CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls have spent much of their season mired by miscues. Scripted possessions have gone awry because the execution isn’t just so, sapping precious seconds and any momentum from the offense. It’s hard to score that way. NBA systems are made to build from one action to the next until the defense, saddled with forced decisions, hits a tipping point. Any stalled component sets that progress back. Enough of them creates a functional reset, forcing a team like Chicago to start its scoring efforts from scratch with just a few seconds remaining on the shot clock.
This is the danger of running an involved offensive system, as Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg does, and it can be dispiriting. An offense effective only in fits and starts has landed Chicago near the bottom of the league in scoring efficiency. The players have worn their frustrations on their faces and carried it in their sound bites. Yet the reality is that these things often take time, particularly in the case of a team that needed to first sort out its playing rotation before it could make substantive gains.
Nothing is fully resolved. But after six months on the job and a lineup shift leading to a four-game winning streak, Hoiberg finally has his proof of concept. His strangely inconsistent team put together one of its more complete efforts of the season in a win against the Grizzlies on Wednesday night, bringing the principles of the offense to a steady churn of playmaking.
“Our movement’s been better,” Hoiberg said. “We’re trusting each other, I think, a little bit better. Our spacing has been better. Our pace has been better. And that has to continue to improve. It’s something we’re talking about and work on every day. We hope it will continue to get better.”
Could this be it? Is this finally the turning point at which a talented Bulls team begins to make the most of its faculties and assume the mantle as the East’s preeminent challenger?
“Man, who knows?” Derrick Rose said. “We still have a long way to go.”
For as healthy as the Bulls’ offense has appeared over the last few games, any grand proclamation of this team’s progress can be dangerous. Chicago has previously settled into a nice rhythm for one week only to fall apart completely in the next. Mediocre opponents have been allowed to linger in games for far too long and prime opportunities to seize control against better teams have been forfeited needlessly. The Bulls understand the message this sends to the rest of the league and are desperate to change it.
“Other teams see this film of us kind of lollygagging in the first half and they’re not scared of us,” Doug McDermott said.
Changing the starting lineup is a good start. Before Chicago’s game in Boston on Dec. 9, Hoiberg replaced Nikola Mirotic with Taj Gibson, bringing his two pairs of big men to balance. Gibson isn’t the offensive asset that Mirotic is, but his consistent rotations and hard box outs are helpful to Pau Gasol. This group—like Chicago on the whole—thrives on defense; opponents are shooting just 33.7% from the field overall against the new starters, which together have logged more minutes than all but one of the Bulls’ other lineups.
Offensive efficiency still eludes that group, in part because opponents aren’t shy in sneaking off of Rose and even Tony Snell (despite his 40.9% three-point shooting) to crowd post ups and drives. Nevertheless, the Bulls have been able to claim a significant positive margin in those minutes by walling off and preventing the best shots on the floor. Overall, the Bulls are one of the better teams in the league when it comes to preventing an opponent’s three-point attempts and hindering their shooting percentage. The starters are even more stingy, limiting opponents to just 19.9 three-point attempts per 48 minutes—a mark that would trail only the Spurs. Coupled with terrific interior defense (opponents shoot just 43.4% in the restricted area against the starters), the Bulls’ new first five has the means to build leads even without soaring offensively.
“A big thing is that we try to plug gaps, try to keep the ball out of the paint,” Hoiberg said. “We try to do a good job guarding the three. I think we've done a pretty solid job of that. So it may not be an all-out, in-your-face with pressure type of defense, but as long as we’re plugging the gaps and doing our job, generally we’re pretty solid on that end.”
The one stylistic exception is Jimmy Butler, who very much does play an “all-out, in-your-face with pressure type of defense.” Wings who attempt to create against Butler are in for a rough time; Butler is quick enough that he can completely invade an opponent’s personal space without surrendering the drive. This can strangle some sets at their point of initiation, forcing opponents into contingencies they might not be ready for right off the bat. Surrounding that kind of denial defense with Gibson’s reliable positioning, Gasol’s length, and Snell’s reach is the basis for something real and lasting.
Chicago ranks a perfectly decent ninth in the league in schedule-adjusted net rating based on the strength of that defense. That ranking might not fulfill the high hopes of a team that built its roster to contend, though it is promising for a group that looks to improve on one of the worst-rated offenses in the league. Even the erratic, early days of processing a new offense from its core have brought the Bulls a certain sufficiency. The rest of the East, too, has done little to take advantage of Chicago’s battle against the learning curve. Chicago is one of two teams in the league with wins over San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland. Its losses, too, tend to come not by the hand of pitiful teams but middling ones. The Bulls are marred only by their inability to separate from the pack.
Perhaps the back end of the lineup change could offer some remedy. By first moving Joakim Noah and later McDermott and Mirotic to the bench, Hoiberg has created some second-unit synergy that might better allow the Bulls to weather reserve-heavy stretches in the middle of games. That trio has something to it; Noah is in his element when paired with a natural stretch four (Mirotic) and the Bulls’ most active player off the ball (McDermott), allowing for some opportunities like this one:
“Having guys like me and Niko out there kind of open things up for Jo, because they're so worried about our outside shot,” McDermott said. “He does a really good job of reading that. He doesn't care about him getting a bucket; he cares so much about everyone else.”
Noah’s passing is key, but those three clear out enough space between them to create all kinds of interesting interplay. They screen, they cut, and they move the ball in a way that hints at what Hoiberg’s fully actualized offense could be:
That kind of flow, if practiced to rhythm, can quiet a team’s internal concerns and overcome its structural quirks. It can smooth over whatever anxieties there might be about roles or playing time. It could calm any lingering fuss over the fact that Rose isn’t Rose anymore. It’s a style that binds a team through mutual involvement. Further honing the offense could bring a capable team to equilibrium.
But the first step for the Bulls is proving that they can be a good team every night rather than at their convenience. The difference, according to Butler, lies in the commitment of the players themselves to executing the offense with intention.
“It’s our level of energy,” Butler said. “We always play ball the right way. It’s just are you cutting as hard as you can, are you running as hard as you can, are you getting in your spot as quick as you can. That’s the difference in scoring because everything [else] is just the spacing that we messed up. When you continually play hard, good things are going to happen. When you play hard, the offensive rebound might just fall in your hands. You can never underestimate how hard you've got to play.”
The Bulls are hardly the first team—and certainly not the first veteran team—to sometimes come up short in that effort and focus. An 82-game schedule all but encourages NBA teams to pace themselves. Chicago, as a group still figuring itself out, doesn’t have the luxury. The shortcomings in the team’s play are self-evident. The investment some 23 games into the season, however, should be non-negotiable. The Bulls are getting there—in part because Butler, the team’s best player and thus one of its de facto leaders, doesn’t want to wait to flip the switch. When asked if Chicago could just turn it on in opportune moments, Butler’s response was telling of his grievance with the Bulls’ past play.
“I hope not, to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “I hope we bring it every night.”