Chicago is a surprising NBA Eastern Conference contender. We take a closer look at how Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and the rest of the Bulls are making it work.
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
The Chicago Bulls are a tough team to figure out. Statistically, they're slightly above average on both offense and defense, and have an equal number of impressive wins and embarrassing losses. They are loaded with stars, yet those pieces aren't exactly a perfect fit on either end of the court. They are Jimmy Butler's team, but Dwyane Wade is now their leader.
In other words, there's a lot going on in Chicago, which is part of what makes the Bulls interesting. The other part? The team has some of the toughest, most confident players in the NBA. On paper, they could pose the biggest threat to LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in a seven-game Eastern Conference playoff series.
To get there, of course, Chicago will have to figure a lot of things out. Let's take a closer look to see what's working for the Bulls, and what needs to work better.
Offensive Rebounding and Transition
It's very difficult for teams to be great at both offensive rebounding and transition defense. When you crash the offensive glass, there's an inherent trade-off: more guys pursuing a rebound means fewer guys are in position to get back on defense. This is especially true for teams that use their guards and wings to crash, since those players are often charged with stopping the ball in transition.
The Bulls defy this logic. They lead the league in offensive rebound percentage and are second in the league in second chance points, yet allow the sixth fewest opponent fast break points per game. No other team is in the top six in both categories, and only the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the top ten. Chicago scores roughly three more points per 100 possessions off the offensive glass than league average.
Why does that matter? With the Bulls' offensive rating (ORTG) of 104.8—just 1.4 points per 100 possessions above league average—those three points are the difference between Chicago having the NBA's 11th best offense and the 20th best offense.
The Bulls have two solid interior rebounders in Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez, but it's the rebounding of their wing players that makes them special. In the clip below, watch how the Bulls send four guys to the offensive glass as soon as the shot goes up. Gibson and Wade don't hesitate to rush toward prime rebounding location on the blocks, while Lopez and Rajon Rondo occupy the paint.
The Bulls crash the glass like this for 48 minutes per game, and while they have been beaten badly in transition on certain nights, for the most part they've been able to make that trade-off work in their favor.
No Easy Buckets
The reason Chicago needs those second chances is simple: the Bulls' half-court offense has a really hard time generating easy scores because the team often goes without shooters who can open up the court.
The Bulls are last in "wide open" three-point field goal attempts and third to last in "open" three-point field goal attempts, according to NBA.com. Their starting lineup has played more than 250 minutes together so far this season—the ninth most minutes of any five-man combination in the NBA—yet doesn't feature a single elite three-point shooter. Gibson and Lopez have made only one three-pointer between the two of them in their entire careers, and Rondo has made ten total three-pointers so far this season. Even Butler and Wade are merely average three-point shooters, and they don't rely on the three-point shot very often.
Without reliable threats surrounding the perimeter, Chicago is forced to relentlessly attack the paint, often against a second line of defense that is waiting for them at the rim. In the clips below, watch how far all five defenders sink into the paint before the Bulls even begin their attack. Stagnant offensive possessions and a shortage of floor spacers allow defenders to over-rotate, walling off the painted area.
The Bulls are 24th in assists per game, 25th in potential assists per game, and 26th in points created off of assists per game. Between tepid shooting and mediocre sharing, you'd expect Chicago's offense to be much, much worse. However, the Bulls are above average, thanks in large part to the heroics of Butler and Wade.
Butler in particular is having a monster year, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, three-point percentage, two-point percentage, and free-throw attempts per game. Chicago isn't doing anything fancy to get him buckets, either. Most of the Bulls' offense comes from simple, relatively stagnant play designs that give Butler several opportunities to attack on each possession.
In the clip below, watch how Butler and Wade probe the defense for scoring opportunities. It's almost as if they just drive and reset until they can find an opening, forcing the opponent to defend those drives over and over again.
The numbers reflect what you're seeing above. Wade currently is ranked in the NBA's top ten in points per possession off of isolations; Butler sits in the top 20. Butler also scores eight points per game off drives, the fifth most in the NBA, while only tuning it over on three percent of his driving attempts—the eighth lowest turnover rate for players who average at least five drives per game. This is key. Butler attacks the basket on nearly every possession, scores efficiently off of those drives, and doesn't turn the ball over. All of that allows him to put pressure on defenders from tip-off to buzzer.
When drives to the basket fail to produce points, the Bulls rely on Wade and Butler to make tough, contested shots. And it's working! As a team, the Bulls have attempted the fifth most shots with a defender 0-2 feet away from the shooter, and have the sixth best effective field goal percentage on those shots. Moreover, Wade and Butler are in the top 11 in "contested" field goals made this season, which means they are frequently bailing out otherwise bad offensive possessions.
Even with the impressive half-court play of Butler and Wade, the Bulls rank 22nd in ORTG on possessions following a made basket. In transition, however, they're much better: sixth in the NBA in points per 100 possessions following a defensive rebound, and fifth following a turnover. Wade and Butler are each ranked in the top 25 in both steals per game and fast-break points per game.
In that regard, the duo is reminiscent of LeBron James and Wade in Miami, feasting off of ball pressure and turning steals into fast breaks. Just look at the fast break below. It's straight out of the Heatles playbook.
Butler and Wade wouldn't be effective playing this way without Chicago's supporting cast, especially Gibson and Lopez. Those two provide the safety net for Wade's constant gambling on the perimeter. Lopez is a very good positional defender, rarely misreading when to drop into rim protection and when to step out and contest a mid-range jump shot. Gibson is a solid post defender who can also switch out on to guards in a pinch. In the clip below, watch how smoothly he defends both D.J. Augustine and Reggie Jackson.
Shooters Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott make for an interesting combination alongside Wade, Butler, and Gibson, since they provide a lot of extra spacing. Butler and McDermott have been deadly—the Bulls have a scorching 124.6 ORTG in their 132 minutes together—and when you add Mirotic to the mix, that number becomes 130.8. It's enough to wonder what Butler would be doing on a better shooting team. His already absurdly efficient scoring numbers might be even more impressive on a roster like Portland's, where there are spot-up threats all around the arc. Expect the Bulls to give Mirotic and McDermott more minutes going forward, particularly as they try to mix and match Butler and Wade with their second units.
The Bulls are far from perfect, and their offense is far from exciting most nights. Teams that slow them down and force a half-court game can make things ugly, but Chicago has a lot of above-average talent who can bear down on defense and win slugfests. That's what makes them an interesting postseason contender—they have players who can hit tough shots and make offenses work on the other end of the court, and enough confidence to honestly think they can beat anybody.
The Bulls are probably a few pieces away from being a serious threat to make the NBA Finals, but they're already a major threat to conference rivals like Toronto and Boston. A little bit of luck might be all that Chicago needs to meet Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.
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