If Santa had the wherewithal to make an NBA version of his naughty-and-nice list, it’s hard to imagine any club ranking higher on the side destined to receive lumps of coal than the Chicago Bulls.
Sure, a handful of teams entered the season with greater expectations and playoff odds, but most of them sustained at least one key injury or suspension, deflating their chances in the process. On the other hand, Chicago — at just 11-19 so far — has no one to blame but itself.
Several outlets, including this one, praised the Bulls’ offseason, which included a few under-the-radar value signings. FiveThirtyEight’s final preseason projections gave Chicago a 43 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Even after an improbable comeback win on the road Wednesday over the Wizards, Chicago’s odds now sit at just 4 percent. So what’s behind the team’s subpar performance, and is the Bulls’ outlook really as grim as it seems?
If there’s an irony in this Bulls’ season so far, it’s that this team, as much as it has underperformed, might be the most normal one we’ve seen in a while. For years, they were arguably the NBA’s most unpredictable squad, winning the games they had no business winning, then turning around and losing to the worst team in the association a night later. Chicago isn’t following that script at all this season: The Bulls are 1-10 against teams .500 or better but 10-9 against clubs under .500 for the year. Perhaps most noteworthy about that telling stat: The team has played a pretty soft schedule to this point, which likely explains at least part of the reason their playoff odds are so pessimistic.
It doesn’t take much to figure out why the Bulls are in this position. They rank dead last in the NBA in offensive efficiency, even behind a Golden State Warriors team bereft of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. The Bulls do rank in the top 10 on defense, but they have pretty clear flaws on that end as well: They force the fewest long twos in the league, allow the most close-range looks in the league1 and, looking to avoid giving up easy baskets, send their opponents to the free-throw line at the league’s highest rate.
Luckily for them, it was their opponent on Wednesday — Washington — that committed a bad foul late instead, sending Zach LaVine to the free-throw line with 0.5 seconds left in regulation to force overtime, where the Bulls won after overcoming an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit.
If Chicago has its way, the comeback victory — which was on the heels of the Bulls blowing a 26-point lead on Monday to lose to Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder — will be a turning point, with the team writing over its ugly start to the season with an impressive finish.
Among the club’s biggest concerns is the need for someone — anyone, really — to create consistent offense when LaVine and Lauri Markkanen aren’t shooting the ball well. (For Markkanen, who’s shot better as of late, that’s been most of the year.) We touted the Tomáš Satoranský signing this past summer as a plus for the Bulls, in part because of how low his usage rate was, and how that would allow Chicago’s scorers to get the touches they needed. But that equilibrium has been out of whack much of the time, with Satoranský fading too far into the background as LaVine often plays hero ball — sometimes rather successfully, sometimes not.
While there are clearly times that LaVine is out of control, or has severe tunnel vision, it’s a safe bet that at least some of that stems from him feeling like he has to do things himself because, aside from him and Markkanen, the Bulls don’t have ball-handlers capable of getting to the line consistently. Through Wednesday night, LaVine had played 80 minutes in the clutch — more than any NBA player — while posting an enormous usage rate of 42.9 percent, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Donovan Mitchell.2 In those 80 minutes, LaVine has launched 58 shots while compiling just three assists. But one of those dimes came on the game-winning play last night in overtime against Washington, right after he’d twice driven into the lane without any points to show for it.
So perhaps that was a sign of progress.
While the team hasn’t played as well as it should, there is at least some reason for glass-half-full optimism. The Bulls have been in 20 close games, more than any team but OKC and Philadelphia so far. If they can start closing out games better — which may get even harder as their opponents get better in the near future — it would make a huge difference. The Chicago defense hacks, but it also forces turnovers at a higher clip than any team in the league, with Kris Dunn leading the way. He and forward Denzel Valentine — who had long been out of the rotation altogether — have shown to be clear rotation players lately, even if they aren’t starting material. And while the team is playing beneath its capability, it’s only fair to point out that Otto Porter Jr., whom they traded for last year at the deadline, has missed most of the season.
Yet even without Porter, it just feels like there should be far more consistency out of this group. How, for instance, is it possible for the team to have the least efficient offense in basketball despite forcing opponent turnovers at the highest rate in the NBA? That speaks volumes about how broken the offense often looks in half-court scenarios. Yes, the team lacks playmakers, but it also doesn’t seem to allow or encourage a young, talented player — like Wendell Carter Jr., who shot better than 40 percent from three at Duke and was a good passer there — to shoot when left wide open, and disregarded as a threat.
Without question, a decent amount of the blame for this team’s shortcomings belongs with Jim Boylen. The coach mangled his timeouts on Monday, burning them far too early in the half — with Chicago up double-digits at the time, no less — and leaving the Bulls without any when they desperately needed one in the final minute of a mind-numbing collapse in Oklahoma City.
It’s hard to know, by that same token, just how much credit Boylen deserves for Wednesday’s comeback or the miraculous one in Charlotte. (That game, interestingly enough, came immediately after Boylen benched LaVine, who responded with 49 points and a game-winning shot.)
With these Bulls, it’s hard to know anything anymore. The team clearly has some talent, and every now and then, they will steal a victory from the jaws of defeat — making you think, just for a second, that maybe they’re capable of being far more than they’ve been.
Maybe they’ll overcome the odds. But knowing what we know so far, it’s relatively easy to see why the probabilities suggest that they won’t. For once, the team is consistent: They win just over half their games against the bad teams and lose just about all their games to the good ones. And the postseason prognosis for clubs like those generally isn’t all that great.
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