If you go to your local carnival the morning the crew packs up, you can get a pretty good picture of what the Chicago Bulls’ season looked like; it was a roller coaster, but one with frayed seatbelts and rust in suspicious places. Ultimately, the 14 men who got on that ride (and the varied assemblage, myself included, that sat on the park bench and watched them go) stepped off with all their limbs still intact. Jimmy Butler is to thank for that — if I want to keep dragging out this already-tired roller coaster metaphor, he’s the guy that tightened the wheels when they threatened to detach.
The expectations were next-to-none for the Bulls, who have taken it to the Celtics in the TD Garden (I’ll get to the United Center performances later), and have looked dang convincing doing it, for the most part. The parts of this impressive showing are two-fold: the matchup issues that so many people have talked about, and the sneaky notion that perhaps this poorly-built roster is actually perfectly constructed for the postseason.
That sounds hilarious when you hear it, right? The Bulls, a team with exploitable weaknesses and totally unpredictable effort from day to day, are actually fitted with just the right pieces to take advantage of an Eastern Conference rife with fatal flaws. What exactly are those pieces?
Playmaking in the Half-court
Again, it feels weird to talk about the Bulls as an effective half-court team, but with Rondo in his postseason form, it’s the previously iso-only Bulls who look competent in non-transition settings instead of the “we love team basketball” Boston Celtics. The Bulls have only been marginally more effective in the half court by the numbers, as their points per possession (PPP) in that setting sits at .915, a hair’s breadth higher than their regular season average of .904. Part of that is because of the Rondo injury; the Bulls’ offensive rating was 111.1 in the games with a healthy Rajon and a measly 98.8 during the two games he missed with injury.
Part of that is Rondo doing what he’s so often condemned for by basketball writers: assist-hunting. It works for Rajon because the way he runs point is so cerebral. He knows when he wants to pass it, and controlling most aspects of the offense ensures he’ll have a player ready to catch it. His assist hunting is on full display in the above video, but so are a few other things worth noting.
First, the Celtics don’t trust Thomas to guard Rondo at the rim. Horford shades Rondo all the way into the baseline, hoping to deter a potential shot attempt. That leads into the second point, which is Rondo’s impressive understanding of the game. Knowing that Horford is locked in on him, Rondo keeps up the pretense of wanting a layup just long enough to drag Horford about 15 feet from Robin Lopez, then fires the pass for an easy set shot. This is the sort of masterminding that Grant and Co. simply don’t possess. The game hasn’t slowed down for them like it has for #9.
While the half-court numbers have only slightly increased, pick-and-roll efficiency has skyrocketed, due in large part to the same iron-fisted control that Rondo exhibits above. The roll man in the regular season typically only scored .936 PPP; in the postseason, he scores at a stunningly high 1.333 PPP. Watch the below P&R feint as Boston tries to set themselves in transition. Felicio (more on him in a minute) takes a step into Crowder, forcing him into a double on Rondo as Cris slips to the rim for an easy lob. It sounds strange to say, but the best thing Fred Hoiberg has done for the Bulls offense might simply be stepping out of the way.
Of course, Hoiberg still controls the lineup schematics, and some credit has to be given for sticking with Nikola Mirotic as the starter even when he’s struggled. Niko’s presence has done some great things for Chicago, most of which are directly tied to his threat as a shooter — he opens up the floor for Butler cuts and post-ups, creates passing lanes for Rondo, and manages to find himself open frequently enough on a Wade/Butler/Rondo drive-and-kick to nail an easy three. The great thing about Mirotic is his court presence, since he has enough gravity to draw out big men but usually not enough to keep them locked onto him for a full shot clock. As such, he manages to create space for others and still be an occasional offensive threat as the third or fourth option in most Chicago schemes.
Jimmy Butler is a Superstar
Early in the season, I wrote an article about Jimmy Butler as an MVP, and capped it off by saying that “The idea is simple: Butler and the Bulls need to be a force in the regular season for him to even have a shot. Think 55 or more wins.” The Bulls, bless their hearts, didn’t even sniff 50 wins. Even if they had, and if Butler had kept up his remarkable start to the season, it’s unlikely that he could have eclipsed the magnificent and mind-bending performances from Harden and Westbrook in a historically tight MVP race. All that aside, Butler is still a top-15 player in the NBA. The elite defense, the can-do attitude, and the willingness to take (and the ability to make) tough shots when the offense runs cold are vital to this team, which lacks any other real shot creators outside of Wade. In this series alone, Butler has picked up defensive assignments on Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and even Isaiah Thomas, and opponents he squares off against are shooting 36.4% (40.9 EFG%) from the field. That’s not just a nuisance. Butler has thrown off any semblance of rhythm in the Boston offense when he’s playing his signature defense, and bothering those shots has left supposed Wunderkind Brad Stevens hapless. Of course, few players have shot well this series, and Butler is no exception. 43% EFG is laughably bad, but the forward is still averaging 24.8 ppg through persistence, drawn fouls (his Free Throw Rate, or free throws taken for every shot attempt, is at a monstrous 53.9%), and fast breaks.
Butler’s shot may not fall for the rest of this series, but he can still be the best player on the floor if he can maintain a steady defensive presence. Boston has an extraordinarily small backcourt, and even Jae Crowder has disappointing size for a small forward at 6’6. Butler certainly has the physical profile to lock down those three, and he can switch onto Boston’s bigs for short periods as well. After all, Al Horford and Amir Johnson are only 6’9, Jonas Jerebko is a skinny 6’10 (231 lbs), and since Gerald Green (6’7) is apparently a power forward, there’s no reason for Hoiberg to shy away from Butler (6’7, 220) guarding the Celtics’ front court for a few possessions. That could be key for Hoiberg and the Bulls, who struggled to defend a faster Celtics lineup in games two and three with lumbering bigs like Robin Lopez, Bobby Portis, and Joffrey Lauvergne, the last of which has made me consider the potential benefits of a second French Revolution. When you ask the Trifle Tower/the French Infection to guard someone like Green, he just trips over his own feet in retreat. Conversely, Butler is perfectly suited to that matchup. However, it’s up to Hoiberg to make that decision.
The Role Players are Playing Their Roles, Kinda
Butler is perfectly fine as a star player, but one look at the Pelicans or Kings of years past can show that one star only drags a team so far. For the Postseason Bulls to stay scary, those outside of Butler and Air Traffic Controller Rondo have to step up, and they have. Sort of.
Paul Zipser is perhaps the best example of a role player come alive in this series, and the extra opportunities afforded to him from Hoiberg’s condensed rotations have Zipser sitting as Butler and Wade’s number one backup, and he played pretty well when he was put in positions to supplement — rather than carry — the offensive load. His resume of playoff moments is perhaps more impressive than his meager base stat splits (8/3/.5): he hit some jumpers and stuffed Kelly Olynyk at the rim. While his scoring doesn’t jump off the screen, his efficiency has been wonderful: 47.6/36.4/100 splits with a 65.3 True Shooting percentage. That’s not just a slight uptick — respectively, Zipser is shooting 7.8/3.1/22.5 percent better than he did in the regular season, or a 15.3% increase in his TS%. His plus-minus numbers aren’t stellar, but there are a few reasons for that, the most significant being that Zipser usually sees the floor in lineups that are without Butler or Rondo, and running with Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams (players with the two worst Offensive Ratings on the roster) reflects poorly on him.
Cristiano Felicio deserves an article unto himself, and I’ll certainly give it to him eventually, but the Brazilian monstrosity (Bebe Nogueira who?) has brought the sort of reckless energy and enthusiastic maniacism that Robin Lopez lacks. His subpar height for a center (6’9) is minimized by both his impressive weight (273 lbs) and the small Celtics frontcourt that I highlighted earlier. While Felicio has his weaknesses — high turnover rates and the tendency to flub easy looks at the hoop, to name the big two — he’s much more effective as a transition shotblocker than Lopez due to his foot speed. See here how he surveys the court, finds the driving Green, gets in front, and deflects the shot attempt while still managing to keep it in bounds.
That’s the good version of Felicio. Of course, he’s still prone to committing silly offensive fouls and just generally not grabbing the ball tightly enough, but his value as a rebounder and agile defender is pivotal for a Chicago team that cannot afford to keep playing Joffrey Lauvergne. He needs to see the court with regularity as a change-of-pace center who can get out and run with the guards.
What’s Going Wrong?
So much of the problem can be summarized by saying that the Bulls, despite having four “point guards” on the team besides Rondo, have zero usable depth at the position. However, it’s important to note that the coaching battle has swung in the other direction. To hear Bulls fans talk after the first two games, you’d think Fred Hoiberg was the second coming of Red Auerbach and Brad Stevens was “overrated, baby-faced, and shoulda stayed at Butler.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I said all of those things about Brad.) Stevens has adjusted well to the Rondo-less Bulls, while Hoiberg’s counter-moves have been largely ineffectual. When Stevens used Gerald Green’s speed to force Lopez to shamble around the perimeter, Hoiberg brought out the only big man slower than Robin to defend him. Grant and Carter-Williams are both hapless with big minutes totals, and though I praised Hoiberg for keeping Mirotic featured in the lineup, the rotations have been shoddy at best.
The decision to play MCW and Lauvergne for any extended time while a litany of skilled big men and more-qualified guards languish on the bench isn’t just a result of an injured starter; it’s a lack of personnel awareness on Hoiberg’s part. Portis, Felicio, Niko, and Lopez are the only big men who should see the floor, and Valentine deserves a shot at minutes over MCW because he can actually shoot and pass at an acceptable level.
MCW is — okay, I’m gonna use a metaphor. MCW playing basketball is like if an octopus was just learning how to walk on the moon. There’s a lot of wasted motion, some very poor decision-making, and the sense that he’s still getting the grasp of how gravity works, especially when he takes a jump shot. Sure, he’ll make a nice defensive play, or bank in a jumper — even a lunar octopus can take two steps forward. The problem is that it either precedes or directly follows six steps backwards. The most disheartening part? He’s still light years ahead of Cameron Payne.
Carter-Williams has provided less than nothing on offense, with a load of missed jumpers and bad turnovers due to stunningly low-IQ basketball. In addition, his height has barely given him any advantage on defense, as he seemingly fouls any time he’s worried about a guard blowing by him. The lack of explosiveness is inconvenient, but it’s also crippling when the rest of the Bulls PG reserves can’t defend. When a 6’5″ point guard is losing jump balls to a player nearly a foot shorter than him, maybe it’s time to get him off of the floor.
Most of Chicago’s issues are fixable, and many of the things the Bulls are doing well are repeatable. The underdogs have to continue playing the high-energy defense and rebounding that worked so well in their wins, and abandon the stagnant ball movement that doomed them in their losses. The ball is very much in Hoiberg’s court going into Game 5 (okay, technically it’s in Stevens’ court, since the game is being played at TD Garden) in regards to rotations and counter-coaching. With the report that Isaiah Canaan will get the start next game, it currently seems unlikely that Hoiberg has learned much. Of course, rumors were swirling that Rondo might make a comeback for Game 5 (which have since dispersed), and he’ll almost certainly force his way onto the court for Game 6, which could be the ingredient the Bulls have desperately needed in the latter half of this series. If the rest of the roster can bring the fight to Boston, there’s no reason they can’t still pull off the upset. Brad Stevens has thrown his gauntlet. Now it’s up to the Bulls to answer the challenge.