The Chicago Bulls (6-8) spent all offseason trumpeting continuity in the face of sweeping changes in the Eastern Conference. Roughly one month into the regular season and they might already be paying the price for their decision.
They are 11th in the East after their 126-103 loss to the visiting Denver Nuggets on November 13.
The Bulls were coming off three days of rest while Denver had played six games in the last 10 days. Yet it was the latter group that looked fresh offensively while the former appeared to be sleepwalking. Denver shot 60% from the floor and 48% from downtown compared to 49.4% overall and 29.3% from deep for the Bulls.
Bulls Missing Link
“The Lonzo [Ball] thing is the worrying part,” an Eastern Conference general manager told Heavy Sports’ NBA insider Sean Deveney. “If they’re going to be a good team, he needs to be on the floor. But the biggest thing is, they’re not as bad as their record.”
That may be the case – the exec also said they were not as good as their record for most of last season — but their underlying numbers are underwhelming.
The about those stats is the Bulls are built to be an offensive team. They were expected to be at least a little porous defensively with their lack of two-way players. But the trio of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic are supposed to keep this team afloat while they sorted through those anticipated defensive issues.
And, for the most part, two of the three are delivering in many ways.
So, why do the Bulls have a minus-0.3 net rating this season, per Cleaning The Glass?
“Lonzo makes them run like an offensive engine. He gets the ball to shooters where they want it. He pushes the pace, runs the break so well. They’re going to struggle offensively without him.”
That just covers his offensive impact though, they will still miss him greatly on the less-glamorous end of the floor.
Bulls Weakest Link
“[Bulls head coach Billy Donovan] has gotten the defense turned around a bit more and that is a big help. Lonzo would make them even better there but they can survive without him as long as they have [Alex] Caruso.”
Ball’s return would help the former but might not solve the Bulls’ issues at the rim as long as they are relying on the third member of the aforementioned triumvirate, their polarizing big man Vucevic.
“The other thing is Vucevic,” the executive said. “He has had some nice numbers…But the defense is so much better when he is not out there. That makes it tough on Billy because they have so much invested in him with the trade they made and they have to put him out there. But the defense is a disaster sometimes with him out there.”
Despite dips in his scoring, overall efficiency, and assists numbers, Vucevic is enjoying a bounceback from beyond the arc shooting 39.3%.
That would be the second-highest mark of his career if it held.
But the concern for Vucevic remains on the other end of the floor. The Bulls have a plus-10 net rating with the defense ranking in the 91st percentile whenever the two-time All-Star is off the floor.
When he is on the floor, their net rating is minus-5.6 and their defense plummets to the 41st percentile. Their offensive rating also plummets from the 72nd percentile to the 20th.
Ready for “Soft Reboot”?
Vucevic is heading into the final year of his contract. There was mutual interest in continuing the relationship beyond this season. But K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago reports nothing much developed on a contract extension.
“If they were taking an honest look at it, if Lonzo is not on the floor and they are below .500 in a couple of months? Yeah, you would have to consider what you could get for DeRozan and Alex Caruso, especially,” another executive told Deveney. “Those two would give you a very good return if they were to make a trade.”
The Bulls have lost four of their last five games and are set to be on the road for 12 of their next 18 games.
It could get ugly rather quickly.