Predicting how the Bulls will fare
Looking at the criticisms about this team that worry me, the ones that don't, and spitting out a win total
If you’re a reader of this newsletter, then you probably already know that there is a lot of national skepticism regarding this year’s Bulls team. Jason Patt over at Blogabull has a good rundown of all of the season predictions from various outlets.
Some of the projected weaknesses that these outlets list make sense, and some of them are total bunk. Here’s what worries me and what doesn’t.
Not worried: The offense / sharing the ball
One of the biggest criticisms levied against this roster was that it wouldn’t be able to fit together with all of the ball-dominant players on the team. On a scale of 1-10, my concern level is at a negative 100.
The Bulls were passing dynamos in the preseason. They were third in both assists and offensive rating. They have extremely unselfish players, and Donovan has found good ways to leverage them.
Not worried: Zach LaVine being able to replicate last year’s success
LaVine just put up 52/52/90 preseason shooting splits, making the idea that he wouldn’t fit off the ball seem ludicrous. He’s gotten cleaner looks than he ever has since joining the Bulls.
Last season, only a third of LaVine’s 3-point attempts came off catch-and-shoot attempts, which are the easiest type of jump shot to hit. LaVine was automatic at canning those looks, hitting 48.6 percent of them (!) That number was the seventh-highest mark in the league.
LaVine’s catch-and-shoot attempts rose in the preseason by about 10 percent, and he hit two-thirds of those attempts. He was also getting a ton of easy offense in transition and off cuts. He is going to be an efficiency monster. He should help get the offense somewhere in the top 5-10 range.
Worried: DeMar DeRozan’s defense
DeRozan is going to be a positive on the offensive end. He will also bring a lot of value in close games. I am very interested to see what the Bulls do with him in those situations, where he has been historically a good option.
What keeps me up at night is DeRozan’s defense. It is truly as bad as advertised. It’s extremely lazy to label someone as a bad defender without going into more detail, so here goes.
DeRozan’s on-ball defense is some of the worst in the league. He simply doesn’t have the agility to keep up with even the slowest of NBA players. Lauri Markkanen and Kyle Anderson, whose nickname is Slo Mo, were blowing by DeRozan for dunks and layups in the preseason. It doesn’t matter how good the help defenders are behind him if he allows straight-line drives to the basket.
Off the ball, DeRozan’s movement hampers him in many of the same ways he struggles on the ball. He gets hung up and dies on screens. He makes gambles for steals that he has no chance of getting. Rather than finding the quickest path to get back into plays, he chooses routes with more twists and turns than a Jim Boylen press conference.
DeRozan is going to win the Bulls a lot of games. He’s also going to give up a handful of layups all by himself every night via his defensive miscues. I can’t envision the Bulls as an elite defense with DeRozan out there, no matter how good the help is around him.
Not worried: The defense in general
As bad as DeRozan is defensively, I think the Bulls finish with an average to slightly above-average defense as a team. Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball are even better than advertised. The team has some great defensive players off the bench. And they are going to force teams to take the ball out of their own basket a lot, allowing them to set their defense.
I’ve written a lot about how LaVine gets too much grief for his defense. I think he’s maybe a little below average these days and certainly not bad enough to tank the defense. Nikola Vucevic is an average defender, and that’s probably enough to keep the Bulls afloat.
Vucevic has gotten the poor man’s Jokic comparison on offense. I think it might also apply to his defense. Jokic has a reputation as a bad defender, but the Nuggets have finished a little better than league-average with him manning the middle over the last three seasons. Jokic makes up for his poor footspeed and lack of rim protection with fantastic hands and being in the right position to at least slow opponents down.
Vucevic doesn’t read the game nearly at Jokic’s level, but he is a top-five center in basketball smarts. He knows where he is supposed to be, and like Jokic he uses his knowledge of the game to anticipate where the ball is going. He’s very good at playing the cat-and-mouse game in drop coverage of guarding both ballhandler and roller.
Both Jokic and Vucevic don’t look like good defenders at first glance. But they’re huge, know how to get in the way of drives, and get their hands on passes. That goes a long way.
Worried: Teams with big men who can pop out to the 3-point line
The one area where Vucevic does seem to struggle a lot is in playing teams with popping big men. That is where his footspeed really hurts him. It was an issue last season in the Bulls’ drop-heavy scheme and a weakness of drop more generally. Kevin Love and Jaren Jackson Jr. punished Vucevic in preseason too.
Can the Bulls play Vucevic closer to the level of the screen or come up with a way to help him, like mastering peel back switches? That is going to be a key area to watch during the season.
Worried: Big man depth
I’ve written a lot about Vucevic because he is so integral to what the Bulls plan on doing this year. If he goes down with an injury for an extended period of time, the team won’t be able to recover. The guys behind him aren’t good enough.
The Bulls still have a $5 million trade exception to add a player mid-season. I would not be surprised if they use it to add another big when one becomes available.
Final thoughts: I don’t buy most of the national skepticism. A lot of it seems to be based on last year’s team, and the front office turned over 80 percent of that opening day roster!
National outlets are way too slow to adjust to changes in teams. They rely heavily on priors because they don’t have the time to watch every team’s games and transactions at a granular level. I do, and I think this team is going to be pretty good.
My prediction? 46-36.
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