The Bulls’ week may have closed with a disappointing loss to the fundamentally sound Atlanta Hawks, but there were a lot of positives to take out from this week’s action.
The emergence of Jimmy Butler continued, with the obvious highlight being the superhuman scoring outburst that even Michael Jordan couldn’t achieve. Following Butler’s lead, the Bulls rolled out an impressive six game winning streak by beating several Eastern Conference foes, who like the Bulls, are gunning for the coveted second seed.
More importantly, and I’m sure you’ll agree, we just witnessed arguably one of the funnest stretches of Bulls basketball in some time.
How long has it been since we’ve been able to say that?
Rather than dwelling on the loss to the Hawks, let’s savor these moments by delving into five observations from The Week That Was.
1. Why Are Teams Helping Jimmy Butler?
Jimmy Butler is playing like a man possessed. After the second half, 40 point explosion against the Toronto Raptors on Jan 3, I’m convinced Butler has done a deal with a crossroads demon, exchanging his soul for the “best shooting guard in the NBA” mantle. What other rational explanation do we have to explain his unfathomable rise to stardom?
As illogical as this theory may seem, some of the defensive schemes against Butler this week have been as equally perplexing.
Let’s start with the demolition of Toronto.
By design or desperation, Dwane Casey sent an array of defenders Butler’s way. None made a difference.
DeMarre Carroll got the opening assignment, but he was clearly carrying an injury. Terrence Ross’ defensive stance never fronted Butler, allowing constant driving lanes. Casey tried throwing guard’s Cory Joseph and Kyle Lowry at Butler to curtail his dribble penetration, but Butler took them straight to the post, where he surely dominated his undersized opponent. DeMar DeRozan had a momentary spell on Butler in the final period, before Casey finally went back to what he started with, closing the game with Carroll manning the unstoppable Butler.
Exacerbating the situation, Toronto rarely had a 5-man lineup with any rim protection. Playing small with Luis Scola and Patrick Patterson or subbing Jonas Valanciunas in for the final minutes, no Raptors big man could punish Butler at the rim. Bismack Biyombo, the only center on the roster with a prayer of blocking a shot, played only 16 minutes due to early fouls committed attempting to help his defenders who Butler had blown by.
The most effective strategy Toronto employed was to clock Butler in the face. The Bulls guard had to leave the game, requiring a stitch to stem the flow of blood seeping from his lip, limiting the Butler to just 2 points for the entire first half. Pity they didn’t return to this scheme in the second half…
Two nights later against the Milwaukee Bucks, Jason Kidd’s stand-in, Joe Punty, decided that the best course of action in stopping the red-hot Butler, is to man him up with Jabari Parker – a sophomore tweener forward who’s still assimilating back into the NBA after an ACL injury crippled his rookie campaign.
Really, Joe? C’mon.
Parker has never been known for his defense, so being asked to guard a man who recently gave away his soul was an assignment that was destined to fail. That’s not on Parker. What made the decision of guarding Butler with Parker all the more puzzling was that Khris Middleton and his respectable defensive ability were checking the out-of-position small forward, Nikola Mirotic.
Punty finally came to his senses in the second half, but by that stage, it was too late. The Butler had done it again, and again, and again.
Predictably, Butler was able to have his way with Parker, producing another dominant 32 point performance – 20 which came in the first half against Parker – along with a career high 10 assists.
Even if the opposing head coaches had gone with a better strategy, would it have even mattered? The Celtics did a great job of swarming and being physical, but it didn’t stop Butler from having an impact, scoring 19 points and again matching his career-high in assists, dishing out 10 dimes.
That’s the mark of a truly elite player. You take what the defense gives you and you find a way to make it work. Team’s want to send someone small to you? Fine, go to the post. No rim protector on the floor? No problem. Play a 2-man game, run pick-and-roll and attack the basket. Perimeter defense has a hold of your own scoring output? That’s cool, let’s drive, dish and set up the spot up shooters and the roll-man.
Due to the sudden and somewhat impractical emergence of Jimmy Butler in 2014-15, some expected regression in 2015-16, with Butler’s Most Improved season being chalked up as an outlier. Obviously, this hasn’t happened. In fact, the opposite has occurred.
As seen this week, Butler has begun to add playmaking to his ever developing offensive repertoire. His 1.11 points per possession in isolation scoring opportunities is second only to Kevin Durant for player’s with 50 possessions or more. And then, of course, there’s the publicized leadership responsibilities he’s bestowed upon himself.
Butler’s game has gone to another level, averaging 24.0 points, 6.0 assists and 4.6 rebounds in his last 9 games. Through that span, Chicago is 7-2. Dare I say it, but the man’s been truly elite.
2. Rebounding Has Been The Difference
Early season criticism has found its way to rookie coach, Fred Hoiberg. Some critiques have been justified, others have not. Until recently, Hoiberg had been scolded for his inability to improve the offensive efficiency and output of the team, despite that task upon his hiring being sold as fait accompli.
Though experienced at the collegiate level, Hoiberg’s lack of NBA coaching experience will only be earned via trial and error “on the job”. This will produce mixed results, but one of the positives we’ve seen from Hoiberg to date is his ability and willingness to throw the roster around to find the right and best combinations on any given night. Nothing highlights this reality more so than the shake up of the starting unit.
Several benefits have been realized since inserting Taj Gibson into the starting line up, but I want to focus on one specific aspect which I’d argue has been the most important improvement – rebounding.
Hoiberg electing to commence the season with Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic as his starting big man pairing was always going to present problems. The natural inclination of the majority was to expect the defense to slide tremendously. Somehow, it didn’t. Chicago would rediscover its defensive identity that had dissipated during Tom Thibodeau’s final season, holding opponents to 97.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark good for 4th in the league.
The defense would surprisingly improve, but what fell off drastically during Fred Hoiberg’s first 18 games as head coach was the team’s ability to rebound, specifically on the offensive glass.
In pursuit of an offense that was predicated on a modern 4-out formation, Nikola Mirotic’s shooting was to be the key that unlocked Chicago’s offensive potential, and ultimately, the driver for enhancing Chicago’s prospects as a true contender.
We all know the story. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Mirotic’s sophomore struggles were clearly impacting his own game, but more importantly, the negative affects of his game would begin to flow onto others, causing significant weaknesses in once previously dominant strengths.
If we think about the functionality of playing a 4-out, perimeter-based offense that struggled to make shots, really, we should have seen this coming. Naturally, if you choose to implement this style of basketball, sacrifices must be made. Offensive rebounding would serve as the sacrificial lamb offered to the basketball gods.
Think about it. If your players are lining up from deep, taking it in turns to bomb away with little success, nobody is there to grab the offensive rebound. You’re missing the shot as well as failing to get up second chance opportunities. For years, the Bulls thrived on offensive rebounds and second looks at the basket. That was no longer the case.
Now, the rebounding is back. Taj Gibson is a big reason for that. Hoiberg promoting the unappreciated forward has led to the correct blend of modern offensive principles whilst maintaining the formative ideals that made Tom Thibodeau’s team’s so great.
Don’t believe me?
Then I suggest checking out our friends, (D)Roses and Thorns, who specifically point this out in a great piece my Jacob Bikshorn. It’s a tremendous read and I implore you to read the entire piece, though I want to call out the key motive of this think piece.
Prior to Taj being inserted into the starting lineup, the Bulls were 16th in rebound percentage, grabbing 49.8% of available boards. Since that date, the Bulls have hauled in 52.3% of their rebound chances, the fifth-highest rate in the league.
The surge up the standings is due almost entirely to a huge increase in offensive rebounding. Before December 9th, the Bulls offensive rebound rate was just 22%, 20th in the NBA. Since then, the Bulls have been grabbing 28.2% of offensive rebound chances, the fourth-highest rate in the league.
3. New Year, New Mirotic?
I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but for 2016, I’ve made an exception. This year, I’ll be joining you all in the never-ending crusade to improve one’s self. So, without further ado, my declaration is that I want the Nikola Mirotic of the first 3 regular season games of 2015-16 to return and become his permanent form.
You can make pledges you have no control over, right?
That notion failed before it had even begun, but what if Mirotic had the same idea? Could it work then? Maybe he did, as he’s start to 2016 has been promising.
Before I go on, let me start out by saying I’m not a fan of Mirotic at small forward. I loathe it. He’s play has improved significantly, and it’s done so from the small forward position, but I stubbornly still don’t like. The very idea of it eats away at the core of my basketball ideals, but alas, here we are.
Negativity aside, Mirotic’s 5 games to commence the year have been his strongest stretch of games to date this season. In all 5 games, he’s scored in double-digits, which would be the first time he’s consecutively done so all season. Dating back to the thumping of the New York Knicks on New Year’s day, Mirotic’s box score numbers are healthy, his efficiency has skyrocketed and there has been a semblance of consistency.
The second-year forward appears to be turning a corner, but is this level of play here to stay?
Forgive me if the proceeding 30 games of the season has me questioning the validity of Mirotic’s most recent surge to normality, but I’m doubting if this iteration is sustainable.
The reason for such trepidation is that it doesn’t appear he’s made any notable changes to his game. Per NBA.com, looking at Mirotic’s shooting splits between 2015 and 2016, focusing on efficiency from various distances on the floor, you can see that the bulk of his field goal attempts occur within 5 feet of the hoop or out and around the three-point line.
Comparatively, the percentage of field goals attempted from each distances are near identical, the only difference being that his attempts have started to fall.
Furthermore, focusing on Mirotic’s percentage of field goal attempts and points, again, the numbers are near identical.
So what is the data telling us? Has Mirotic made an effort to change his game by getting to the line or ring more for easier looks at the basket in favor of those long 26-footers?
Looking at it, the answer here is no, nothing’s changed. It’s been more of the same, only with greater success. That’s it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s great. However, should these stretch of games prove to be nothing more than a hot streak, expect Mirotic’s numbers to regress to the mean.
Let’s wait and see how the next 15-20 games transpire and reevaluate the situation at that point. Here’s to hoping this resolution remains intact.
4. Pau Gasol’s Body Language
If you want to gain an understanding about the Chicago Bulls’ temperament and mood at any given moment, it’s really easy to identify – just watch Pau Gasol.
You’ll have your answer in no time.
In arguably the best moment of the Bulls’ season, Jimmy Butler destroyed the Raptors, which lead to an outpouring of emotion by the team at the conclusion of the game. Grabbing the final rebound of game, Gasol would stop Butler to pull him in close, embracing his star as if to say “thank you”. The team would follow, forming a 12-man group hug that had every Bulls fan emulating the same on their sofa, grasping and cradling at any pillow within the vicinity for a sweet, warm embrace.
Ok, maybe that was just me.
As blissful as that moment was, should events quickly sour, emotions will follow, as they did against Atlanta. From the outset, the energy was lacking. The good vibes of a six game winning streak were missing, having been replaced by apathetic and detached mannerisms.
The above video isn’t aimed to attack Pau Gasol. I’m not trying to single out the center, but I do find it captivating to just watch his reaction to possession-ending moments throughout games, be it good, bad or indifferent. He offers an insight into his true emotions and feelings unlike no other. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Gasol’s an articulate, well spoken, charismatic professional who I find to be a riveting listen. If the man had a Podcast, I’d subscribe within an instant. He speaks with raw emotion and intellect, so it’s not exactly a revelation that the man wears his heart on his sleeve when playing the game of basketball.
As engrossing as his words may be, Gasol’s gestures will forever intrigue.
Reading his signals against the Hawks, I don’t believe he was thrilled about playing in a Saturday afternoon game…
5. Who Is The Back-Up Point Guard?
Pretty simple question, right?
After 35 regular season games, though rotations are not set in stone, they should be beginning to take shape. When it comes to Derrick Rose’s back-up, however, it seems Fred Hoiberg is still auditioning for this role.
From game to game, depending on match-ups, Hoiberg is picking from his range of point guard elixirs that will aide the problem at hand on given night.
We’ve seen Kirk Hinrich as Rose’s replacement in the starting unit when he’s missed games, as well as being the key reserve against Milwaukee and Boston. Strangely, he wouldn’t appear against Atlanta.
E’Twaun Moore wouldn’t see time against the Bucks or Celtics, but would play crucial fourth quarter minutes against Toronto. Only 9 days removed from dropping 29 points against Indiana, Aaron Brooks has since only seen situational minutes when quick buckets were in order.
So, it would appear that Hinrich is shaping up to be the back-up point guard, but given his age, limited scoring and propensity to break down physically, we can’t be confident in this, and neither can Hoiberg.
Keep an eye on this as we progress towards the playoffs. At some point, Hoiberg will need to sure up his rotation, and it will be interesting to see who he chooses.
Or, he can continue with the status quo; rolling out a committee of guards whose skill-set best suits what the game needs, be it scoring in bunches, solid all-round play or veteran guile, grit and thrust.
Either way, it’s a fascinating situation.
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