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These Three NBA Offenses Might Be Better Than They Seem

The Bulls, Nets, and Pelicans have all struggled out of the gate, but all hope isn’t lost just yet. Here’s why.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bulls coach Jim Boylen was talking about Luke Kornet on Monday, hours after the reserve big man had undergone sinus surgery to fix a lingering issue. But he might as well have been talking about his entire roster, which has underperformed compared with expectations in the first month of the season.

“Does he need to play better? Of course. He knows it. We’ve talked about it,” Boylen said, with Kornet shooting 22 percent on 3-pointers. “I think he’s a winning player. The math says he’s a winning player.”

The Bulls were tabbed as preseason playoff sleepers, but they have stumbled to a 5-10 start and were tied for last place in the Eastern Conference until a win against Detroit on Wednesday. Yet the math says they should be a winning team, or at least close to it: They have the third-best shot profile in the league, based on factors like distance and shot clock time, per pbpstats.com. In actual results, they rank 27th in effective field goal percentage and 30th in points per 100 possessions.

Chicago isn’t the only team struggling from this sort of gap. It’s a tricky balance at this point in the season, when the standings start to take shape but statistical samples are still so relatively small that it’s unclear whether stragglers are legitimately underqualified or simply suffering a stretch of bad luck.

For instance, research in 2014 from Darryl Blackport, then of Nylon Calculus, found that it takes 750 attempts for a player’s 3-point accuracy to “stabilize,” meaning “after 750 attempts a player’s percentage is split 50-50 between skill and noise. This is still a lot of noise. It is also a lot of attempts.” In other words: Let’s not grow too concerned about a slump over a dozen games. This early in the season, it’s important to focus on the quality and distribution of a team’s shots instead of just the end result.

And if underperforming teams like the Bulls, Nets, and Pelicans are in search of a rare bit of uplifting news, it’s precisely this idea: They’re generating good shots and are almost certain to improve as the season continues, if only they don’t panic and deviate from the current course.

Let’s start with Chicago, home to the league’s worst offense—a surprise given the talent on hand, from Zach LaVine to Lauri Markkanen to a supporting cast brimming with capable scorers. The Bulls also run a modern offensive system, with four shooters on the floor and a focus on high-efficiency areas. Here’s a quick game: Which of these shot charts belongs to Chicago, and which belongs to Houston, the team most committed to an analytics-friendly offense?

Chicago is on the left, Houston on the right, but it’s not easy to distinguish between the two images. Both teams hunt 3-pointers and layups; both eschew midrange looks. The difference between the two teams is that Houston’s top players are producing at their typical level, while Chicago’s are not. All that preshot planning to generate high-value looks falls flat when the shots don’t go in.

“We have guys shooting below their career averages by multiple points. Will that turn? I think it will. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t,” Boylen said after a recent loss to Houston, in which the Bulls shot 4-for-32 on 3-pointers. “We’ve struggled to finish plays at the rim and struggled to make open shots.”

Added the Bulls coach a few days later: “We’re getting the shots we want.”

To Boylen’s point, a league-best 35 percent of the Bulls’ shots have come within 3 feet of the rim—but a league-worst 57 percent of those shots have gone in, per Basketball-Reference.

The most representative play of this disparity came Monday against Milwaukee. The Bucks are the league’s stingiest at-rim defense for the second season in a row, allowing a league-low 22 percent of opposing shots to come within 3 feet. The good news for the Bulls is that they slashed and rolled and found their way to the rim regardless, taking 31 shots that close; the bad news is that the Bulls made only 58 percent of those shots, rendering much of that effort for naught.

On one possession in particular, all the Bulls’ struggles coalesced as Markkanen was stymied on a point-blank attempt by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s long arms. Seconds later, after collecting the loose ball, Markkanen rose for an uncontested dunk—only to bobble the ball and roll it around the rim, and then throw his arms and gaze skyward in disgust.

Markkanen’s start to the 2019-20 season epitomizes that of the Bulls. The third-year forward entered the year expecting to take another step forward, and his shot distribution looks more efficient this season than ever before—he’s excised nearly every midrange jumper and is taking half his shots from 3. But dogged by a sore oblique, Markkanen is shooting just 29 percent from distance (versus a previous career average of 36 percent), and he’s posting further career lows in 2-point percentage and points per game. He’s converting only 50 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, per NBA.com/Stats—a remarkably low number for a 7-footer, and one of the lowest in the league overall. Markkanen’s “Finnisher” nickname, once a delightful play on words for the Finland native, now seems a measure of cruel irony.

“I’ve never had this kind of stretch of not [only] not hitting 3s, but missing lay-ups and dunks,” Markkanen said after Monday’s game—clarifying that he’d never experienced such a slump at any level, even before he reached the NBA.

If Markkanen wants solace, it’s that he’s not alone in that regard in the Bulls’ locker room. Among 84 players to attempt at least 50 shots in the restricted area, Markkanen is tied for 76th in shooting percentage in that zone, while LaVine is also tied for 76th (at 50 percent) and rookie Coby White is 83rd (41.7 percent).

Here’s a representative—though certainly not exhaustive—collection of such misses from Monday’s game. The Bulls broadcast’s deflated call of the first whiff fits the whole team at the moment: “LaVine accelerates, right on in! … and missed it.”

The Bulls’ other concern is a sputtering start from 3-point range, where a host of rotation players are shooting below their career rates. Chicago ranks 13th in the rate at which it takes 3s after ranking 28th in that stat last season. Yet that math-friendly transition, along with one of the highest rates of wide-open 3s, hasn’t led to actual success. The Bulls have already had games in which they’ve shot 4-for-32, 9-for-39, and 9-for-35 (twice) from distance—all losses.

“We all have off nights,” LaVine said Monday after shooting 4-of-16 overall, including 2-of-7 on 3s, against the Bucks. “It’s not like we go out there trying to miss shots.”

To place the teamwide underperformance in context, I built a rudimentary model that estimates a team’s “expected” 3-point percentage based on its shooters’ identities. Skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t care about the math, but essentially, this tool weights each player’s last three seasons of long-range performance, along with a variable to account for regression, to determine how he would “expect” to shoot over a certain number of attempts. This allows us to identify which teams have under- or overperformed their shooters’ abilities—which over a full season tend to even out. Testing this model on the last three seasons, we find that the average difference between real and expected 3-point percentage on a team level came within a single percentage point.

This isn’t a perfect tool; because it’s built on past NBA performance, for instance, I’ve excluded all rookies from the calculations. (Apologies to Tyler Herro.) But it’s useful enough to help us pick out which teams are due for regression, either positive or negative, based on the distribution of its 3-point attempts.

This chart shows the actual vs. expected 3-point percentages thus far for each team. The Raptors, for instance, have made 12 more 3-pointers than we’d expect based on their players’ histories, so while they rank fifth in actual 3-point percentage, they rank only 18th in expectation. The Bulls, conversely, have missed 12 more 3s than we’d expect, which drops them from eighth in expectation to 24th in tangible results. (This chart is sortable if you click on the header for each column.)

3-Point Expectations vs. Reality

Team Makes vs. Expected Actual Accuracy Rank Expected Accuracy Rank
Team Makes vs. Expected Actual Accuracy Rank Expected Accuracy Rank
Pelicans +13 3 17
Raptors +12 5 18
Pistons +12 2 9
Heat +12 1 20
Suns +9 8 29
Wizards +7 6 12
Hornets +7 12 30
Knicks +5 10 24
Celtics +5 7 13
Kings +4 4 1
Trail Blazers +2 11 10
Mavericks +1 15 26
Jazz +/-0 9 4
Nuggets +/-0 13 14
Thunder -3 14 11
76ers -5 17 15
Grizzlies -5 25 28
Spurs -8 16 3
Cavaliers -8 23 16
Pacers -8 19 6
Bucks -8 22 25
Warriors -9 27 22
Lakers -10 21 7
Bulls -12 24 8
Clippers -12 20 5
Hawks -13 29 27
Nets -15 18 2
Rockets -16 26 19
Timberwolves -18 28 21
Magic -23 30 23

For Chicago, those 12 missed 3s add up. The Bulls have been outscored by 37 points this season; add in those absent 3-pointers and they improve almost to an even differential, which in the East is basically enough for a playoff spot.

That last line applies just as well to the Nets, who are somehow in the current playoff field despite an underwhelming 6-8 record and negative-3.0 net rating. This season is something of a buffer for Brooklyn, coming between last season’s surprise youth movement and next season’s uniting of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Yet as Ringer teammate Dan Devine wrote this week, that curious competitive gap doesn’t mean the Nets should play so poorly in the meantime.

Like with Chicago, however, an overview of the Nets’ offensive profile reveals an encouraging approach. Only the Rockets and Hornets are taking fewer midrange shots than the Nets, who despite that selection and the addition of Irving’s singular skills have a worse offensive rating this season than last. To be clear, that decline isn’t Irving’s fault: The Nets are scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions with their star guard on the court, which would rank fifth in the league. Without Irving on the floor, though, Brooklyn plummets to last place, at 99.7 points per 100.

Overall, the pbpstats.com model shows the Nets with the league’s fourth-best shot profile, one spot behind Chicago, but without the results to match. They’ve underperformed their “expected” 3-point percentage by even more than the Bulls.

A Nets offense with Irving, Caris LeVert, and Joe Harris—the league’s most accurate 3-point shooter, per my expectation model—should be able to score at ease even without Durant. But Irving will miss his fourth straight game on Friday with a shoulder injury, and LeVert is out for at least a month due to thumb surgery.

It’s possible that this season will unravel completely for Brooklyn—that the numerous injuries to key players mean the Nets can never jell, and that the 2019-20 campaign will prove an extended warmup for the season that really matters, when Durant returns. But Kenny Atkinson’s offense isn’t to blame, and if he sees any upturn in injury luck, the Nets could catapult up the Eastern standings given their structural strengths.

The final team with a noteworthy shot distribution is New Orleans, which is also in a sort of stasis period while it waits for Zion Willamson to return from injury. The Pelicans are treading water in his absence, with a 5-9 record and negative-2.9 net rating, but after overhauling their roster in the Anthony Davis trade, there’s reason to hope that they’ve constructed the ideal team to surround their latest no. 1 pick.

Only the Knicks, Warriors, and Wizards have had less roster continuity from last season to this, per Basketball-Reference, and all of the new Pelicans are eager to let fly from deep. After ranking 24th in 3-point attempt rate last season, New Orleans is all the way up to no. 5 in 2019-20, thanks to a teamwide effort. All 10 of the Pelicans’ noncenters are shooting at least three 3s per game, and all 10 are at least capable shooters, if not elite like free-agent signee JJ Redick.

New Orleans’s Noncenters All Shoot

Player 2019-20 3PA per Game Career 3P%
Player 2019-20 3PA per Game Career 3P%
JJ Redick 7.2 41.4%
Lonzo Ball 6.1 32.0%
Josh Hart 5.7 36.4%
Brandon Ingram 5.4 34.3%
Jrue Holiday 5.3 35.4%
Nickeil Alexander-Walker 4.2 35.6%
Frank Jackson 3.9 32.3%
E'Twaun Moore 3.6 39.1%
Kenrich Williams 3.4 33.8%
Nicolo Melli 3.3 35.9%

And the new Pelicans, notably Brandon Ingram (44 percent on 3s this season), are hitting accurately enough that the team ranks 10th in offensive rating even without Williamson. With that baseline, it’s easy to imagine a four-shooter-plus-Zion lineup pushing even higher toward the top of the leaderboard. (One caveat here is that regression can flow a negative way, too, in the cases of overperformers like Ingram and Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans should be thrilled that the latter is canning 37 percent of his 6.1 3-point tries per game—but that mark will probably fall.)

Whether the Pelicans use that option is a different question; Williamson started next to a true center in the preseason, and, with Derrick Favors, Jahlil Okafor, and no. 8 pick Jaxson Hayes all on the roster, they might continue with this plan. But a dual-big structure might cramp the offense’s spacing, and the early returns are so suggestive of the fireworks that would come from a four-out lineup with Williamson in the middle. He’d have room to operate, and to use his underrated passing prowess to kick to knockdown shooters; on defense, he certainly has the physical and intuitive skills to protect an NBA rim by himself. It’s hard not to look at this Pelicans start and dream about the team’s potential heights later this season and beyond.

Of course, a sophisticated shot profile is not the sole determining factor of a team’s offensive results. Talent plays a role, and teamwork, and all other manner of interpersonal factors. In the Bulls’ case, for instance, the team can do a better job pivoting to a second option when the primary offensive set fails. Markkanen hasn’t looked as involved or as explosive as he did as a breakout rookie. LaVine might not have the full complement of skills necessary to pose as a no. 1 scoring option on a good team.

But it’s still early, and luck is far more likely to even out as the season progresses. Shots that are rimming out now will start to fall; Markkanen, at the very least, won’t keep missing uncontested dunks, sore oblique or not. “Knowing that you work hard, it’s definitely going to turn around,” Markkanen said Monday, before scoring 24 points, his highest total since opening night, in his next game. “It’s not going to be like this forever.”

Stats through Wednesday’s games.