Bulls surviving without Rose despite limitations on offense
By Rob Mahoney
If we divorce process from result, the Bulls might have one of the NBA’s best-run offenses. They’re well-coached, unselfish and work relentlessly to execute. They compensate for other weaknesses by rebounding more than 30 percent of their misses. They strive to create quality shots, cling to their game plan and generally do all the right things in trying to score.
But the Bulls rank 21st in the league in points per possession, mainly because their current roster is so glaringly incomplete. Even with a hypothetically healthy lineup, Chicago isn’t a team built to win on offense, but to sustain; its efforts to score are merely a transition between dominant defensive possessions, channeled through the creative talents of Derrick Rose for maximum return. Without that conduit, Chicago is doomed to a mediocre attack. There’s an admirable futility to the Bulls’ struggle against their own limitations, but there’s also so little hope for immediate improvement considering the team’s lack of shot creation.
Much of that is because the Bulls take more mid-range shots than any other team. Revered though the mid-range jumper may be for its historic relevance and fundamental necessity, such long two-point tries yield fewer points per attempt than shots either at the rim or from beyond the arc. Those two highly efficient alternative zones are the bread and butter of the NBA’s best offenses and happen to coincide with two of the Bulls’ greatest weaknesses. Chicago takes the fewest three-pointers in the league, and aside from put-back opportunities via offensive rebounds, it struggles to generate offense around the basket.
The problem isn’t that the Bulls don’t have the intent to manufacture those efficient looks or the finishers to complete them, but simply that a lack of dribble-drive and post-up capability has stripped them of shot-creating potential. Good intentions can only get the Bulls so far, and when guards Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson are the team’s best options off the bounce, offensive struggles are more or less a given. Hinrich and Robinson have their place in a rotation, but neither is suited to carry the weight of full-time offensive initiation — a snag that impedes the Bulls’ progress on a play-by-play basis.
That leaves Luol Deng, Rip Hamilton, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer to buoy the Bulls in the most conservative way possible: by mostly defaulting on their possessions with mid-range opportunities. Chicago’s attempts at deep dribble penetration tend to be unbalanced (by way of wild drives from Robinson, among others) or denied outright, and no rotation regular is capable of consistently creating mismatches. That makes constant movement and smart passing paramount and leads to a relatively decent mid-range look at the most common outcome of a given possession.
Such methods clearly aren’t optimal, and they handcuff Chicago to league-average marks even when executing at its best. But there is a statistically underrated virtue to the way the Bulls play. Despite an incredible dependency on mid-range jumpers, Chicago piles up points by drawing fouls and racking up free-throw attempts with consistent effort. With no standout playmakers in Rose’s absence, the Bulls still set up a greater percentage of their baskets with assists than any other team in the league. Even without many accurate three-point shooters, Chicago spaces the floor well by occupying defenders with off-ball movement. All of that has helped the Bulls to a 9-8 record, a virtual tie with Indiana for the Central Division lead.
The Bulls operate their offense with an understated stability, so much so that an injury to Hamilton — Chicago’s second-leading scorer — isn’t at all catastrophic. The rotation is tweaked, and a different player (Jimmy Butler or Marco Belinelli) is called on to help keep this offense afloat. The scoring load is redistributed, and the Bulls are still defined by the same mid-range proficiency (and inherent obstruction to their efficiency) as long as their core and fundamentals are intact.
The Bulls won’t soon overwhelm opponents with their safe shot selection, but they won’t have to because of their sturdy defense. All that’s needed until Rose’s return is a steady dose of ordinary production to complete their defensive efforts.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.