Thinking Analytically


There has been a lot of talk lately about playing the game of basketball in an analytically correct way. Bulls fans hear a phrase like that and automatically think about Kris Dunn chucking up three pointers, or Lauri Markkanen sitting in the corner waiting for someone to remember he exists so he can chuck up a three pointer himself. Well good news Bulls fans, neither one of those things is anywhere close to analytically correct, and it’s barely even basketball. You see, there are a lot of misconceptions about basketball analytics, and the Bulls Front Office and Coaching Staff have fallen prey to many of these misconceptions.

Now you might be asking yourself, “RokDeez, when did you become an expert in analytics?” The answer, of course, is that I am not an expert, but I do work in the data input and analysis industry, so I am familiar with the various stories numbers can tell. For the most part basketball numbers are fairly straight forward, and they paint a broad picture of what “good basketball” should look like. But like any masterpiece, the picture basketball numbers paint is more than just the overall concept, there are subtle details that must be paid attention too. Which leads us to the first misconception the Chicago Bulls operate under…

The System Above The Individual

If you’ve seen any pre- and/or postgame interviews with Coach Jim Boylen then you’ve probably heard him utter the phrase “We’re establishing a system.” This phrase is responsible for the 19 – 30 record the Bulls currently hold and will likely doom the development of some of the key young players on this roster, players we fans are counting on to drag this franchise back to relevance. The system that the Bulls are establishing is a fairly analytically sound one on offense, but an ass backwards one on defense.

On offense, the Bulls have focused on eliminating lower percentage mid range shots, replacing them with higher value 3 pointers. We’ll get into the 3 pointer vs. mid range debate some other time, for now it’s important to note that Boylen and his coaches have the Bulls taking what are generally considered by analytic gurus to be higher value shots, or as Boylen would say, “We liked our shot profile. Our shot profile looked good.”

What do I mean by higher value shot? I mean shots that give you more bang for the buck. The analytics gurus have come up with a way of telling us just how valuable a shot is, it’s called points per shot. For instance, Philadelphia ‘76ers playmaker Ben Simmons is shooting 65.8% from a distance of 5 feet or less to the basket. That means if he got 100 shots up while camped under the rim he would hit about 66 of those shots. That’s good for 132 points, or 1.32 points per shot. So every time Ben Simmons takes a shot from within a space of 5 feet of the basket he’s netting about a point and a third. Sometimes he makes the shot, sometimes he misses, but when all is said and done his 1.32 points per shot from within five feet of the rim is high value.

By contrast, if you look at Ben Simmons shots from a distance of 8 to 16 feet from the basket he is only shooting 17.3%. So if he took 100 shots from that distance he would only hit 17 of them. And his points per shot would drop to just 0.34 points per shot. That’s just about a third of a point every time he takes a mid range jumper, and that’s an extremely low value. Obviously, Ben Simmons is a better shooter from within 5 feet of the rim as opposed to the mid range, and this trend is generally true across the league.

In fact, it’s generally true that the farther away from the rim a basketball player gets the harder it is for them to hit their shots. Field goal percentages tend to drop the greater the distance between the shooter and the hoop, and likewise so do points per shot, until you reach the three point line.

At the three point line, the total of a made shot is raised, and so you can hit a lower percentage on a 3 pointer but still have a higher value for that shot overall. Let’s take a look at Zach LaVine and his points per shot from various distances on the court.

From within 8 feet of the rim – Zach hits 54.2% of his shots for an average of 1.08 points per shot

From 8 to 16 feet of the rim – 22.6% for 0.45 points per shot

From 16 to 24 feet of the rim – 36.8% for 0.73 points per shot

From beyond the 3 point arc – 38.8% for 1.16 points per shot

Zach is a great example of why “3 > 2” is the battle cry of analytics champions everywhere, and why the Bulls are establishing an offensive system that relies heavily on three point shots. LaVine is shooting just 2 percentage points better from beyond the arc than a step inside it, yet his three pointers are valued at over a point per shot compared to the under three quarters of a point for his mid range jumpers. And this brings us to the next misconception the Bulls operate under…

3 > 2”

“Wait a minute, didn’t you just clearly demonstrate that 3 pointers are better than 2 pointers?” Sure, for Zach LaVine that concept is true. You would even take a LaVine 3 pointer over a LaVine layup based on this seasons shooting splits. But is it true for every Bulls player? Let’s take a look at our old friend Kris Dunn…

From within 8 feet of the rim – Kris hits 58.4% of his shots for an average of 1.16 points per shot

From 8 to 16 feet of the rim – 32.3% for 0.64 points per shot

From 16 to 24 feet of the rim – 18.2% for 0.36 points per shot

From beyond the 3 point arc – 26.1% for 0.78 points per shot

Oddly enough, a Kris Dunn lay up is exactly the same value as a Zach LaVine 3 pointer, analytically speaking. That being said, the best shot for Kris Dunn to take is one that is at the rim. I think we all know this just from the “eye test” of watching Bulls games, but it is also a quantifiable fact: Kris Dunn is better around the rim than from 3 point land, 0.38 points better in fact. I would suspect that most players in the league are like Kris Dunn, they put up a better points per shot at the rim than from the perimeter.

Tomas Satoransky and Lauri Markkanen follow Dunn’s example. Sato scores 1.10 points and Lauri 1.13 points per shot at the rim, compared to 1.02 and 1.03 from 3 point land respectively.

Thadd Young and Coby White are more like Zach LaVine; Their three point shots are worth more than their shots from within 8 feet of the rim. Thadd and Coby both score 1.02 points from beyond the arc, but only 1.01 points and 0.89 points per shot within 8 feet of the rim respectively. It’s interesting to note that Thadd’s points per shot near the rim are nearly identical to his points per shot taken from 3. He is shooting 50.7% within 8 feet and 34% from beyond the arc.

Circling back to the main analytical misconception the Bulls operate under, the system of offense that the Bulls are trying to establish of perimeter scoring first, inside scoring second, and mid range only if you have to, does not fit with the personnel that they have on the team. Lauri should not be stuck on the perimeter shooting 3’s, he needs to attack the rim. The same can be said about Dunn and Satoransky. For Coby White, he has been more successful from 10 to 14 feet from the rim (47.8%, 0.95 points per shot), A.K.A. the mid range, than he has from within 5 feet of the rim (45.6%, 0.91 points per shot). It’s time the Bulls coaching staff goes deeper than just trying to “establish a system”, and start running plays that get guys to their spots, the areas of the court where they get the most bang for their buck.

The Bulls as a team are shooting 54.4% from within 8 feet of the rim, which is good for 1.08 points per shot. They are also shooting 34.7% from 3 as a team, which translates to 1.04 points per shot. For the Bulls, as for most teams in the NBA, it makes more sense to score inside out than outside in, and that’s a quantifiable fact.

There is sooooo much more to unpack when it comes to the Bulls and their misconceptions about running an analytically sound basketball team. There are the deficiencies of the defensive system that Boylen has established this season; Gambling on turnovers for easy buckets at the expense of allowing layups off of backdoor cuts and wide open threes from simple swing passes. This is not an analytically sound defensive strategy. Also, a discussion of the specific areas on the court players thrive in, points per possession, and the best time for the Bulls to take shots in regards to the shot clock, could all be had in future posts. For now, I’ve run out of time.

What I would like you to take away from this article is that there is more to basketball analytics than “3 > 2”, and that for the Bulls to really grow and perform like a modern basketball squad, the Coaching Staff and Front Office have to do more than just instill general principles, or as Boylen might say “establish a system”. They need to look at the individual players on the roster and use the data they’ve gathered to put those players in the best spots to succeed. They can use that same data to help them improve areas of their game that need work.

Regarding the Bulls system and the individuals in it, I sincerely doubt you can find and acquire twelve players with enough NBA talent and complimentary skill sets that will perfectly fit the system Boylen insists on running. I do think you can tailor Boylen’s system to fit and maximize the production of the players on this current roster. All it takes is some flexibility, creativity, and a little bit of analytical thought.

Until we see that happen, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!

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