Over a five game stretch in February, the Chicago Basketball Bulls averaged 101.2 points, highlighted by a 117 point outing against the Denver Nuggets at the United Center. Before the Bulls next game against New York, coach Tom Thibodeau joked, “We’re an offensive juggernaut.” The Bulls went out and eviscerated the Knicks, 109-90, with Joakim Noah putting up a triple-double as the Frenchman sliced and diced a porous New York defense.
The very next game, the Bulls scored 80 points in a losing effort against Brooklyn. Offensive juggernaut, indeed.
Often with basketball, I look to stats to see if I’m missing something. When I looked at the Bulls’ stats, I did so with what I guess you could call a semblance of hope. They couldn’t possibly be this bad, could they? The lack of raw offensive production, just 93.7 points per game, good for dead last in the NBA, had to be because Chicago’s defense elongated possessions, thereby giving them fewer chances to score. Right?
Turns out, the Bulls offense is actually about as bad as you think it is.
Per 100 possessions, the Bulls scored 102.5 points, good for third to last in the NBA, above only the tanktastic Philadelphia 76ers and the Orlando Magic, who were actively trying to lose games. ((A 76ers fan at work actually tried to convince me that Henry Sims was the real deal.)) Even when adjusting for the strength of opponents’ defenses the Bulls are still bottom dwellers, again only besting the 76ers and the Magic.
That story, however, has been beaten to death. I get that the Bulls are bad offensively. But why exactly is that the case? It’s difficult to point at any one area, but a lot of it has to do with three-point shooting. The Bulls shot just a hair under 35% from beyond the arc this past season, 24th in the league. Teams can afford to sag off of the Bulls’ three-point shooters, making life difficult for interior players to get off shots without being hounded by multiple defenders. The Bulls were 30th, dead last in the league, in effective field goal percentage, which takes into account the difficulty of the shot taken. The Bulls couldn’t punish the teams on the outside for sagging and doubling, which made it difficult for them to punish anyone on the inside. If you can’t shoot three-pointers in this league, you are going to lose.1
Jimmy Butler was supposed to be one of the guys that would knock down the open three-pointers created by teams doubling Boozer or sagging off to deal with penetration.2 He shot 28% from beyond the arc this year, which is unacceptable for a starting two-guard on a championship team.3 The best place to look for improvement in the off-season is already on the roster. Jimmy Butler doesn’t need to be the guy. He just needs to be the guy that makes threes.
If we’re looking elsewhere, though, the place to start is with three-point shooting. A name that has gotten bandied about in Chicago circles is Carmelo Anthony, and reasonably so. Last year was the best three-point shooting season of Carmelo’s career, as he shot just over 40% from the Land of Three. What’s even more exciting about Carmelo is that he can play the power forward position and stretch opposing bigs out of the lane. The Bulls have the luxury of a mobile center who can play away from the rim, meaning that both opposing bigs will have to compromise their inside presence, leaving room for Noah to make his laser passes to a cutting Jimmy Butler, or leaving Derrick Rose room to work in the paint. As we’ve seen over the years, very few players are quick enough to keep up with an isolated Derrick Rose with no interior big for help.
Carmelo’s ability to play the two, three, or four makes him a much more intriguing option than, say, Lance Stephenson, another player that has been discussed. There’s just no one else like Carmelo in the NBA. Unfortunately, his talents make him a very expensive prospect.
A lot of Bulls fans have just assumed that Bulls are going to amnesty Carlos Boozer, and rid themselves of the last year of his contract so that they can offer Carmelo Anthony a max deal, The amnesty provision still means that the team has to actually pay the dollar amount of the contract, and Jerry Reinsdorf has been known for being something of a frugal owner, so amnestying Boozer isn’t exactly a *cough* slam dunk.4 If another team bids on Boozer when he’s back on the market, then that dollar amount is taken off of what the Bulls have to pay,5 so the Bulls will have to consider the market for Boozer’s services, and how much he might fetch.
Since we’re dealing with hypotheticals, however, lets assume that the Bulls do amnesty Boozer, thereby opening up the maximum amount of cap space. That means that, along with cap holds from the Chicago Bulls two first round draft picks, they’ll have approximately $13 million in cap space.6 That means that someone will have to go, most likely Taj Gibson, if the Bulls are planning on making a serious run at Carmelo.
Finding a suitor for Taj shouldn’t be incredibly difficult, especially after his performance in game five against the Wizards and his very reasonable $8 million salary. Bulls fans will be sad to see their blue collar secretary of defense go, but as I’ve written before, Taj is a mediocre offensive player at best and only a slightly above average defensive player who has shined as a result of being in a Bulls defensive structure which is perfect for his style of play.7 If the Bulls can maneuver a trade of Taj to get to Carmelo, they should do so without hesitation, even if the trade means paying 50 cents on the dollar and getting very little back. NBA teams are very smart, and it will be hard to trade Taj for profit when the Bulls intentions are so obvious.8
If the Bulls are foolishly unwilling to trade Taj for a chance at Carmelo, then a very nice consolation prize could be sweet shooting forward Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic, who has been called by more than one scout the best player not in the NBA,9 can do a lot of the same things that Carmelo can do, albeit in a less athletic fashion. Bulls management might figure that a more conservative approach to the offseason would be to sign Mirotic and one other quality veteran like Lance Stephenson, as opposed to going ‘all in,’ so to speak, on Carmelo Anthony.
If the Bulls do decide to go the aggressive route, they would trade Taj, sign Carmelo, and then use the mid-level exception on Mirotic, but it remains to be seen whether 5.305 million is enough to convince Mirotic to hop across the pond. Mirotic is exactly what the Bulls need, regardless of whether he’s playing alongside ‘Melo. Like Carmelo, he’s a big man who can step back and shoot three pointers. Mirotic is much less polished than Carmelo, and will struggle on the defensive end, but the dude will be able to stretch an NBA defense like no one’s business. A Derrick Rose + Nikola Mirotic pick and roll would be absolutely deadly.
If the Bulls did pursue the trade Taj, sign ‘Melo and Mirotic plan, they would have a starting lineup of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony, Nikola Mirotic, and Noah. That’s a very threatening and dynamic starting five. By taking this path, the Bulls would need to fill out their roster with nothing but minimum salary players, which could leave the bench situation more than a little dicey. The Heat, however, have provided a valuable model of how enticing a championship ring can be to quality veteran players. The Bulls also have not one, but two first round draft picks this year in one of the deepest drafts in NBA history. Hopefully they can convert those picks into players who are NBA ready.
The Chicago Bulls franchise has a history of either not swinging for the fences (Didn’t pursue trades for Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol), or swinging for the fences and missing (Ben Wallace, Tyrus Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge). The Bulls have been extremely close two years in a row now, with unfortunate injuries laying siege to what otherwise could have been championship runs. The trade of Luol Deng this year was a clear indication from the Bulls camp – we’re going for it in the offseason. You don’t make that trade if you think you have enough to win. John Paxson might as well be Babe Ruth, pointing for the fences in right field. This Chicago Bulls fan only has one thing to say: Swing away, Johnny. Swing away.10
From Derrick Rose or otherwise ↩
Especially when that two guard has few other responsibilities other than defending and shooting 3’s ↩
So for example, if a team bids 10 million dollars, the Bulls would only have to pay the remaining $6.8 million ↩
Remember when the Bulls traded Kirk Hinrich + 1st round pick for nothing? ↩