The Chicago Bulls are one of the league’s flagship teams, thanks to the legacy of Michael Jordan. But they’ve had a rough stretch since Derrick Rose’s injury problems became severe in 2012, and the forecast isn’t optimistic for the future. The roster needs significant changes and younger players added to the pot to build for a future with Jimmy Butler and guys like Nikola Mirotic. Instead, the Bulls refuse to acknowledge the present, and they’re going all-in with a pair of guards from yesterday.
“I haven’t played defense in a couple years.” – Rajon Rondo
2015-16 in review
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In the Chicago Bulls’ first season sans Tom Thibodeau, they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They predictably slipped on defense but they slumped on offense too. Overall, they were lucky they won 42 games — based on their point differential, they were expected to win 37 games — and they suffered through a season where two of their stars, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, had horrendous shooting seasons. Noah only played 29 games too. Jimmy Butler, contrastingly, had another high-caliber season, and he and Pau Gasol were selected to the All-Star team. It was a distorted roster with a few promising bright spots maimed by some severe issues. And as a result, they sank in mediocrity.
After years of being stalled by waiting for an oft-injured point guard with shooting problems to regain his form, the Chicago Bulls let Rose go and signed Rajon Rondo. To go along with the ball dominant Rondo, who’s terrible in an off-ball role, they also signed Dwyane Wade, a high-usage shooting guard on the wrong side of 30. Also, as consequence of the Rose trade, they picked up Robin Lopez. He’s virtually the opposite the Pau Gasol, who had impressive individual rebounding numbers but whose team rebounded significantly better without him. Robin Lopez’s rebounding value is more subtle. The Bulls also remade their backup point guard landscape. Jerian Grant is a sophomore coming off a mixed rookie season with New York, and hopefully he’ll get enough time to develop with the Bulls. Finally, the Bucks and Bulls agreed to a trade of Tony Snell for Michael Carter-Williams — so yes, they’re adding yet another non-shooting guard.
The criticism for the Bulls all pivots on one point: the team’s four core perimeter players are all poor three-point shooters in an NBA landscape where the three-pointer is king. While it’s true that their lack of outside shooting is concerning, we don’t even have to frame this in a 21st century, analytics way. Let’s put it simply: it makes no basketball sense to mesh these three players together.
Starting with Dwyane Wade, we have to start with an uncomfortable truth. He’s not the same player he was in his prime, and besides a few flashes of greatness, his scoring isn’t as valuable and his defense is a major problem few people acknowledge. He also plays the same position as Chicago’s star, Jimmy Butler, but at least Butler is large enough to cover small forward comfortably — that’s not the biggest issue. Wade has not dialed back on his shot attempts as he’s aged, which will cut into Butler’s game. Wade will turn 35 years-old during the season and he has a long history of injury, so I don’t think assuming he’ll have a bounce-back year is smart.
To compound the problem with Wade, Rajon Rondo is a player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective, and there are already two star scorers. Rondo without the ball doesn’t really need to be guarded, and his defensive effort belies his nice looking steal and rebound totals. Functionally, the team doesn’t really make sense. And this is not at all like the Miami Heat experiment, which actually proves the point too. Firstly, LeBron James is a better shooter than Rondo, and secondly, both Wade and LeBron (and Chris Bosh) tweaked their playing styles in order to fit together properly. They relied on small ball to jump-start their offense and provide more spacing. The lesson we should take from LeBron and Wade together in Miami is that we should consider fit and spacing appropriately. For players whose values are defined by their ball-handling or shot usage, their value will correspondingly fall when forced into smaller roles.
Thankfully, the Rajon Rondo signing includes a mutual option on the second year: both parties have to agree to that season. The basketball experiment may not last, and there’s a possibility, like in Dallas, that it’ll end even sooner than that. I question their motivation for this because it doesn’t improve their future and doesn’t make them good enough in the short-term, however. Instead it appears they want Michael Carter-Williams for their future — but I’m a skeptic of his game. He made a name for himself on an empty 76ers roster where he was free to collect all the stats he could, leading to Rookie of the Year. I’d say he’s an embodiment of the “good stats on a bad team” player since he’s inefficient, his value is tied to taking a lot of shots, he grabs a lot of easy rebounds, and his defense hasn’t been great. He’s also 25 and hasn’t shown any progression. On paper, he’s good value for a deep reserve like Snell, who they weren’t going to use anyway, but I don’t see him as a solution.
In the mean time, if the team seriously wants to start three non-shooters, they’ll want Nikola Mirotic at power forward or else opposing defenses can pack the paint effortlessly and double-team without impunity. He enjoyed a season where he nearly shot 40% from behind the arc and has a good track record with outside shots during his time in Europe. With Taj Gibson starting, you’d have an NBA lineup without one even average three-point shooter. Jimmy Butler actually isn’t that bad and had a good season last year but career percentages are more predictive, and he’s at 32.8% there. In retrospect, it’s too bad they couldn’t keep Joakim Noah with Wade and Rondo just for sheer curiosity — that kind of negative spacing would collapse the court into a singularity.
Overall, despite the changes, the Bulls will be about as good as they were last season, depending on how they deal with the Rondo problem. Of course, since they won more games than expected from their point differential, a win total significantly lower than 42 could cause concern in the front office and lead to more changes. They have a few decent pieces that work well together — Butler, Mirotic, Robin Lopez, and Taj Gibson, to an extent — but the star-power they’re bringing in actually rate as clear net negatives. You can argue about Wade’s history and the championships, and how Rondo is a smart player who’s really good at connect-four but on the court — where it actually matters — there’s little evidence these guys have helped their teams win games the past couple years, and they’re only getting older.
The list of older perimeter players (PG, SG, and SF) with a usage rate of 30 or greater is exceedingly short. Only a handful of players in a given year are that shot dominant, and it’s something that usually wilts as a player goes into his 30’s. Wade is one of only five perimeter players with a usage rate that high at age 33 or later. Michael and Kobe Bryant, of course, are two of them. Bernard King had one last hurrah as a scorer before injuries effectively ended his career. Dominique Wilkins lasted longer than King, but he wasn’t the same player. Super high usage perimeter players usually don’t age gracefully — even Michael Jordan had that weird tenure with the Wizards. For Wade, he may have another 30 usage rate season in him, but I’m afraid Wade’s path is going to mirror Kobe’s, who was still trying to score points but lost his on-court value.
Table: old, high usage rate perimeter players, min. 1500 MP
No one’s quite sure why the Bulls decided to create the world’s most awkward “superteam” trio, but it won’t even work as stealth tanking because Jimmy Butler and a few of their role players will be good enough to win more games than the high lottery teams. If the Bulls just rid themselves of Rondo early, perhaps they can make things work smoothly, but they don’t have enough talent to climb high in the east standings either — and Michael Carter-Williams shares a few qualities with Rondo. This is a team that needs a rebuilding or at least a major retooling, but for now we have the spectacle of one of the most ungraceful transition years you’ll see in the modern NBA.