What is behind Bulls offense's slow start to 2022-23 NBA season?

What is behind Bulls offense's slow start to season? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls’ head coach, Billy Donovan, and leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, took different tacts to answer the same question after the team’s Monday afternoon practice:

What is wrong with the Bulls’ offense, which as of Tuesday morning ranks 22nd in the NBA in points per 100 possessions (109.5) despite being constructed around the proven talents of DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević.

“I'm not worried about the offense,” said DeRozan. “The offense will be fine.”

“Players say this all the time: ‘Oh, we’ll be OK because we're good offensive players,’” Donovan said (unprompted by DeRozan’s response). “I look at it the other way.”

What Donovan looks at is a team with plenty of problem areas at that end of the court, regardless of the current (DeRozan, LaVine) or former (Vučević, Goran Dragić, Andre Drummond) All-Stars they employ.

Let’s interrogate them:

Turnovers

Ball security was one of the Bulls’ greatest strengths last season. As a team, they turned the ball over on just 13 percent of their possessions in 2021-22, the NBA’s sixth-lowest total.

Fourteen games into this season? That figure has swelled to 15.6 percent, 22nd in the league. The problem is even worse in transition, where the Bulls, despite top 10 rankings in frequency and possessions per game, are 26th in turnover rate (14.2 percent).

“Our transition turnovers and our overall turnovers I think have really impacted our rating,” Donovan said. “It's hard to have a really good offensive rating (with that many turnovers) unless you're shooting lights out from [3-point range].”

Indeed, bleeding possessions in an uber-efficient play type is less than ideal for a team that does not generate second-chance points at an above average rate and is near the bottom of the league in 3-point volume.

As for the culprits, five of the Bulls’ seven highest-usage players currently also sport (non-garbage time) turnover rates that are below average for their position, according to Cleaning the Glass: Drummond (20.2 percent), Patrick Williams (17.6 percent), Vučević (15.3 percent), Ayo Dosunmu (14.6 percent), and Dragić (13.2 percent).

And the problem has been worse of late, with the team averaging 17.1 turnovers per game since the start of November, including 39 total across a back-to-back against the hyper-active Toronto Raptors and 19 in Sunday’s demoralizing loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Growing pains

There is a positive spin on the Bulls’ turnover troubles, though. At least they’re passing the ball.

Last season, a Bulls team that, by the admission of its head coach and star players, devolved too often into stagnant, isolation-heavy offense owned a 57.2 assist rate and threw just 269.5 passes per game, which ranked 27th and 25th, respectively.

This season, those figures are up to 60.3 percent (16th) and 318.1 (second).

“We’re playing much differently than we played last year. And you just don't figure that out in a couple of weeks. It takes time. We’re getting there,” DeRozan said. “Like I said, I'm not worried about that at all. It's a rhythm thing. And I'd rather us figure that out now than later.”

DeRozan’s sensational scoring season in 2021-22 played a big role in the Bulls’ reliance on isolation. He has also played a big role in the strides the team has taken this season, decreasing his average touch time from 5.37 seconds to 4.21 seconds, a drop off from 10th to 66th-highest in the NBA among players averaging more than 10 minutes.

But this Bulls team is still clearly not yet comfortable playing the free-flowing, “random” offensive style that Donovan envisions.

“We’ve gotta be able to move the ball and not turn it over. We can't just accept — well, we're moving the ball more, we're passing it more, therefore, our turnovers are gonna go up,” Donovan said. “I get they may go up. But they can't go up like they're going up right now. We've gotta be better doing that.”

Shotmaking

“It's always shotmaking,” DeRozan said. “We make shots, that changes everything.”

It's true. And the Bulls as of this writing boast middle of the road marks in field goal (46.6 percent, 19th) and 3-point (36 percent, 14th) percentage.

Shooting percentages take longer than 14 games to stabilize. Perhaps with time, those numbers will creep toward last season’s figures — 48 percent shooting overall, third in the league, and 36.9 percent 3-point shooting, fourth — or the league will creep back towards them.

“I don't think that we've shot the ball at the rate that we're capable of,” Donovan said.

But how much positive regression in that area is reasonable to expect?

That is the pressing question, because as of now, little about the Bulls’ 3-point shooting volume or efficiency is surprising based on the front office adding only Dragić and Drummond to last season’s rotation and Lonzo Ball (42.3 percent on 7.4 attempts per game last season) still sidelined indefinitely:

Player

3PM Per Game, 2022-23

3P%, 2022-23

3PM Per Game, Career

3P%, Career (before 2022-23)

Zach LaVine

3.0

38.5%

2.2

38.6%

Nikola Vučević

1.7

39.3%

0.8

34.8%

Goran Dragić

1.6

46.8%

1.2

36.6%

Ayo Dosunmu

1.4

35.3%

0.9

37.6%

Coby White

1.4

29.4%

2.2

36.5%

Patrick Williams

1.1

37.5%

0.8

41.3%

Alex Caruso

0.7

30.3%

0.8

36.6%

Javonte Green

0.6

38.1%

0.4

33.5%

DeMar DeRozan

0.3

20%

0.4

28.8%

Derrick Jones Jr.

0.3

27.3%

0.5

29.8%

* As a team, the Bulls rank 25th in the NBA in 3-pointers made (10.4) and 28th in 3-pointers taken (28.8) per game. Even shooting 40 percent on that few 3-pointers would net only 11.52 makes, which would rank 20th in the NBA.

Led by DeRozan, the Bulls remain a prolific midrange and foul-drawing team. As of Tuesday, they are first in the NBA in midrange attempts per game (18.9), fourth in midrange field goal percentage (43.6) and 10th in free throw attempt rate (0.276) — spearheaded by DeRozan shooting 54.9 percent on a league-high 8.7 midrange attempts per contest and drawing 8.2 free throw attempts per game (10th).

Select schematic tweaks made by Donovan and the coaching staff have also yielded positive early results. One example: Positioning Vučević more often to the corner, where he is shooting 70 percent from 3-point range, has improved the Bulls’ floor balance and played a role in the team slightly bumping their corner 3-point attempt rate from last season to this one.

But around the rim, they have encountered an inverse issue to beyond the 3-point line. Despite, according to Cleaning the Glass, a 36.7 percent non-garbage time rim frequency that ranks eighth in the NBA, the Bulls are converting just 59.3 percent of those attempts, 29th. Only Javonte Green (72 percent, 79th percentile), DeRozan (69 percent, 57th percentile) and Dosunmu (61 percent, 50th percentile) are finishing at above average clips among Bulls rotation players.

More could join that company as the season progresses. LaVine, if his left knee allows, and Dragić are two of the more logical candidates based on their career track records.

But the big picture is a team that’s effective field goal percentage (52.9 percent, 20th in the NBA) and location effective field goal percentage (54.2 percent, 17th) — which measures what a team’s effective field goal percentage would be if they shot a league average percentage on each shot in their shot profile — are relatively level. A troubling trend if positive shooting regression is expected to thrust the Bulls into the tier of top offenses.

It’s why Donovan places such onus on the possession battle, whether it be turnovers or the offensive glass, and pushing pace for efficient transition offense. With the Bulls’ shot profile constructed as it is, losing those battles can spell doom.

Some of the above flaws are fundamental. Some, the team hopes, are fixable over time.

Fortunately, 68 games remain to work.

“What we went through last year, everything was clicking so fast [at the beginning of the season], so when adversity hit we didn't really know how to deal with it,” DeRozan said. “This time around it's kind of flip-flopped and I truly believe it's gonna shift in the right direction when it needs to.”

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