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Why The Bulls Beat The Best Teams And Then Lose To The Worst Ones

CHICAGO — After dealing a former most valuable player, letting a fiery, ex-defensive player of the year walk in free agency and signing a future, yet aging Hall of Famer, the Bulls were bound to change. We just didn’t know whether it’d be for better or for worse.

But, ironically, even with a mostly new cast surrounding star swingman Jimmy Butler, one of the most bizarre tendencies from past Bulls’ teams persists: the baffling ability to take down some of the league’s best teams one night but lose to its very worst the next. Many have tried to explain the phenomenon, and the explanations range from an unfortunate run of injuries to team style and composition influencing consistency to the general wear and tear of life under the exacting rule of former coach Tom Thibodeau, who’s set to storm the opposing sideline in Chicago for the first time Tuesday night as coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Bulls’ puzzling, two-faced play stands out most when it happens in consecutive games, as it did earlier this month. The club beat the defending-champion Cavaliers the night before getting drilled by the Dallas Mavericks, who, along with the Wolves and Sixers, have the worst record in the NBA.

The showing wasn’t out of the ordinary. During the past five full seasons and what’s been played so far this year,1 the Bulls have had nine instances — more than any other club2 — in which they knocked off a team with a pre-game winning percentage of at least .600, only to then lose to an opponent with a .400 winning percentage or worse the next game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Bulls narrowly escaped laying another egg by holding on to beat a lowly Miami unit this weekend after an impressive win over San Antonio.

SEASON WIN VS. GOOD TEAM OPP WIN % LOSS IN NEXT GAME VS. BAD TEAM OPP WIN %
2012-13 New York Knicks 65.7% Phoenix Suns 31.6%
2012-13 Golden State Warriors 63.4 Washington Wizards 24.4
2012-13 New York Knicks 66.2 Toronto Raptors 38.5
2014-15 Toronto Raptors 87.5 Indiana Pacers 30.0
2014-15 Houston Rockets 69.7 Utah Jazz 34.3
2014-15 Golden State Warriors 85.7 Los Angeles Lakers 26.1
2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers 61.1 Detroit Pistons 38.9
2014-15 Toronto Raptors 60.3 Detroit Pistons 35.3
2016-17 Cleveland Cavaliers 76.5 Dallas Mavericks 16.7
Chicago Bulls: The NBA’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Bulls wins against teams with .600 winning percentages or greater that were followed by a loss to a team with a .400 winning percentage or lower, since the 2011-12 season

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

The mind-boggling stat raises two questions: Why have the Bulls been so inconsistent for this long? And can this new group of players eventually find a way to break the troubling pattern?

Several premises might help explain the Bulls’ bizarre showings in recent years.

Although the injury bug didn’t necessarily bite Chicago way more frequently than other teams, the ailments hampered the Bulls in a way that few clubs could relate to.

Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, now with the New York Knicks, suffered devastating injuries with the Bulls. But beyond those two, basically every other regular starter — Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton and even Butler last season — battled something at one point that kept him out for a significant time. The locker room looking more like an infirmary often threw the club out of rhythm and prevented Thibodeau from being able to make full use of arguably the NBA’s best bench.

It’s also fair to wonder whether the Bulls’ smothering, precision-based defense, ingrained by Thibodeau, might have left players worn down for their next game.

“He loved to have his players go lay it all on the line,” Bulls power forward Taj Gibson said. “Everybody knew what kind of team we were: a hard-nosed, defensive team that was going to play hard till the last minute of the game.”

The blood and sweat paid dividends: The Bulls were regularly among the NBA’s best defenses during Thibodeau’s five seasons, which started in 2010-11 and ended in 2015. Chicago also ranked near the top in terms of how much ground they covered each night despite playing at one of the slowest per-possession paces in the league. That means they moved considerably farther and faster than the average club on each play. (Looking at Minnesota’s repeated second-half meltdowns this season, the Wolves may be suffering some of the same fatigue problems.)

The human nature part of all this: that a player, or a team, might get more amped to play some teams as opposed to others, as former Bull Pau Gasol surmised about his old team last week. “The Bulls usually get up against good teams,” he said. “The challenge is getting up against the not-so-good teams and winning those games.” (No one was more tightly wound than Noah when he’d play against LeBron James — a whopping 14 percent of Noah’s career technical fouls have come against James and his teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.)

To be clear, it’s not out of the question that the Bulls could turn over a new leaf and start playing more consistently, regardless of the quality of their opponent. That trend of beating good teams and then immediately losing to bad ones occurred almost entirely under a previous regime, of which just a handful of players remain.

Even with that in mind, it’s hard to ignore some of the unusual tendencies that started under Thibodeau and, at least for now, have continued under second-year coach Fred Hoiberg. Consider, for example, that the Bulls have won an astonishing 16 consecutive home games on TNT’s Thursday-night broadcasts since February 2013, beating, among others, the Heat, Rockets, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Cavs over that span.

Since March 2013, the Bulls have snapped Miami’s 27-game win streak, the Knicks’ 13-game win streak, Golden State’s 19-game win streak at home and, last week, the Spurs’ 13-game win streak on the road — all in nationally televised games, either on ESPN, TNT or NBATV.

Wild inconsistency has played a role in the national TV success, too. Fans often joked that Hinrich, the ex-Bull, seemed to morph into Michael Jordan whenever Chicago played on national television. But there appeared to be some truth to that. Hinrich’s best performances during each of his last three seasons as a pro — per Basketball-Reference.com’s Game Score stat — were during nationally televised games: a 14-point showing at Phoenix on ESPN last season, a 20-point night against Cleveland on ESPN in 2014-15, and a 19-point explosion on TNT during a blowout win over Houston in 2013-14.

It probably isn’t a great omen, then, that one of Hinrich’s replacements once carried around a similar reputation, with at least a little statistical backing.

As for these Bulls, sitting at 13-10 nearly a third of the way through the season, no one would say they’re without flaws.

The perimeter shooting, red hot to start the season, has regressed to where many thought it would. In a league that prioritizes spacing and shooting more than ever before, Chicago ranks dead-last in 3-pointers made, 3-pointers attempted and 3-point percentage. (Things may get a bit better now that Doug McDermott, one of the precious few competent shooters on the team, is back after suffering two concussions. But it’s troubling that Nikola Mirotic’s game continues to oscillate between that of Channing Frye and a late-career Andrea Bargnani, who now finds himself playing overseas at age 31.)

Crunch-time offense should be a concern for the Bulls, too, even if it hasn’t truly cost them yet.

Despite the worries about the range-impaired backcourt featuring three players who each need the ball, Rondo, Wade and Butler haven’t gotten in each other’s way for the most part. The trio has handled opponents comfortably overall, winning by 6.3 points per 100 plays in 353 minutes.

But things have played out far differently in clutch moments, when the game slows down and spacing gets cramped because teams refuse to guard Rondo near the arc.

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That explains why the Bulls own the NBA’s worst field-goal percentage during the last five minutes of close games and how the same three players are losing by 12 points per 100 plays in fourth quarters.

Nevertheless, the Bulls have been able to survive many of their late-game scares with solid defense. They’ve been surprisingly good on that end of the floor, limiting opponents to 18 free throws a game, second-fewest in the NBA, while also forcing turnovers at a better rate than last season.

And for how horrible their shooting is, the Bulls make up for some of that with their newfound ability to draw fouls — never much of a strength of the old-look Bulls and their star. Their free-throw attempts — more consistent than relying on someone like Butler’s jump shot — are up more than 21 percent from the same point last season. Another welcome source of scoring: the offensive glass. Chicago, similar to the Bulls teams that Thibodeau coached, owns the best offensive-rebounding rate in the NBA and scores more second-chance points per night than any other club.

By no means are these improvements enough to make the Bulls real contenders again, like they were under Thibodeau before Rose’s injuries took root. But they at least give Chicago a shot to find consistency with Butler and Hoiberg, both on national TV and otherwise.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The data from Elias covers games from the start of the 2011-12 season through games played Sunday night.

  2. Five teams had eight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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