Coming into tonight with 16 games played and leading the East based on winning percentage, several thoughts popped into my mind; How can the Bulls grab the lead out East without even playing yesterday? Are the Bulls really winning the East with that mediocre point differential and net rating? Wait, the Hornets? Again? This is the third time already this season!
On reflection, those are natural questions to ask, as was the expectation that the Bulls would somehow find away to drop a game at home and disappoint us all after the good news of the early season standings had unexpectedly brought. As if on cue, Chicago would do exactly that, once again losing to the Charlotte Hornets, 102-96.
In typical Bulls fashion, finding a middle ground in an assessment of a game is a difficult task. Do you choose to look at the positives, which Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose were, or do you focus your attention on the poor performances of Nikola Mirotic and the invisible Tony Snell?
Let's start with the negatives.
The Unreliable Starting Forwards
Something needs to give in this starting lineup, and both Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell are prime candidates for losing their jobs. Providing little-to-no impact or support, the pair combined for 7 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. When I say combine, that's unfair to Mirotic. Though he was poor, the majority of the statistical contributions from these two came from Niko.
Snell, was nowhere to be seen. Like, literally. Did he even play? Zero points, no rebounds, no shots made or attempted, just one assist to Mirotic in the first quarter for a corner three. That's it. Nikola was at his frustrating best, but at least he was something. Snell was nothing. He was nonexistent.
So long as these two continue to provide limited consistency, establishing an identity for this team is going to be difficult, particularly in the first quarter. The second unit is rolling right now. They have their identity as a defensive bench mob that is working well offensively at the moment, too. You risk breaking up that newly found synergy within the bench group by making a change, but do Mirotic and Snell really deserve to remain as starters based on fit and balance, even if their play warrants a change?
The Frontcourt Rotation And The Coaching
The front office haven't helped out Hoiberg here by giving him five big men who are all worthy of rotational minutes, so I almost feel guilty in raising this point, but the substitution patterns and minutes distribution were strange.
In his quest to find equitable minutes for everyone all while maintaining some semblance of harmony among the players, at times, Hoiberg maybe doing more harm than good.
The rookie coach would use four bigs against the small-ball lineups of the Hornets, with all four logging at least 20 minutes of game action. It's noble of Hoiberg to be throwing around the rotation in search of an answer and giving opportunity to all, but in order for all four big men to see 20+ minutes, it also requires them to sit for long periods.
As an example, Nikola Mirotic would leave the first quarter with 1:54 remaining. He would next return with 2:40 left on the clock in the second period, meaning he had sat almost a full quarter of play. Now, that if he were in foul trouble or playing horribly (he wasn't in the first quarter), this would be justifiable, but on this insistence, that wasn't the case.
In leaving Mirotic out for so long, Hoiberg would overplay him in the second half when he was poor, electing to close the game with the Mirotic and Gasol pairing.
This shouldn't have happened.
Terrific again from the bench, Joakim Noah pulled down 10 rebound and handed out 6 assists in 22 minutes of play. His defense was great, and the way he has been rebounding the ball of late, he deserves a shot at closing games at center. Though not as good Noah, Gibson hustled hard for the Bulls with 8 points and 4 rebounds in 21 minutes. One of these guys needed to close the game tonight. They had earned it.
Fred needs to do a better job of managing the big men rotation whilst also learning to have a quicker hook when one of the four is stumbling. He didn't do it, and that hurt the team. Equally, the need for a trade becomes more evident as time passes. Splitting minutes between four players does nothing to build continuity and confidence. It also means zero development time for Bobby Portis.
In all, the frontcourt issue remains persistent, and this game was a perfect microcosm of the issues with having too much depth. But, we already knew that, right?
Ok, enough of the bad stuff. Surely there were some positives?
The Backcourt Looked Good
It may not have been the most individually dominant showing from an NBA backcourt this season, but both Rose and Butler played well tonight.
Anytime we witness a balance and cohesion between the Bulls' guards, it should be seen as a positive. The sharing and shouldering of the offensive load was managed well, as was the shot distribution. Derrick Rose would shoot 17 times, connecting on 8 for his 19 points. Jimmy, too, would make 8 field goals, needing 18 attempts en route to his 25 points.
Those are good numbers. If Rose can consistently build towards offensive outputs such as this game with this level of efficiency, it restores faith in his ability going forward, but it also allows Butler to get his as well.
In the three previous games, Derrick was launching up 16.7 shots compared to Butler's 11.7. His errant shooting didn't justify that many attempts, nor did it make sense to limit the production of Butler. So long as Rose makes his shots, he can hover around 20 points a night with less possessions used, allowing Buckets enough touches to find his rhythm in a game.
Tonight's spread of attempts is predicated on good shot making and selection, and going forward, this game needs to be used as a baseline of how to integrate both of these pieces together. It's certainly possible, but it will take cooperation from both players, something they've both been willing to do.
Rose and Butler simultaneously performing at a high level is encouraging and usually would be enough to get the Bulls a win. Sadly, that wasn't the case against the Hornets. The developing relationship of the Bulls' backcourt will be key to everything the team wishes to achieve this season, but it also highlights the need for the role players to adequately support the lead guards, something that didn't happen.
The potential pairing of Derrick and Jimmy is tantalizing, but it won't mean much if others don't step up. Ask Phoenix, who despite having Bledsoe and Knight killing it right now, they're missing the much needed help from players 3-through-12 on the roster.
Doug McDermott Has Really Grown
Over the last three games, the Bulls' designated bench gunner has really performed well. In 31 minutes a night, averaging 12 points on 50 percent shooting from both the field and three, it's no coincidence that the Bulls' improved bench play has aligned with McDermott's growth.
His offensive game has been humming, but more importantly, his defense has looked reasonable. That continued tonight. Solid moving of his feet to stay in front, not as much silly over-helping and knowing the strengths of his opponent's game. Doug did all of that well tonight, and doing so enabled him to be on the floor in critical moments. Shame he missed that go-ahead triple. It was in, dammit!
Doug McDermott is in disbelief that the last 3 didn't go down after being halfway in. It's 94-94 with 1:08 left. Hornets ball
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) December 6, 2015
Doug McDermott will never be able to shut down an opposing wing, but if he can be competent enough to stay in front of his man on most possessions without being manhandled, Hoiberg can depend on the sweet shooting McBuckets for 25-30 minutes a night.
It's hard to break away from something that is working, which McDermott as a bench scorer who closes games definitely is, but Fred has to be questioning the legitimacy of McThree being this team's starting small forward. It maybe an undeveloped notion, but so long as the defensive engagement and effort remains as is, with Tony Snell slowly morphing into a modern day Keith Bogans, will Hoiberg make the same mistake as his predecessor by not relying more on the Creighton three-point assassin?
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