Tag Archives: Bulls offseason

The Winning Combination: A Look at the Bulls’ Lineup Data

When watching the Bulls, there are always things that stick out to the naked eye: Derrick Rose is good, Kirk Hinrich is not,  and Aaron Brooks is all over the place.

The beauty of basketball is that unlike baseball (and even football to some extent) the game is not about one-on-one matchups. With constant substitutions, undefined positions or roles, and the need to switch between offense and defense every 20 seconds or so, an individual player’s impact has a lot to do with the teammates he shares the floor with.

That is why I absolutely love NBA.com’s lineup statistics, as it provides an opportunity to evaluate players not just based on their individual stat lines, but rather how they blend with their surroundings. It also gives me ammunition to yell at the TV when I am unhappy with certain substitution patterns and personnel groupings that Coach Thibs leaves on the floor for long stretches of time.

Let’s get to it.

LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler

Because of a litany of early season injuries that has (yet again) plagued the Bulls, the amount of data available on five man units is rather thin. The most used lineup for the Bulls this season, the traditional starting lineup of Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Gasol and Noah, has only logged 143 minutes. By comparison, the most used lineup in the league has logged 325 minutes*, and ten five man groups have logged at least 200. Despite the limited sample size of five man units for Chicago, there are a couple of interesting facts that can be gleaned from glancing over the numbers.

* The most used lineup so far is Kobe-Lin-Boozer-Wes Johnson-Jordan Hill. That group has a net rating of -14.3 and is giving up 118 points per 100 possessions. That is unspeakable badness.

That starting five, despite its relative low minute total, is actually the most used lineup in the NBA on a per minute basis for squads that have appeared in seven games together (yes I know this is an arbitrary cutoff, but that’s how many games the starters have played together. This article will have lots of arbitrary cutoffs; just roll with me, I’m not trying to deceive you). At 20.4 minutes a game, they narrowly edge out Portland’s excellent starting unit, logging 19.4 MPG together.

The Bulls starting group has played excellently together when they’ve been out there. Of five man lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, they rank fifth in defensive efficiency (97.7), fifth in net rating (+13.3), third in rebounding percentage (55.6%) and sixth in assist percentage (65.9%). They are scoring more efficiently than the most used Cleveland five man unit (111 to 105.6) and getting to the line more frequently than Toronto’s slashing starting five.

This unit creates a balance the Bulls have sorely lacked in past seasons. The addition of Pau Gasol and the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a two way monster have given Chicago the offensive punch they sorely lacked to start and close games.

kirk pass

The second most used five man unit for the Bulls, coming in at a barely statistically significant 88 minutes, has been Hinrich-Butler-Dunleavy-Gasol-Noah. This lineup, essentially the starting five but with Kirk swapped in for Rose, has been less than ideal.

This group cannot score (98 points/100 possessions) nor defend (109.3 pts/100). Their rebound percentage of 46.4% is the lowest of any Bulls unit to log more than 20 minutes. Their eFG% is the lowest of lineups logging that same amount of court time, and their TS% is second lowest, bested (or I suppose I should say worsted) by the garbage man crew of Moore-Snell-McDermott-Mirotic-Mohammed.

The contrast in output from a group that remains 80% intact is startling, especially considering that no other lineup but the two most used has logged more than 45 minutes. The impact that Rose has on a game, even when he is noticeably less explosive and aggressive on drives, is far greater than what I expected. Furthermore, Hinrich, who has the reputation of being a plus defender, seems to mess up the mojo of this unit.

Rajon Rondo Derrick Rose loose ball

To build on Rose’s difficult to observe importance, just check out the Bulls’ defensive rating this season. Overall through December 4th, the Bulls rank ninth in defense, surrendering 101.9 points/100 possessions. While ninth still places them firmly in the upper echelon of the NBA, it is a significant fall from  the past few seasons. What is the source of that dropoff?  Is it perhaps that Taj Gibson has missed seven games, or maybe because Noah has been playing on one leg all season? Good hypotheses, but check out the teams’ defensive rating in the (albeit limited) time Rose has manned the point: 95.4.

The dysfunction of the Kirk+starters lineup is perplexing. Hinrich’s on court defensive rating is 101.4, a hair better than the overall team average. The fact that the defense becomes 12 points worse when Kirk is swapped for Rose seems to be less an issue of pure talent dropoff and more an issue of fit in the scheme. Perhaps the idea of Kirk Hinrich the point guard needs to be put to rest and Kirk Hinrich the shooting guard more fully embraced. In lineups where Kirk and Rose share the floor, lineups that do not require Kirk to guard opposing point guards,  the Bulls hold offenses to just 87.4 ponts/100 possessions.

The Bulls most explosive offensive player this year has been the resurgent Aaron Brooks. Of three man combinations that have logged 50 or more minutes, Brooks is involved in the two with the highest offensive efficiency and 11 of the top 15.

While Brooks has been an offensive catalyst, the team defense with him on the floor takes just as dramatic of a turn down as the offense turns up. Additionally, his somewhat limited role on the team makes him prone to some small sample size noise. Of the five best offensive trios featuring Brooks, none have registered 100 minutes of court time.

When the threshold for qualification is shifted to 100 minutes, a different player comes to the offensive forefront. Jimmy Butler’s transformation has been well documented, but allow me to throw in my two cents: Butler is a part of the five best offensive trios to log 100 minutes. Keeping the focus on trios, Butler is a cog in four of the top five three man units in net rating (the only trio not involving Butler: Rose, Noah and Gasol, the fourth best net).

mirotic_1200_141008

Jake did a great job covering the early returns on the rookies, but allow me to take it a bit further. Mirotic has far exceeded my expectations heading into the season, displaying a feel for the game and a level of maturity you don’t find in most rookies (although spending years as a professional in Europe probably plays into that). Mirotic, who has filled in as the first big off the bench in wake of the Taj Gibson injury, has played admirably with the right lineup pairing.

In 91 minutes of court time with Niko/Noah, the Bulls play at a +13 net rate. In 87 minutes with Taj, that number falls to +4. In 122 minutes of Mirotic alongside Gasol, the Bulls have looked ugly, scoring only 100.6 points/100 possessions while surrendering 106.3, something to keep an eye on. Thibodeau has made it clear that when Taj returns from injury, Mirotic’s role will be greatly decreased. While that is to be expected, I would hope to see a small decrease in everyone’s minutes, rather than just a huge role reduction by Mirotic. As I covered before the season began, the Bulls have the big men personnel to keep a balanced lineup on the floor for 48 minutes while also keeping everyone relatively fresh.

A final Mirotic note before I move onto Creighton’s finest: Niko and Dunleavy constitute the pairing that hast the highest net rating, eFG% and TS%, as well as the second highest offensive efficiency. Spacing is awesome.

The guy the organization, fans, and handsome bloggers thought was going to provide that spacing has been – what’s a way to say dumpster fire without sounding mean – slow to adjust to the speed of the NBA. Doug McDermott has really struggled through the first quarter of the season. Only managing to see 11 minutes of playing time a night, a number that has decreased as the year has gone on, McDermott has been predictably bad on defense. The Bulls’ defensive rating spikes to 108.7 when Doug hits the floor.

The surprise with McDermott has been his struggles on the offensive end, an area where Bulls brass assumed he would have a smooth transition. PER, a stat that doesn’t really penalize a guy for bad defense, is unkind to Doug, who is sporting a four. McDermott is only shooting 23% from three, his area of supposed expertise. Regardless of who McDermott plays with, it has been ugly. He makes up half of the four worst pairs in terms of net rating.

While the statistics and trends I have reviewed today may not hold up over the course of an 82 game season, they are important to keep an eye on moving forward. Lineup combinations, substitution patterns and creating the best matchups were the key to the Spurs’ championship run last season. Lets hope the Bulls will continue to maximize their strengths.

Mix and Match

chicagotribune.com
chicagotribune.com

I was certainly disappointed when the Bulls missed out on Carmelo Anthony, offseason priority number one. Adding one of the three best scorers in the league is always something you want your team to do, especially when your team is as offensively challenged as last years Bulls squad was.

Thankfully, the Bulls’ front office did not sit around feeling sorry for themselves when Melo resigned in New York. They still had a big chunk of cap space to spend and rather than cash in on one mega superstar, they made a handful of moves that transformed what was already a strength of this team into an absolute powerhouse.

Harken back to 2012, when Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and an interested Carlos Boozer composed the front court rotation, striking constant fear into the hearts of soft big men everywhere. The Bulls had so much big man talent they were closing out games with the backups on the court and everyone was totally cool with it. But after that fateful season, cut short by Derrick Rose’s ACL injury in the first round, the Bulls let Asik leave in free agency. Shortly thereafter, Carlos Boozer became the bane of my existence and a truly frightening foursome of big men had been cut in half.

This summer, Bulls fans finally awoke from the Carlos Boozer nightmare to a reloaded group of tall gentlemen who, while perhaps not the defensive stalwarts who patrolled the paint in 2012, will give the Bulls a plethora of options that will cause coaches to lose sleep. With the amnesty of Carlos Boozer becoming official, the Bulls signed Pau Gasol to a three year, $22 million deal and European sensation Nikola Mirotic for 3 years and $18 million. If you don’t know much about Mirotic, I wrote about him last year. For those of you who don’t feel like clicking on that link but still are curious as to who this dude is, Mirotic is a 6’10” 22 year old who shot 46% from three point range for Real Madrid in the Spanish League, Europe’s most competitive pro circuit.

Gasol, age 34, is certainly not the offensive wizard of yesteryear who played second banana on two championship teams in Los Angeles. But he definitely has a lot left in the tank, possessing a sweet shooting stroke and incredible passing ability, skills that tend to age quite well. Injuries robbed Gasol of big chunks of the past two seasons (foot injuries in fact, injuries that are quite frightening for a man of that size) but they did not rob him of his offensive skills. Gasol put up per 36 and pace adjusted numbers that fell right in line with his career averages, sporting a 19.3 PER to boot. Hopefully the Bulls will rely on Gasol far less than the recent Lakers teams have, saving his feet for a deep playoff push.

The Bulls were already incredibly strong at center and power forward before these exciting moves, with the tandem of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson proving to be one of the toughest to score on in the league. Noah and Taj shared the floor for 1257 minutes this past season, allowing only 97.2 points per 100 possessions. Opposing offenses shot a laughable 41.2% against Taj and Jo, defensive field goal percentage that would have led the league by a wide margin.

While Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol are incredibly talented players, neither is exactly well known for their defense. It would be fairly surprising to see these two on the floor together much this year.

What will be interesting to see for the 2014-15 season is how Tom Thibodeau mixes and matches his big man rotations. While Coach Thibs is likely to play things close to the vest, I feel that I am qualified to at least make an educated guess at what fans should expect.

The Bulls starting lineup on opening night will probably be Rose-Butler-Dunleavy-Gasol-Noah (we can debate Dunleavy vs. McDermott but that’s a conversation for another day). While Taj is probably more impactful to a game at this point of his career than Gasol, I expect Thibodeau to keep Taj slotted in the 6th man spot, acting as the Jamal Crawford of defense.

Bench units headed by Gibson and Mirotic will provide the necessary rim protection to stymie opposing teams’ second units while giving the Bulls some much needed spacing offensively. Any combination of McBuckets, Dunleavy and Mirotic will have defenses thinking twice about packing the paint.

Noah, Gibson and Gasol, the three high profile guys, are unlikely to ever share the floor together. While all three are competent mid range shooters, none of them provide the amount of outside shooting necessary to unclog the paint on offense. But swap in Mirotic for Gasol, and that’s a trio that could prove to be lethal. With Mirotic’s ability to play out on the wing and Taj’s ability to stay with small forwards off the dribble, this could be a lineup I spend embarrassing amounts of time oogling over on stats.nba.com.

If you’ve been watching Bulls games the last couple of years, you’ll know that it does not matter who starts the game, but rather who finishes it. Carlos Boozer spent most fourth quarters banished to the bench as Taj Gibson cemented his role as the closer at power forward. I expect Thibs to lean heavily on these two to finish games again this season, leaving our pricey free agent pickup out of the home stretch, at least to begin the season.

But don’t be surprised if Thibodeau begins to switch things up as the season progresses depending on the situation. As the new additions become more comfortable in the Bulls’ system, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Pau finishing games where the Bulls trailed by a small margin. And in contests where the Bulls need a big comeback perhaps Pau and Mirotic will get some run together.

However the lineup combinations shake out, just be thankful that we have the personnel to make this debate worthwhile.