The shooting quandaries of the Chicago Bulls

These are the Bulls hot spots. For the record, gray is not good.

These are the Bulls' "hot spots." For the record, gray is not good.

As the Bulls prepare for their game against the Los Angeles Clippers — the second stop on their current seven-game Western Conference road trip — Vinny Del Negro has some very real concerns to deal with. Forget the fact that his team could be without John Salmons, who spent Monday night in an Oakland hospital with flu-like symptoms, or that Kirk Hinrich’s status is unknown due to his own bout with flu-like symptoms, or even that he has to figure out a way to deal with L.A.’s Chris Kaman, who has very quietly become a real force inside (20.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.4 BPG).

Vinny’s biggest problem is that the Golden State Warriors provided a perfect blueprint for beating the Bulls, which is allowing and even enticing them into relying on their favorite field goal attemp. I’m talking about the long-range two-point jump shot.

If you read this blog and/or follow the Bulls with any regularity, you already know Chicago’s players love to shoot contested jumpers from that dreaded No Man’s Land between the paint and the three-point arc. Well, Tom Haberstroh of Hoopdata has provided some hard numbers to back up this little nugget of common knowledge.

According to Haberstroh: “From Hoopdata’s XeFG% page, we can see that 35.7 percent of Bulls shots are taken 16 to 23 feet away from the basket which, according to my digging, is by far the highest team portion of the last four years. One would think that the Bulls live in The Land Where Offenses Die because they were actually good shooters from 16-23 feet, but here’s the thing: they are terrible from there. As a team, the Bulls shoot 36.1 percent on long twos which is well below the league average of 39.6 percent. That might not seem like a big difference on the surface but in the last four years, only this year’s New Jersey Nets and the Isiah Thomas-led New York Knicks of 2006-07 fare worse from this area. So if you’re scoring from home, the Bulls love taking shots from a zone where they rank 118 out of 120 teams. Not only that, even though the Bulls frequent the long range shot, they almost never launch where the payoff is higher in 3-point land.”

Uh oh.

Haberstroh goes on to point out that both Derrick Rose and Luol Deng attempt more than six shots per game from No Man’s Land, and that Deng has the league’s second-worst field goal percentage among players who attempt at least four shots per game from that 16-23 foot range. Haberstroh also notes that Rose, by virtue of his ability to penetrate almost at will, would benefit greatly from pick-and-pop big men…only his frontcourt contingent includes a group of players who don’t have an efficient midrange game (Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Tyrus Thomas) and one other who can hit from midrange but appears to be almost washed up (Brad Miller).

In other words, not only is Chicago’s offense fundamentally flawed, it lacks the personnel necessary to take advantage of its greatest asset (Rose). Again, none of this is particularly surprising. I’ve been blogging these very things all season. Now we have the statistical analysis to back it up.

What can the Bulls do? Conventional wisdom says they should start attacking the basket at every opportunity. However, there’s one small problem with that tactic. Hoopdata recently published another article about the five worst games at the rim this season. Guess which team “earned” the first, third and fifth spots on that list? That’s right. Your Chicago Bulls! In the three games listed in that article, the Bulls missed 72 shots at the rim. And those weren’t aberration games. For the season, the Bulls convert only 55.4 percent of their shots at the rim. That’s the third-worst mark in the league.

Uh oh again.

Of course, these problems feed into each other. The Bulls can’t shoot, so teams pack the paint, which leads to scads of missed shots at the basket. The Bulls know they struggle to finish at the rim, so more often than not they bail out by taking loads of shots they can’t make. It’s like the Bulls have to choose between two poisoned drinks, only they haven’t spent the last five years building up a resistance to iocane powder.

So I ask again, what can the Bulls do?


Not right now, anyway. Like I said, it’s a personnel issue. They don’t have three-point shooters. They don’t have efficient midrange shooters. They don’t have an inside scorer or any big men who can play off Rose by knocking down jumpers or powering through multiple defenders for the finish. Unless management pulls off a miracle deal before the trade deadline, the Bulls are doomed to feature one of the league’s worst offenses for the rest of the season.

This makes future planning almost ridiculously important. After this season ends, half of the current roster will probably be gone, and the Bulls (as far as we can tell) plan to spend big money on a top-notch free agent. And they’d better spend wisely, because the next three to five years of the franchise are at stake.

Think about it. Rose is the future, so we know he’s staying. The Bulls are stuck with Deng’s cap-killing contract through 2014, so we know he’ll be around. If Chicago signs a big name free agent to a four or five-year deal, probably for a lot of money, that player will almost certainly be a Bull for the bulk of that deal. That means we’re looking at a three-man core of Rose, Deng and Player X.

Player X damn well better be able to compliment Rose.

Ideally, Player X will be a big man who can hit consistently from midrange, swoop in for high-powered completions at the rim, and have some kind of low post game. Amar’e Stoudemire fits two of those bills, and he’ll be available on the open market this summer. Of course, Stoudemire has plenty of baggage. He’s had multiple knee surgeries. He doesn’t aggressively pursue contested rebounds. He doesn’t have a single inside move. And we don’t know how much of his success the last few years has been the product of playing alongside Steve Nash in the Phoenix Suns’ run-and-gun system. He might play well off Rose, but then again, Rose is no Nash, and the Bulls don’t have the shooters necessary to open up the space Stoudemire uses to shoot and drive.

Based on his shooting stats, Chris Bosh might be a viable alternative, but there’s no telling where he’ll end up.

There’s no easy answer. We only know that, for the Bulls to build successfully around their franchise player, they’re going to have to put a team together that is drastically different than the one they have right now. And if they make one or two bad decisions, they could be bad for several more years. Not exactly a pleasant prospect.

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11 Responses to The shooting quandaries of the Chicago Bulls

    brandon1 January 20, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    Very good post Matt. Really interesting stuff.

    Tony C. January 20, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    Matt –

    That is an impressive, and well thought out post – as far as it goes. I add the qualification because the use of statistics in sports quite often leads to distorted analyses. And while I’m not suggesting that your analysis is far off base, I do want to challenge one central aspect of it.

    First, let me digress briefly, so that you and other readers might gain a feel for where I am coming from. I have worked for around 25 years in the Thoroughbred racing industry. I grew up in the Chicago area (Walker, Love, Van Lier!), and cut my teeth at the old Arlington Park, prior to it burning to the ground.

    Because of the tremendous sums of money involved, those who breed and/or sell Thoroughbreds have great incentive to spin statistics so that their products (e.g. a stallion or yearling, etc.) might bring the best possible prices. I have spent many years deconstructing phony or misleading statistics, and am therefore quite sensitive to how statistics are used in the promotion of anything.

    In basketball, much like horse racing, there is a temptation to try to boil down and express the essence of a ballplayer (or horse) by using a figure (e.g. PERs in BBall and speed figures in horse racing). And while such figures can be useful to a degree, they will always fail to fully express the ability or potential of flesh and blood athletes.

    With regards to your post above, it appears that you have used a variety of reasonable statistics to buttress your conclusions. The problem, as I see it, is that intangible factors such as chemistry and coaching are invariably discounted in such analyses. And while I don’t deny that the Bulls have personnel problems, I would argue that they have far more potential – even with their current roster – than they have realized.

    As I’ve touched on in previous posts, I believe that VDN is an exceptionally bad coach – bad on so many levels that his negative influence can’t be calculated. You may have also noted that I am a critic of Tyrus Thomas. However, in Thomas’ case, I believe that his remarkable underachievement has been due largely to poor coaching. And I mean that not only in terms of individual development (or lack of in this case), but also – especially – in terms of how poorly TT has thus far been utilized by the team.

    For example, while it may seem quite reasonable have him work on his outside shot in order to develop him into a more versatile offensive threat, I consider such a predictable, orthodox approach to be both a mistake in TT’s case, and a clear illustration of the lack of imagination amongst the Bulls’ coaching staff. A misallocation of resources, one might say.

    To my mind, Thomas is such an unusual athlete that he should be deployed in unusual ways. As much as I dislike some of his personality traits, I see him as having the potential to be one of the greatest shot blockers in NBA history – and I am not prone to hyperbole. It therefore boggles my mind that the Bulls have not experimented with creative defensive schemes in which Thomas would almost always be hovering close to the basket, altering and blocking shots throughout the course of a game. Yes, he would have to show good judgment in order to avoid getting into early foul trouble, but can you imagine how intimidating it would be to opposing players, knowing that even if they beat their defenders, Thomas would be a step or two away?

    Of course I am oversimplifying, but bear with me. I also believe that Thomas could be developed and used as a unique offensive threat. And this will help to tie all of this together in the context of what I see as a flaw in your conclusion:

    “So I ask again, what can the Bulls do?

    I imagine that a creative coach would, for example, design a variety of plays in which the point would be to draw Tyrus’ defenders away from him, have him cut to the basket, and receive passes around (and often above) the rim. Once such plays were executed often enough (and well enough, of course), opposing teams would require a defender to stay with TT at all times – at least when he was somewhere in the vicinity of the basket. In fact, if the team became proficient enough at such plays, opponents would even have to consider double-teaming him around the basket, which would in turn free up another Bulls player.

    Now, I agree that the Bulls roster leaves a lot to be desired. And frankly, I’d rather see TT traded, as I really think that his attitude works against both him and the team. But the bare statistics that you have used to support your conclusion are, at least in part, a reflection of how the personnel is being used, rather than a defining chart of the various strengths and weaknesses of the current Bulls players.

    My conclusion, therefore, is that the very same group of players would, in more competent and creative hands, be producing markedly better statistics and more wins. And it follows that a change of coaches should a much higher priority to Bulls management than even major personnel changes.

    thirdsaint January 20, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    I’d say I enjoyed this post if it weren’t so darned depressing. :-/

    It’s pretty much a Catch-22 and without a coach who knows how to make adjustments and call good plays we are all the more at a loss. Someone needs to send this post and that picture of the shot chart to Vinny so he at least knows where they hit shots from.

    As for the summer, I really hope we can land Bosh. If we can get him and somehow get Johnson we would be vastly improved. I try to remain hopeful but just because I expect to be disappointed I traded for Bosh in my NBA 2k10 game so I can see what it looks like to have him in a Bulls jersey.

    lop January 20, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

    Don’t you think an ideal free agent will be Joe Johnson. I’m not sure on the likelyhood of his leaving, but his 3-point game should open up some room inside for Rose, and maybe help Noah and Gibson expand on their dreaded offense.

    Chad Mears January 20, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    When will we utilize Tyrus Thomas talent, and what is stopping it. Is it Tyrus or the coaches. Rose should be throwing alley oops for Tyrus 5 times a game, and Tyrus should be doing what Beidrins does, 19 rebounds 8 blocks. But Rose never looks for Tyrus, and Tyrus stands in one spot all the time. Why does Tyrus only try when he is on TNT. Reggie Miller and Doug Collins think he is the greatest, cause they see him trying every time they announce the games. Would he try if Collins coached? Why is no Bulls game on comcast sportsnet the past 2 weeks. Sick of watching games online with unclear picture.

    Matt McHale January 21, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    Tony C. — Thanks for the very well thought out comment. And while I’m certainly not defending Vinny as an offensive coach, I can’t help but wonder how much of Ty’s problems are coaching and how much it’s simply Ty being Ty.

    Vinny only talks very vaguely about what he wants and expects from his players. “Execution, hard work, smart basketball.” It’s anybody’s guess what his specific instructions are.

    However, when Scott Skiles was around, his mandates were that Tyrus sprint all-out on every trip down the floor and attack the basket…or at least remain in the paint, both on offense and defense. Skiles repeated this over and over again to the press, on his radio show, in TV interviews. And Tyrus never caught on. Unless the Bulls were fast breaking or he had an obvious chance to block a shot, Tyrus would jog up and down the court, and then hover around the perimeter. It used to drive Skiles batty, and it earned Ty some benchings. But even after being benched, his behavior never changed for longer than a game or two.

    This is why I’m not sure Ty could be saved by even the best of coaches. He has the “Kwame Brown” feel to him. That is, damaged good by slow and/or poor development from Chicago’s coaching staff, both past and present.

    As for the Bulls’ current coaching staff, well, it doesn’t seem like they’re putting the players in the best position to succeed. Of course, the players have also missed an awful lot of wide open shots this season, and management didn’t do Vinny any favors by severely limiting his talent pool for future considerations.

    My “nothing can fix the Bulls right now” statement was based on the fact that no help is on the way in the immediate future and, unless something drastic happens, Vinny will be the coach until the end of the season. So even if there were coaching adjustments that could be made to better utilize Tyrus, Salmons, et al., it’s not going to happen under Vinny’s watch, and not unless people start hitting shots.

    And really, the shooting issue is all-encompassing, because Bulls’ opponents are packing the paint. In all fairness to Tyrus, his opportunities around the basket are partially nullified by the fact that there’s always a crowd in his way. It’s effecting everybody. John Salmons has always set up his shot by driving first, but when he drives, there’s always a body (or bodies) there.

    As I said, the problems feed on themselves.

    I’d like to see what a coach like Phil Jackson could do with this talent. Unfortunately, he seems pretty happy coaching the Lakers…who have no shortage of talent…

    Matt McHale January 21, 2010 at 12:17 am #

    lop — I like Joe Johnson, but he’s still, primarily, a perimeter player. The Bulls have had nothing BUT perimeter players the past several years. It’s time to bring in a scoring big man. Unless we can get Dwyane Wade, in which case I would be okay going a different direction. Maybe.

    Tony C. January 21, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    Matt –

    I fully share your skepticism about TT. If I were a GM of another team, I wouldn’t take a chance on him. I simply used his case to illustrate what I see as an inexcusable lack of creativity on the part of the Bulls coaches.

    downunderfan January 21, 2010 at 1:39 am #

    What great analysis. I’m sure there will be people who want to pick at it, but there’s compelling argument in there. You would think this data would influence trade decisions. I emphasise: you would THINK it would. I remain open to being convinced that that is the case (frankly, how long have people being saying the Bulls need an effective big man. I’ve given up counting).
    P.s my fingers are jammed in my ears, my eyes sealed shut to any suggestion that Bosh or Stoudemire (defense anyone???) are looking at residential property in Chicago – believe it when I see it)
    P.p.s I loved the NBA2k10 reference in one of the posts. I set up a team with Darko in it to see if you could make him live up to expectation. It worked. That’s why I don’t believe in game simulation…

    Brad S. January 21, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    Damn, …Tony nice work. I very much enjoyed reading your post.


  1. No escape from L.A.: Clippers 104, Bulls 97 » By The Horns - January 21, 2010

    […] Of course, according to one shot chart, Rose was only 4-for-8 on layup attempts, and he obviously wasn’t earning trips to the line, so maybe the Clippers simply did a good job closing down the paint. In fact, as a team, the Bulls went 11-for-24 (45 percent) on layups and tip shots, so they totally lived down to their rep as one of the worst at-the-rim teams in the league. […]

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