The Chicago Bulls squandered a winnable game Thursday, losing an early 18-point lead against a Nuggets squad whose best player left in the second quarter with an ankle injury. Will Barton was Denver’s unlikely hero, scoring the game winner and 35 other points off the bench, but the most remarkable aspect of the matchup was that the worst Bulls team ever had a winnable game at all.
For most of every possession, the Bulls don’t look disastrous, but rather resemble a typical NBA team. On offense, they embrace the zeitgeist and take the highest proportion of 3-pointers in franchise history; they run sharp sets, they move, they pass. On defense, they employ a standard conservative style, funneling opponents toward the lower-efficiency sections of the court and restricting peripheral scoring opportunities; they don’t give up too many corner 3s, points in the paint, or second-chance attempts.
But once a shot reaches the rim, it’s clear that the Bulls aren’t a regular team. On offense, they can’t finish, and on defense, they can’t stop teams from scoring. Chicago is a league-worst 3–17, and its net rating of negative 13.6 points per 100 possessions is the worst outside the seven-win 2011–12 Bobcats (-15.5) in the last 20 years. The Bulls became the fastest team in NBA history to lose four games by at least 30 points.
But the Bulls’ record is a feature, not a bug, of the franchise’s new direction. This season brings a strategic step back for the team, which spent the last few seasons floundering in the middle of the Eastern Conference, with no legitimate means to challenge Cleveland on one side and no long-term plan to rival Philadelphia’s on the other. After saddling spread-offense maestro Fred Hoiberg with the congestion of the “Three Alphas” last year, Chicago dismantled a middling roster over the summer, trading Jimmy Butler, buying out the last year of Dwyane Wade’s contract, waiving Rajon Rondo, and leaving the roster bare of players in their prime.
The Bulls won a playoff series as recently as 2015, but Nikola Mirotic is the only member of that team who remains in Chicago. The turnover has reduced the rotation to a group of neophytes; besides Robin Lopez, no active Bull had ever played more than 23.9 minutes or scored more than 7.7 points per game before this season. That’s the perfect setup for a tank, and, with its last-place record, Chicago has a head start on securing the top 2018 draft lottery odds, in the final year that separation between the bottom three teams matters.
But while it’s strategic, the Bulls’ isn’t an experimental tank on a game-to-game and possession-to-possession basis. In addition to tanking — or perhaps to aid in that effort — the Sam Hinkie–era 76ers manipulated factors like pace and 3-point shooting, and other rebuilding teams have toyed with exotic defensive stratagems. Chicago is running an old-fashioned tank job, built fully on trotting out bad players every night. It’s effective, certainly — gawp at that net rating again — but it’s also more listless and less fun to watch than other recent tanking efforts. The 2017–18 Bulls are an exercise in running NBA-level sets without the NBA-ready talent to support them.
Leading scorer Justin Holiday, for instance, is doing his best to rally Chicago’s offense, but the journeyman guard doesn’t profile as anything near a volume scorer. Among the 84 players with at least 11 shot attempts per game this season, he and teammate Kris Dunn have the seventh- and fifth-worst true shooting percentages, respectively.
Holiday, though, was merely a low-cost upside play for a rebuilding team. After being picked fifth in the 2016 draft and coming to Chicago with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen in the Butler trade, Dunn should be a centerpiece, but while he’s flashed fierce defensive abilities, he exhibits the same deficiencies on offense that scared Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau from trusting him last season. Dunn has played well this week, scoring 19-plus points in losses to both the Suns and Nuggets. But on the aggregate, he’s both scoring in a similarly inefficient fashion as he did a year ago and suffering from a persistent turnover problem. Only two other qualifying starting guards have a higher turnover rate than Dunn.
There’s no reason for any opposing team to worry about a pick set for the Bulls point guard, and the second-year man hasn’t proved he can solve a defense that sags off his inconsistent jumper. He’s shooting just 33.3 percent on attempts between the restricted area and 3-point line and has been the victim of plenty of blocks near the basket. Even when he zips by the first line of defense, he doesn’t yet possess sufficient tricks to outmaneuver the giant arms patrolling the paint.
A lack of respect for Dunn’s jumper also squeezes Markkanen, who isn’t afforded the space that stretch 4s paired with more threatening point guards enjoy. The Finnish rookie has cooled after a hot start from beyond the arc, but it’s not his fault that he’s been thrust into a leading role without much support. He would have an easier time attacking defenders who weren’t already set in a sturdy position, for instance, but Dunn doesn’t generate the floor-wide ripples that stress and rupture defensive alignments. In the below clip, no Warrior budges an inch off his assignment when Markkanen picks and pops.
Before Thursday’s game, the team’s most-used lineup — featuring Dunn, Holiday, Lopez, Markkanen, and Denzel Valentine — had scored a ghastly 94.8 points per 100 possessions. The second-most-used group — which replaces Dunn with Jerian Grant — had managed an even worse 93.1. The talent just isn’t present to sustain any level of coherent play, regardless of game plan or tactics. The most illustrative statistic of this dissonance is that the Bulls generate the league’s fourth-highest potential assist total but only the 21st-most assists. The other teams in the top five in potential assists rank first, second, third, and fourth in actual assists converted.
Chicago also struggles in situations that call for high-level shot creation, ranking last in the league in points per possession on isolation plays and posting the worst shooting percentage of any team at the end of the shot clock. The team can’t find easy sources of points, either: It’s flirting with the lowest free throw rate in league history and ranks 26th in fast-break points, in large part because it forces the second-fewest turnovers.
Simple regression from the extreme will remedy some of these issues, as will the impending return of two of the roster’s more talented names. Mirotic, who can at the very least find his own shot, returned to practice this week after his fight with Bobby Portis, while LaVine should make his Bulls debut this month and thereby bring much-needed offensive verve to a lineup lacking all other sources. The bouncy shooting guard, who’s been sidelined since tearing his ACL with the Timberwolves in February, might struggle to adapt in his immediate return from injury, but LaVine should also be happy to assume a scoring burden. He attempted an impressively efficient 15.1 shots per game last season while playing alongside Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and he’s a capable pick-and-roll ball handler and off-ball shooter.
Inevitably, some of those outlier statistics will creep back toward the merely bad, but the Bulls have now lasted a quarter of the season both scoring and allowing points at a historically abysmal rate. That’s no small feat, and it suggests that even as LaVine prepares to return, and even as Dunn and Markkanen earn more reps, the Bulls will remain a downright dreary viewing experience.
The present pain could pay dividends next June, when Chicago will have a prime pick in a loaded draft class, but the franchise’s future is nowhere near certain, and management has already hampered its ability to make vast upgrades in upcoming drafts. The Bulls sold 2017’s second-round pick — the vengeful, springy Jordan Bell — for nothing more than cash, and they’re down second-rounders in 2018 and 2019. (As partial compensation for those losses, they own the Pelicans’ second-rounder next summer, though that pick will surely be less lucrative than Chicago’s own potential no. 31 selection.)
It’s a strange thing, for a team’s entire season to compress into the bounce of a few ping-pong balls after 82 games have already been played. That’s not entirely the Bulls’ position, given that they’re also banking on the continued development of Dunn, Markkanen, and other rookie-contract players over the next four months, but they’re about as close as a modern NBA club comes. In 2012, the Bulls won 15 games in a single month. The current roster might not win that many all season.