What’s Wrong with the Bulls: A Comprehensive Look at a Recipe for Disaster

Boylen is steaming mad. Photo by David Banks of USA Today.

The Bulls starting lineup is a lethargic pile of bad. There is no spark of excitement when they are on the floor together. There is no positive energy or motivation in their play, and with this “bleh” attitude comes the resignation that their play on the court will not result in a win. The Bulls starting lineup doesn’t believe they will win the basketball game, hence they do not.

The Bulls starting lineup is also full of talented athletes, capable of filling up stat sheets and winning ball games. Zach LaVine is one of the best scorers in the NBA, skillful enough to drop 40+ points on any opponent, on any given night. Lauri Markkanen has out dueled Kristaps Porzingas and impressed LeBron James with his talent. Tomas Satoransky has led his Czech Republic national team deep into international tournaments. From his time in college with the Duke Blue Devils to the present day on the Chicago Bulls, Wendell Carter Jr has found ways to positively impact games while being relegated to a support role. Otto Porter Jr has been the key ingredient on two separate NBA teams, when he plays well those teams have played well.

The obvious question is: How can a collection of talented individuals, who have all enjoyed some level of professional success, and have all played well together at various moments in the past, be so bad together now?

When a soup tastes this awful it’s necessary to look at the ingredients.

Whether it’s LaVine’s poor defense, Markkanen’s shooting struggles, Porter’s injuries, Satoransky’s lack of production, or Carter’s steady stats, a lot of attention has been paid to the ingredients of this seasons soup. There are definitely issues with the ingredients.

You’ve heard and probably made the excuses/condemnations for the starting lineup yourself. “Lauri’s injured.” “He’s lost his mojo.” “LaVine has never been a part of a winning organization.” “Otto is chronically injured.” “Sato has to be more aggressive!” “Wendell needs to shoot the ball when he’s open.” And while all of these things may be true, they only tell a small part of the overall story of why the Bulls starting lineup is bad.

Yes, Lauri Markkanen has been off his game. He’s playing way too much “in his head,” and not relying on his natural talent and abilities. Some of it is probably a lack of confidence and a sense of desperation as he watches shot after shot rim out, shots that normally go in. Some of it is probably getting comfortable with new teammates and a new play style. Whatever it is, or all of it taken together, Markkanen has not produced as he customarily has.

No, Zach LaVine has never been a part of a winning organization, but you could say that about a good number of NBA players who have subsequently gone on to win championships. It’s a poor excuse to use against a scorer as talented as LaVine has proven himself to be. If you were to point your finger at LaVine’s shoddy defense, I would say that is closer to mark.

Yes, Otto Porter is chronically injured. So why didn’t the Front Office have a contingency plan in place for the inevitable? Why didn’t GarPax sign a backup wing in the offseason? We’ll never know.

Yes, Tomas Satoransky needs to be more aggressive. 5 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists is not enough production from your starting point guard, yet that seems to be what Sato is giving the Bulls every night. Whether he is still tired from his play in the FIBA World Cup, or he is struggling to find his place on a new team, Satoransky has been a disappointment this season.

Yes, Wendell Carter Jr needs to assert himself on the offensive end of the court. Again, like Sato, this could just be Carter misunderstanding what his role is in the starting lineup. It doesn’t help that the Bulls don’t run plays for him on offense. So far, Wendell has been putting up his double-doubles without the coaching staff featuring him on the offensive end. He has been a self made double-double machine.

When a soup tastes this awful it’s necessary to look at the recipe itself.

Roster fit, player roles, offensive and defensive scheme, all of these play a part in the story of this season as well.

The Bulls have been playing a super aggressive, blitzing style defense that forces lineups to be athletic and quick while on-the-ball, or heady and intuitive while in help roles. “Athletic and quick” only describes one player in the Bulls starting lineup: Zach LaVine. Wendell Carter and Otto Porter have relative speed and athleticism for their positions, but when faced with the speed of an NBA level point guard, even those two find themselves at a disadvantage. Carter, Porter, Satoransky and Markkanen must all rely on strength and technique to keep point guards in front of them, with varying degrees of success.

“Heady and intuitive” definitely describes Satoransky, Porter, and Carter, they routinely make good decisions in help defense, rotating correctly when the blitzing defense forces opponents to swing the ball around the perimeter. LaVine and Markkanen are not so lucky. They routinely hesitate while thinking a play through, reacting a split second too slow to cover opponents properly. They also fall asleep on their defensive assignments, allowing opponents to “back door cut” their way to the rim, or leave opposing players wide open for easy shots on the perimeter.

All in all, the Bulls defensive scheme might be too much for the starting lineup to handle. It has certainly proved to be an Achilles Heel in the early going of this season.

On offense, the multi-ball handler system that the Bulls employ seems to be backfiring as well. On paper, the concept is sound; It makes sense to have a number of individuals on the court capable of making decisions with the basketball, empowering players to do what they see as best for whatever the defense throws at them. The Bulls play the simple yet creative jazz of Pass, Drive, or Shoot. It should work. It can work. It has worked for other teams.

The reality of this offense, for this particular Bulls lineup, is a repetitive and predictable scheme that plays out to the advantage of the defense. When every player is empowered to do all three of those things (pass, drive, shoot), then it becomes a simple process for opposing defenders to keep the ball out of the hands of actual scoring threats (i.e. Zach LaVine) while suckering other players into taking shots the defense is happy to give up (Markkanen 3’s and drives to the hoop).

Now a lot of the offensive woes for the starting lineup seem to stem from bad luck and Lauri struggling to hit his shots. There is a very real possibility that the law of averages will catch up to the Bulls and their shots will start falling, but for now the multi-ball handler offense is not paying off like it was expected to.

Another pitfall that offensive jazz can create for this first unit, is that it empowers players to make bad decisions with the basketball. How many times this season have we seen Zach LaVine force up an ill-advised shot late in the game, one completely outside the natural flow of the offense? How often do we see Markkanen try to dunk over three players from the free throw line in an attempt to get himself going? Or Wendell passing up open jumpers for hand-off passes? Or Satoransky missing an open teammate under the basket while he looks to swing the ball around the perimeter?

The Bulls starting lineup is struggling to balance the creative freedom of the offense with their own perceptions of what their roles within it’s framework should be. Even the most improvisational jazz has some structure to it, some role for the musicians playing it to fill. For the most part, it appears that those roles have been left to the Bulls players to define, which can lead to players ignoring the right play, or forcing a bad pass, or taking a bad shot.

Maybe it’s a lack of familiarity with each other, or a fundamental misunderstanding of what their role is in the offense, or a simple distrust of the scheme itself, but the Bulls starting lineup does not play well together.

When a soup tastes this awful it’s necessary to look at the chef who created it.

Jim Boylen is no master chef.

Several months ago, shortly after the Front Office gave Boylen a three year contract extension, I wrote a post asking three fundamental questions about his coaching: 1) Can he get the most out of his players? 2) Is he a sound tactician? 3) Can he win basketball games? The overall tone of the post was positive, but I did express concern that Boylen hadn’t proved himself completely capable to anyone, other than John Paxson, trying to answer “Yes” to these fundamental questions. If we were to ask the same three questions about Boylen today, knowing what we know about the Bulls starting lineup, I think we would have to say “no” on all three accounts.

In regard to the first question, can Boylen get the most out of his players? I would answer with a Stacy King-ism: KYP – Know Your Personnel

After six season in the NBA, Zach LaVine has demonstrated that he is not the person you want running the offense down the stretch of a game. He is a poor decision maker. He takes bad shots, throws the ball away on bad passes, and sometimes just plan loses the ball with poor dribbling. He cannot be trusted to lead a team at the end of a close game, yet Jim Boylen continues to put LaVine in that roll. I assume it’s because there is no one else on the team Boylen thinks can handle the responsibility, but I would rather see Satoransky or Ryan Arcidiacono, and some nights even Kris Dunn, with the ball in there hands at the end of games. Zach should absolutely be on the court and taking the shots, but it should be someone else making the decisions with the ball.

Lauri Markkanen needs to get back to doing what he’s good at. They need to run him off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. They need to run some plays where he gets the ball rolling toward the basket. You can’t have Lauri standing on the perimeter like a corner three specialist, he needs to be an active part of the offense. So far, it’s as if the coaching staff is expecting Markkanen to create his own opportunities, but that’s never been his game. He needs help getting his offense. I thought that was the reason the team signed Tomas Satoransky, so he could be Markkanen’s running partner.

Speaking of Satoransky, he too needs to be made an active part of the offense. He is capable of so much more than what he has shown. Boylen needs to light a fire under Sato’s butt. He should be scoring at least 12 points a night and shoveling out 7 assists a game. The Front Office signed Sato to be a ball handler and floor spacer, and so far he isn’t engaged enough on offense to do either of those things.

Otto Porter Jr is great when healthy, but he is injured a lot. Otto is actually a great fit for Boylen’s coaching style because he is a self starter. He instinctually knows how best to effect the game, and goes out and does it. The only time he hasn’t played well for the Bulls is when one of his injuries flares up.

Wendell Carter Jr is capable of more than what he is being asked to do, especially on the offensive end of the court. Boylen is using Wendell as a back-to-the-basket, under-the-rim banger, when he is better suited to play a face-up in the high post sort of game. Wendell can take opponents off the dribble, but for the most part he is just being asked to overpower opponents in the paint (which he can also do).

I feel like Boylen is not asking the starters to play to their strengths on offense, and this extends to what he asks of them on defense.

Is Boylen a sound tactician? Not when you consider the particular limitations some of the starters have, and the defensive scheme he is asking them to run. In theory, Boylen’s blitzing defense is a sound tactic. It’s different enough from what most teams are running that it forces opponents to change their style of play. Unfortunately, this unfamiliarity is a two edged sword. Because of the complexity of the various switching that has to happen when teams swing the ball around the perimeter, below average defenders like Zach and Lauri often seem confused as to whom they should be guarding, or where they should be on the court, and it has led to some easy buckets for the offense.

There have been some nifty inbounds plays that the Bulls have run this season, which is a great improvement over what they’ve run in the past. A lot of easy points have come for the Bulls off of a sweet restart play. Unfortunately, just like last season, we’ve seen the starters run a lot of carousel offense: Player A drives and kicks to player B, who drives and kicks to player C, who drives and kicks to player D, etc., etc. Predictable, lazy passes have been picked off and turned into opponent fast break points, players hanging out on the perimeter and not crashing the boards have left Wendell Carter fighting the entire opposing team for rebounds, and isolation play late in games has ruined the rhythm of the offense and caused long scoring droughts allowing opposing teams to steal wins.

Boylen hasn’t found a way to make the offense work for the first unit. Lauri and Zach don’t seem to play well together, and they haven’t for several seasons now.

Another issue that has persisted since last season is Jim Boylen’s feel for the game. His use of timeouts has been questionable. Sometimes he calls too many, sometimes not enough. His substitutions have been odd. He’s left some squads on the court too long, subbing in the starters after a lead has evaporated, or he takes out a player that has been on fire on offense; the timing of his substitutions has been as head scratching as his timeout taking. This is Boylen’s first full season as an NBA head coach so we should expect some growing pains, but he has been a coach in the league, and a head coach in the NCAA, for many years now, he should have a better grasp of time and roster management.

The biggest blow against Jim Boylen as the Bulls head coach is that, even with all the talent on this roster, he hasn’t been able to win ball games. They’ve faced rebuilding teams, they’ve faced teams dealing with injuries, they’ve faced teams resting their stars, and still the Bulls are only 5-10 as of the publication of this post. It’s not enough. It’s not what we fans expected. It’s not what the Front Office, the players, and Jim Boylen himself promised. Jim Boylen needs to get the starters motivated. He needs to get the Bulls winning games.

When a soup tastes this awful it’s necessary to look at the restaurant that serves it.

Damn it, GarPax! Find us a hero!

For the most part, the roster that the Front Office has constructed looks good. It’s a nice mix of developing young players and seasoned veterans. There’s scoring, there’s defense, there are 2-way players capable of both offense and defense; the ingredients are sound. It’s like when a restaurant has great side dishes but their entrees suck. We need the lobster that makes the bisque, the motzo in motzo ball soup, the chicken in chicken noodle. We need a star. It’s up to the front office to find one.

You can have the best ingredients in the world, the best side dishes in the world, but this is the NBA, without a star (or two) you probably aren’t winning an NBA championship.

That’s it, the simple recipe for disaster:

-1 part poor and inconsistent play from your starters

-1 part bad offensive and defensive schemes for your personnel

-1 part odd coaching decisions

-1 part failure by the Front Office to find a star player

Put it all together and you have a 5-10 soup that tastes pretty awful.

Until you finish choking it down, thanks for reading and Go BullS!

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