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Inside the Chicago Bulls’ Damaging Inconsistency

The Chicago Bulls are struggling to overcome inconsistency and internal issues, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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By The Horns? Inside Chicago’s Damaging Inconsistency

Even to an outside observer unaware of their recent struggles, the tension surrounding the Chicago Bulls would be palpable after just a few minutes around the team. The air is thick, from players to staff to traveling media. Interactions feel forced and everyone near the team is well aware of the myriad issues facing this group behind the scenes.

Coach Fred Hoiberg begins his media availability before a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City and is immediately besieged by a wall of negativity. The Bulls were taken to school by the Los Angeles Clippers the previous day and a brief respite from the stress after a routine win over the Lakers a couple days prior has evaporated entirely. ‘What’s wrong with this team?’ Hoiberg is asked. ‘What’s causing such a talented roster to underachieve in a year when many pegged them as the most legitimate challengers to Cleveland in the East?’ Focus, effort and consistency are buzzwords of the day, clearly themes Hoiberg is familiar with hearing at this point. It takes effort to remind oneself that this team is six games over .500, a win or two away from the conference’s third seed.

They’ve dropped to five games over .500 a few hours later, and in a fashion that serves as a fantastic microcosm of their recent struggles. An otherwise generally strong game is marred by spots of inconsistency, notably a collapse down the stretch as the Bulls blow a three-point lead with just over 10 seconds remaining before folding altogether in an overtime period where they score just three points.

InsideJimmyButlerTension has become outright frustration in Chicago’s locker room after the loss. Star Jimmy Butler and veteran Taj Gibson both sit, head in hands, for extended periods of time at their lockers, staring in turn at the ground or the ceiling. Hardly a word is spoken between teammates.

Derrick Rose is first to address the assembled media. He’s asked about the possibility of a players-only meeting, a subject with a healthy stigma around the league these days, and says it’s something he’d consider initiating in the next few days. Butler is asked what he can take away from that night’s performance:

“I don’t know,” he says. “How not to play? That’s what I get from it.”

The balance within a successful and competitive NBA franchise is delicate, and the Bulls are learning just how rough things can get when the scales are uneven. Public scrutiny has enveloped the franchise in recent weeks as prominent names like Butler and Pau Gasol have commented on indicators of a disconnect.

“You have to bring the intensity, the effort,” Gasol said following the loss to Utah. “Those are the things – the intangibles – that we [are] sometimes lacking. It happens sometimes, when teams are talented and they have a great level of skill: they forget about doing the little things that I think, in this league and this sport, make such a big difference.”

All parties outwardly insist the team remains united, but privately, it certainly feels like there are tension and fractured relationships within the organization. The locker room has become divided into cliques, per Basketball Insiders sources. One group, including Rose and injured center Joakim Noah, harbors lingering resentment over the handling of ousted coach Tom Thibodeau. Butler has struggled at times to establish himself as a team voice despite the support of Gasol, a reality that’s become public. Rose’s unprompted comments about free agency before the season certainly irked some in the franchise, and it’s not hard to infer that a few of those upset by the statements were guys he shares the court with – his camp and Butler’s have long been rumored to be at odds. The potential departures of Gasol and Noah this summer in free agency have only added to the strain.

Different teams react to these stressors in different ways, and for Chicago, the damage is embodied most in an utter lack of consistency. The broadest example can be found with a quick glance at their game log to this point, a streaky mess with at least one bad loss present for every strong win. But it can also be found within individual quarters and stretches, and even on a possession-by-possession basis.

“There’s no question we’ve been inconsistent,” veteran Kirk Hinrich told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve shown we can be really good… we just have to make sure we control the simple things – our effort, our execution. You’re not going to be able to control making shots every night, but come out with the right effort and the right mindset every night, and hopefully the consistency will follow.”

Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that the Bulls have struggled mightily to right their collective approach. Every team tends to allow more points in losses than in wins, of course, but Chicago’s discrepancy here is extreme; the 94.2 points per game they’ve allowed in victories versus the 109.5 they’ve hemorrhaged in defeats creates a 15-point chasm that’s among the five largest in the league (most teams allow roughly 8-10 more points in losses than wins, for reference). These figures match a trend that’s visible to the naked eye: The Bulls simply don’t come to play every time out, particularly on the effort-heavy defensive side of the ball, and the results on those off nights can get ugly.

More granular data gives a clearer picture of just how damaging the collective malaise has been at times. Defensive rebounding has been an issue, with the Bulls checking in as a bottom-10 team here most of the season. Worse yet, though, they don’t seem to be winning battles on the glass. Per Nylon Calculus data through late January, the Bulls are 24th in the league for “win percentage” on contested defensive rebounds – that is, they secure just 47.4 percent of defensive boards where both a Chicago player and an opponent are within rebounding distance of the ball. They’re just 5-11 when they collect under half of all available rebounds in a game.

Other indicators abound. The Bulls are drawing assists on over 58 percent of their made baskets in wins, a figure that drops to 54 percent in losses. A “my turn, your turn” dynamic often develops between Rose and Butler in big moments. As a team, Chicago has allowed opponents to shoot just 48.4 percent at the rim with a defender nearby, per Synergy Sports, second-best in the NBA. That drops to an ugly 52.6 percent in 21 losses, another instance where Chicago’s gap is among the largest in the league.

Many franchises look to their in-house veterans and leaders in times of crisis, but Butler thinks everyone on the roster is on the hook.

“Nah, it’s on everybody,” he said. “Everybody’s out there playing, not just the leaders. I think we’ve gotta stay in this together, it’s not on one person more than the other.”

With a fragmented locker room has come a lack of responsibility, a common consequence. The best team cultures are those where veterans and rookies alike can constructively criticize each other in the name of progress, where liability for on-court errors is internalized and turned into positive output. The Bulls have struggled with every step of this process.

“You have to have that,” Hoiberg said. “It has to be something where the guys can look at each other in the face, and be able to hold each other responsible and accountable when they’re not doing it on the floor, and to be able to take that.”

The direction of the franchise hangs in the balance as the current group tries to iron things out before it’s too late. Noah’s absence has hurt as much due to the sharp realization that he’s likely finished in Chicago as any on-court damage. The team’s frontcourt would be in the hands of Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis if Noah moves on and Gasol, as has been rumored, opts out of his final year this summer.

Trading Rose is a common topic to the casual observer, but the reality remains that he’s among the least valuable high-dollar contracts in the league. Moving him would almost certainly come at the cost of another asset, and might just be flat-out impossible for a player who, while well-intentioned, doesn’t seem to have realized that his MVP days are well behind him. Rival executives see Rose leading the Bulls in usage percentage by a healthy margin over Butler and Gasol, and justifiably wonder whether this will ever be a player who could positively impact a team as a secondary or even tertiary option.

The Bulls might be stuck with their main pieces for now, and the guys on the court are determined to make it work – at least publicly. Monday night’s negativity was accompanied by frequent assurances that common goals remain shared, intentions remain positive. The return of veteran Mike Dunleavy is highly anticipated, particularly by Hoiberg, who referenced stability as a specific benefit the savvy swingman can bring back into the fold.

A few good weeks could put these struggles in the rear view mirror. By the same token, a few more like this could damage things beyond repair. There’s still a chance to right this ship, and the path there is one best taken together.

“I think that’s how you stay positive, you continually have each other’s backs,” Butler said. “You stay in this [thing] together. And when you do, it’s going to turn around. We’ll figure it out, we’ve got a good team. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, change this thing around.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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