Relearning How to Win


It’s no secret that the Bulls have struggled this season. They’ve limped out of the gates to a 3-8 record, mired by injuries, struggling to build chemistry and relearning how to play Hoiball. However, with the exception of a couple games, the Bulls have been very competitive, losing by a point here, two points there. Several games have come down to a final possession, producing some very exciting finishes.

Watching the Bulls relearn how to win basketball games is a painful process, filled with a lot of exclamations (“SHOOT IT!”), hypothetical questions (“WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT???!!!”), and prayers (“GOD BLESS IT!”). It’s the same process we went through last season for Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine, and Bobby Portis. They lost a lot of games in the early part of the season before putting together a string of victories, sparked by the return of Niko Mirotic from injury. Those 7 wins in a row featured some clutch Niko shooting, for sure, but it was also punctuated by strong play from Markkanen, and cold blooded finishing by Kris Dunn. This year, it’s Zach LaVine, Chandler Hutchison, and Wendell Carter Jr. that are going through those same growing pains.

It has been a process for this Bulls team, relearning how to win. Whether it was Hoiberg learning which lineup of players to finish a game with (i.e. not Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis together)…

Or Zach LaVine learning that driving to the hoop is more reliable than settling for jumpers…

the Bulls are 2-3 in games decided by 2 points or less.

The question of lineups has intrigued me of late, not just in crunch time, but in general. I’ve found myself asking, “which group of players has been the most effective for the Bulls?” When I’ve watched the games, there seems to be a noticeable uptick in energy and quality of play when certain players are on the floor.

Zach LaVine is the most obvious source of this uptick, he has been an offensive juggernaut this season, averaging over 27 points a game, careening his way to a possible All-Star appearance. Wendell Carter Jr and Chandler Hutchison, through defense skill and steady offensive growth, have both felt like players that have a positive impact in games. Finally, Ryan Arcidiacono has been a ball of energy off of the bench, forcing turnovers, playing floor general, running the offense and making sure guys get back on defense.

The eye test is telling me that LaVine, Carter, Hutch and Archie have been the best players on the floor, but do the numbers support that? Basketball Reference has a great tool that tracks how players do when on the floor together. The Bulls best lineups were pretty surprising, and featured Ryan Arcidiacono as the main ingredient.

The best 5 player combination the Bulls trot onto the court is (brace yourself): Ryan Arcidiacono, Antonio Blakeney, Cristiano Felicio, Chandler Hutchison, and Jabari Parker. Basically the Bulls backups. This crew has played just over 23 minutes together and is +16.7 points (per 100 possessions). That means that every 100 possessions the backups outscore opponents by nearly 17 points. There are only 9, five man lineups (out of 20), this season that have produced positive points per every 100 possessions. Ryan Arcidiacono is the point guard in 8 of those lineups.

While the game of basketball is 5 on 5, Basketball Reference breaks lineups down even further than just 5 player combinations. The best 4 player lineup the Bulls have is: Arcidiacono, Blakeney, Felicio, and Parker. This lineup has played over 60 minutes together and is +14.8 in points. Only three lineups out of the 20 Basketball Reference shows are positive in points, each of the three lineups features Archie and Blakeney, and two of them have Felicio as the center.

Things get even more interesting when lineups are broken down into three man crews. The best three man crew is (no surprise by now) Archie, Blakeney, and Felicio. They have played over 100 minutes together and are +9.8 points per 100 possessions. Arcidiacono and Blakeney aside, the most encouraging lineup though, is the three man crew of Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr, and Chandler Hutchison. While they’ve only played 80 minutes together, they are +4.9 points, with a +.017 FG% (that’s their field goal percentage minus their opponents field goal percentage), a +.192 FT% (their free throw percentage minus their opponents free throw percentage), +2.7 assists, +0.2 steals, and +1.3 blocks. This lineup is expected to be a big part of the future of the Chicago Bulls, AND IT’S PRODUCING POSITIVE NUMBERS!!!!!!! REJOICE!!!!!

There are more lineups, and even 2 man combinations, that show some promise, too many to get into here. If numbers and stats are your thing, check out Basketball Reference or, they both have some terrific stats and glossaries so you can fully understand what you’ve just looked at.

Long story short, the eyes aren’t lying. LaVine, Carter, and Hutch HAVE been providing energetic, quality play, and Ryan Arcidiacono HAS been the unsung hero off of the bench. Still, it’s important not to get too wrapped up in the seeming success of certain lineups. While the numbers tell us what players have done together on the floor, they don’t tell us who they did it against and when. A lot of those super successful Arcidiacono lineups have played garbage time minutes, and put up positive numbers against 3rd and 4th string opponents. Even so, it’s important to recognize the impact those lineups and players have made. It’s especially important to recognize guys like Felicio and Blakeney, two players who might be intriguing trade bate for other teams trying to bolster their benches for a playoff run.

I guess the real lesson in these stats is to take the victories where you can. The future (LaVine, Carter, and Hutch) is trending bright. As much as the Bulls have to relearn how to win games, we fans have to relearn how to win a rebuild.