Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls are – for what is essentially the first time in his tenure as head coach – struggling. With an 8-12 record, the Bulls sit in third place in the Central Division, and it’s only due to the horrid state of the Eastern Conference that their record is good enough for the 8-seed right now. “Luckily, we’re in the East. We got a shot. Teams in the East are terrible right now,” Taj Gibson said after last night’s loss to the New York Knicks.
It’s clear that injuries have taken their toll on the team. Derrick Rose has played in just 10 games since May of 2012. His recent knee tear has robbed the Bulls of the backbone of their offense for the second consecutive season, so they’ve once again taken to running a lot of their sets through Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer at the elbows. Without Rose, the Bulls just do not have anyone capable of penetrating with any kind of consistency, so they have to resort to big-to-big passing and a series of dribble hand-offs near the elbow to get the ball into the paint.
Backup point guard Marquis Teague understands the value of such plays, noting “It just gives me a chance. The big frees me up. He hits the guy guarding me and then I get to go basically one-on-one with the big.” That was certainly the case down the stretch against the Knicks last night, but the Bulls spent most of the first three quarters bumbling around offensively.
The thing about being able to run offense through bigs at the elbows is that you want it to be a luxury, not a necessity. The last time Rose was healthy, the Bulls sported a top-five offensive efficiency. They had their Rose-centric pick and roll sets that were the basis of the offense, but they also could go to Noah or Boozer at the elbow as a secondary outlet option. With Noah and Boozer acting as playmakers becoming the primary pillar of the offense the last two seasons, the team’s scoring has suffered. They ranked 24th in offensive efficiency last season, and have tumbled down to 27th this year with a per 100 possessions scoring mark on par with some of the worst offenses of the last decade.
One major issue they’ve had this season is taking care of the ball. “The turnovers [are] a problem,” Joakim Noah said. And indeed they are. The Bulls have turned the ball over more often as a percentage of total possessions than all but one team (Houston) this season. While some of that can be attributed to the lack of a real option at point guard, Noah is quick to take responsibility. “I have to do a better job of taking care of the ball. All of us have to understand that we’re shorthanded, and turnovers hurt a lot. We’ve been rebounding the ball well, doing a lot of things well, but turnovers have been a problem.” Noah turned the ball over five times against the Knicks last night, pushing his total to 10 in the last four games.
The Bulls are also once again struggling with the outside shot. Only two teams attempt fewer three point shots per game than the Bulls, and only three convert a lower percentage of those attempts. Mike Dunleavy has done his part and made over 40 percent of his threes, but Jimmy Butler’s turf toe-related absence means the Bulls don’t really have another above average outside shooter on the roster. Deng, after connecting on 36 percent of his threes from 2008-2012, has seen his conversion rate sink to 31 percent over the last two years without Rose, and just 26 percent this season.
Again, a lot of this can be attributed to Rose’s absence. The lack of an off-dribble attacker means the drive-and-kick game is almost non-existent for Chicago, so they have to manufacture easily convertible spot-up opportunities in different ways. They haven’t had much success doing so this season, as according to mySynergySports the Bulls have made only 29.1 percent of their spot-up threes, and thus sport a points per play (PPP) mark that ranks 27th in the league on spot-up shots. Compare that to Rose’s last healthy regular season (2011-12), when the Bulls shot 41.7 percent on spot-up threes and ranked 3rd in PPP on spot-ups.
But the Bulls did have moderate success without Rose last season. The offense struggled, but the team was able to keep pace in Rose’s absence last season mostly due to super-human efforts from Noah, Deng, Butler, Gibson, and Carlos Boozer at different times throughout the year. They haven’t been able to count on those performances as consistently this season, mostly due to injury.
Noah is clearly hobbled. He had his knee drained this week, and he doesn’t appear to have nearly the same explosiveness he normally has on either end of the court. His field goal percentage is down for the third straight year, as is his per-minute scoring average. Deng has missed the last three games with an Achilles injury and is working on his fourth straight season averaging at least 38 minutes per game, a massive load his slender legs don’t seem built to handle, game as he might be on a nightly basis. Butler hasn’t played since November 18.
While Rose’s absence obviously forces the Bulls to adjust their offense, Deng and Butler being out changes up their defense quite a bit. “Those two are the strong defensive players that really get easy buckets for us off steals. They’re the core. They’re the guys that lead the break,” Gibson said.
He also indicated that the Bulls have to adjust scheme-wise in the absence of their best two perimeter stoppers. ”Normally we really don’t have to help. Sometimes on the isolation, like Melo Isos, [Mike] James or [Mike] Dunleavy get him on Isos or a switch with Marquis Teague. It’s tough because we’ve got to help off. We’ve got to switch back and get him out of the paint. Normally if we switch, we’ve got strong, top defenders that are capable of holding their own. If it’s me and Jimmy in the screen and roll against Carmelo and Stoudemire, Jimmy’s gonna switch and he’s gonna do a great job containing him. Right now we have guys that are just okay defenders, and we’re trying to cover them up because we’ve got to keep those guys on the floor.”
In spite of that, the Bulls once again rank among the league’s best defensive teams. Thibodeau has proven over the years that he can coach nearly any group of players to a top-five defensive efficiency. He helped Jeff Van Gundy craft one of the best defenses in the NBA in the late 1990s and early 2000s in New York, and his strong side overload system has slowly spread throughout the league since teams began being allowed to employ zone defense principles.
Defense Efficiency Rank
Only once in the last 11 years has a Thibodeau-coached defense failed to rank in the league’s top five in efficiency, and that was a year where the Rockets got only 104 games combined from Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, and thus had to play Rafer Alston, Luther Head, David Wesley, Juwan Howard, and Stromile Swift nearly 11,000 minutes combined. It’s remarkable consistency for a coach that has been in three different cities with vastly different rosters.
The style of defense Thibodeau’s teams play has also led to resounding success against Carmelo Anthony. By flooding the strong side with an extra defender against isolation plays, Thibodeau’s teams are able to force Anthony into even more difficult shots than he normally takes. Because of the location of that extra help defender, Melo is often faced with the choice of driving directly under the basket or pulling up for a jumper with multiple defenders in his face. The results have not been pretty.
Carmelo Anthony Against Tom Thibodeau TeamsEntering Wednesday's Play
Melo has shot about four percent worse than his career average against Thibodeau-coached teams, and since being traded to New York has fired away with an alarming frequency against the Bulls. Thibs’ charges are perfectly fine with Melo shooting to his heart’s content, so long as he’s taking difficult shots. Gibson explained after the game. “We’re gonna live with the jump shots. Try to be physical with him. He’s gonna get good looks. Just try to contest. You can’t really shut down a great player like that.”
The Knicks last night avoided isolating Anthony against Gibson on the wing for most of the night, but as has been their custom in past games against Thibodeau-style defenses, stubbornly forced him the ball in that spot down the stretch. Simply put, this is a losing strategy, and the Knicks almost blew a game last night because they employed it for the umpteenth time. They isolated Anthony against Gibson six times in a five minute span in the fourth quarter, and netted only one basket as Gibson forced Melo into missing four of five jumpers and blocked a layup attempt.
Gibson is one of the few power forwards in the league with both the strength the muscle Anthony off his spots on the block and the foot speed to stay with him on the drive. He’s become more adept at guarding Anthony over the last few seasons, and has seen the match-up more and more often as he’s matured, even sometimes when sharing the court with Deng, who is considered one of the league’s best Melo stoppers. “It was tough my first couple years in the league guarding him. I remember he hit the game winner on me and [Deng]. It just takes time. I’ve guarded him in USA camp, whole weeks at a time. I got a chance to get up close and understand his game. I was just quick on my feet, just trying to force him to the help,” Gibson said last night.
While the defense for Chicago has once again been strong, the sorry state of the offense means the defeats are piling up. The losing, like the injuries, has taken its toll on the players. “Losing sucks. Losing sucks. We’ve been through a lot this year. A lot of adversity,” Joakim Noah said, before expressing some hope for the not-too-distant future. “We’re losing a lot of tough games right now, but we can’t pout. We have to stick together through the hard times. We’ve got some guys coming back. Keep grinding, and I know it’s gonna turn around.”
Noah’s right. Butler is working his way back, and might be able to play fairly soon. For what it’s worth, he looked pretty good in warm-ups last night. Deng will eventually be back, and Thibs no doubt will throw him out there for as many minutes as he can handle. The presence of those two on the wings will make an already tough defense even stingier, and should hopefully inject some life into what to this point in the season has been a brutal offense. Things are dark right now, but reinforcements are on the way. And in this Eastern Conference, the Bulls will be just fine.