcourt features two guys who don't stretch the floor at all. The solution: Mirotic starts hitting threes. That's why Hoiberg has been reliant on him next to Gasol. For the Bulls to have a good offense, they need a shooter up front when Butler (a middling deep shooter) and Rose (an atrocious deep shooter) are out there. He also may want to consider McDermott as a starter. Tony Snell does not merit defensive attention from behind the line.
Bottom line: there are options here, if not permanent solutions.
Now for something somewhat more uplifting: Derrick Rose.
THE DEAL WITH DERRICK ROSE
Derrick Rose is No. 2 behind Butler in FGAs per game, and actually has a higher usage rate than Butler. He's the point guard, after all, and he's a far better passer than Butler despite never being one of the best passers at his position. Rose is also No. 2 on the team in minutes played despite breaking his face in the preseason. He's been, dare we say, reliable.
He's also shooting at an absolutely horrible clip. The big men have been poor on offense. Rose has been even worse.
Never a great outside shooter, Rose continues to struggle from deep. He's at 22 percent on about two three-pointers per game, his worst rate since his rookie season. But hell, he only hit 33 percent of his threes during his MVP year. That isn't really his game. Rose is an attacker. He thrives by taking opponents off of the dribble and getting to the bucket. That's what made his knee surgeries so terrifying: the injuries threatened to rob Rose that which made Rose D-Rose.
Sure enough, Rose is a bit of a disaster going to the rim this season. He's shooting 42 percent on shots five feet or less from the rim, and he hasn't dunked all season.
Wait, I thought you said this was going to be uplifting? Oh, right.
Here's the good news: it seems unlikely Rose's inability to make a damn layup is the result of those knee injuries. How can we tell? Because just last season, in which he played better than 50 games while recovering from his latest knee problem, he hit 55 percent on shots close to the rim. He didn't suffer any knee-related setbacks in the offseason, just the broken face. The broken face will heal, and in fact is healing. Rose has hit about 55 percent of his shots at the rim while taking roughly a third of his shots from that zone both before and after the string of knee injuries. This season -- the season in which he can't buy a bucket inside -- is the outlier. What's more, he only dunked five times all of last season. The dunk count doesn't seem to correlate with his effectiveness at converting inside.
Derrick Rose is 27 and can get to the rim against almost any defense. History suggests he'll start making his layups. That'd be a huge boon to the Bulls' offense and a big relief to Butler. It may also force defenses to key on Rose a little more, opening up some room for Butler off the pass, as well as Gasol, Mirotic, McDermott, Tony Snell and other Bulls who struggle to create on their own.
Rose might never again be an All-Star, and he's on pace to be the first NBA MVP to not make the Hall of Fame. But odds are he'll start converting those shots near the rim much more frequently and help cure one of the Bulls' big problems.
And now ...
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH JOAKIM NOAH?
Short version: acute Rondoitis.
Noah doesn't shoot any more. He used to be a competent if infrequent mid-range shooter. In his MVPish season (that's what we'll call 2013-14, where Noah finished No. 4 in MVP voting), about 23 percent of Noah's shots were jumpers and he hit about 38 percent of them, which isn't terrible for the Defensive Player of the Year.
Back then, he also hit 50 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the basket. Last season, he still took jumpers about 20 percent of the time, but his conversion rate inside of 10 feet fell to 47 percent. This season, he's almost never shooting outside the paint. When he does take a shot within 10 feet of the rim -- and even that's increasingly infrequent -- he's hitting just 41 percent.
His free throw percentage has fallen, too. Noah was a league average shooter up through his MVPish year (74-75 percent), but he fell to 60 percent from the line last season. He's 21-43 (49 percent) this season.
His shot mechanics were never a work of art, but now they're broken and his confidence meter is empty. He remains an absolutely brilliant passer -- his per-minute assist rate is the best of his career -- but there's simply no threat to score any more. Big men tend to move out onto the perimeter as they age: their bodies can't keep up with younger, springier legs around the rim. But because Noah's shot is so broken, he's only taking shots at the rim, and it's not working.
Even with the rather nutty assist numbers, he's an offensive non-factor. He requires remarkably little attention from the defense. If he's not a threat to shoot or drive the lane, the defense can just focus on the cutters (when there are cutters) or shooters. Noah isn't a threat to score on most possessions due to decisions of his own making.
While I'm optimistic Rose can regain some form, Noah's outlook is not bright. He's still an excellent defender, but he'll be 31 in two months. This isn't a case of a player getting the same type and frequency of shots and just not converting them: Noah has become anti-aggressive on offense and far less effective. The passing remains impressive and useful. In a way he's become a late-stage Vlade Divac, albeit one without a Chris Webber next to him to carry the scoring load.
(Oh my God I think I just convinced myself to push for the Kings to sign Noah to become DeMarcus Cousins' Vlade. Be right back, adding that future column to my to-do list.)
Therein lies the solution: put Noah next to a scoring big like Gasol. That poses some shooting concerns, but if the Bulls want to preserve Noah's career and keep him around, that's the way to do it.
Otherwise, Noah might no longer be the right fit for the team. He'll be a free agent in July. Pau can opt out to hit the market as well. Chicago may very well move on and attempt to find big men who can better complement Butler, Mirotic, McDermott and Hoiberg for the long haul. Perhaps Rose will rediscover the ability to score in the paint along the way and boost the Bulls' chances of remaining relevant in the East.
Either way, the problem isn't Butler and it really isn't Hoiberg. The former is the only indispensable player on the club, and the latter is making the best of an imperfect, imbalanced roster. If Hoiberg finds the right frontcourt rotation, if Rose starts making his layups and if Noah can find some level of comfort on offense, the Bulls can still be great. If not, Butler, Hoiberg and the front office have a few years to figure something out.
* * *
SB Nation presents: NBA rookies imitate Kobe, LeBron and more stars