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The Bulls Are Built For Another Era

Zach LaVine looks tired.
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls made a fantastic 61 percent of their shots Sunday night, in a home game against the Indiana Pacers. They made a very healthy 46 percent of their three-point attempts, and a commendable 88 percent of their free throws. Star scorer Zach LaVine put up an efficient 42 points on 23 shots, his second 40-point night in three games, fifth of the season, and 19th as a member of the Chicago Bulls, second behind only Michael damn Jordan. What a night! The Bulls also lost to the Pacers, 125–122 in regulation, to drop to 12th in the Eastern Conference, seven games below .500 and a game and a half behind the Washington Wizards, who currently hold the final play-in spot.

This was a bad, bad loss for the Bulls, made funnier for everyone else by how it ended, with Indiana's Tyrese Haliburton rising up for the game-winner over a flailing Patrick Beverley, who joined the Bulls in February after being dealt from the Lakers at the trade deadline and then waived by the Orlando Magic.

Beverley and Haliburton have some history. Earlier this season, when he was still a member of the underperforming, miserable Lakers, Beverley pulled one of his signature moves and became weirdly boastful after scoring uhh seven points and holding Haliburton to uhh 26 points and 12 assists in a one-point Lakers win. Beverley said his uhh big defensive performance(?) in that game was motivated by Haliburton mentioning Beverley's name during a preseason appearance on JJ Redick's podcast, recounting an instance from Haliburton's rookie season when Beverley once again became boastful after playing a marginal role in a regular-season contest. Haliburton scored 29 points Sunday, dished 11 assists, and buried the Bulls with the game-winner, along the way definitively earning some post-game shit-talk, something Beverley has yet to fully experience in a decade of NBA service.

That's not really why we're here. We're here because the Bulls have done something hilarious. By losing on Sunday, they became just the fourth team in NBA history to lose a regular-season game despite shooting at least 60 percent from the floor, at least 45 percent from the arc, and at least 88 percent from the stripe. The Bulls did not commit an unusual number of turnovers—14 in the game, percentage points off their season average and almost exactly the NBA average this season—and, despite Beverley's postgame insistence that the Bulls "lost it on offensive rebounding," Chicago's 68 percent defensive rebounding rate Sunday was not, like, bad enough. When a team shoots 61/46/88 and loses, you're looking for something extraordinary. That the Pacers had four more possessions than past performance might predict is not enough! This has only happened three other times, ever!

A 1995 game in which the Cleveland Cavaliers scored just 96 points on 60/75/93 shooting splits might be the most illustrative of what makes the current Chicago Bulls so uniquely suited to achieve this dubious honor in the modern NBA. It was a very different game back in 1995. A smart and well-run NBA offense in 2023 rejects precisely the sorts of shots that were most coveted by smart and well-run offenses in 1995. The rules of the game in 1995 allowed defenders to maul ball-handlers and brutalize anyone driving deep into the lane. On top of all that punishing individual defense, the illegal defense rule, replaced at the start of the 2001–02 season, gave off-ball defenders less leeway to sag off of their assignments, which made the drive-and-dump of 90s ball a more sensible offensive action than today's drive-and-kick. The defining pass of a good offense in the modern era might be a screener catching the ball near the free-throw line—called the "short roll" by hoops knowers—and quickly swinging the ball to a shooter in a corner. The defining pass of the 1990s was, by a wide margin, the post-entry pass. Pull-up mid-rangers, baseline fallaways, and the jump-hook—three shots that pretty much define bad offense in the modern game—were prized shot-types in 1995 because an individual could create them even with a defender inside their jersey. It was a different game, goddammit!

A team that shoots as well as the Bulls did on Sunday night, in the modern game, and also does not turn the ball over a bunch, should score 135 points and win by a lot. Going back to the start of the 2012–13 regular season, teams that are not these Chicago Bulls that have shot that well and committed 14 or fewer turnovers are 8–0; they've averaged 133 points; their average margin of victory is 25 points. This all makes intuitive sense. You do not shoot that well from the floor unless you are kicking the absolute shit out of your opponent! Sunday the Bulls scored 122, a total they've eclipsed 14 other times this season and which is just nine measly points better than their season average, and lost to a Pacers team that did not come close to having a particularly noteworthy shooting performance of its own.

So what the fuck happened? I'll tell you what happened: The Pacers, who under head coach Rick Carlisle play a thoroughly modern brand of basketball, shot exactly their season average (36.4 percent) from the arc on 44 attempts; the Bulls shot well above their season average (45.5 percent versus 36.1 percent) from the arc, but on a paltry 22 attempts. The Bulls just don't really run a modern offense. They take by far the most mid-range jumpers of any team in the NBA this season. They're not bad at those, but here it's worth reiterating a point that has been made approximately one jillion times since the advent of advanced stats: It is almost not possible to be good enough at mid-rangers for those shots to be the foundation of a good offense in the modern NBA. Beverley wants it to be offensive rebounding, but even with their outrageous shooting splits the Bulls' offensive rating for the game—the number of points they generated per 100 possessions of offense—was two points lower than that of the Pacers, in a game with a margin of defeat of three points. It wasn't that the Pacers had more possessions, it was that they used them more efficiently.

It's super annoying to point at something as complex as 48 minutes of basketball contested by 20 professional basketball players and go duh math did it, but it is becoming impossible this season to ignore the fact that these Chicago Bulls are failing at the mathematics of the modern game. They attempt the fewest three-pointers per game in the NBA, two full fewer threes per game than are generated by the dismal Hawks offense that just had a large role in Nate McMillan losing his job. Part of that is that the Bulls use a lot of non-shooters. DeMar DeRozan is second on the team in usage, hates shooting threes, and attempts fewer than two per game. Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso play big minutes in Chicago's backcourt and neither is a natural shooter. Derrick Jones Jr. is an important rotation player who has never really developed any offensive weaponry. Nikola Vucevic's primary backup is Andre Drummond.

But it's also true that a lot of these guys are perfectly willing shooters. Caruso is used to being an outlet valve on offense. Dosunmu and Jones aren't quick catch-and-shoot bombers but they probably do not have better offensive value anywhere on the court than they do when shooting out of the corner. And Vucevic is one of the best and most natural shooters at his position in the league, in particular on all-valuable above-the-break threes. Third guard Coby White is maybe even a little bit too happy to bomb away. Without looking at the record I would guess that Beverley has not attempted a two-pointer in at least six years. You look at Chicago's roster and think, They might need some shooters; you do not think, They should attempt fewer three-pointers than all other teams in the NBA.

Some of it is roster construction. Some of it is quite simply that the Bulls miss Lonzo Ball, who is out indefinitely with a deeply crabbed knee. Ball is the only natural passer on the roster; for all of DeRozan's crafty ball-handling and shot-creation and LaVine's eye-popping growth as a scorer, those guys really cannot pass, and Chicago's other ball-handlers are more caretakers and floor, uhh, non-spacers than genuine playmakers. When Chicago's designed sets fail to create open threes and opposing defenses don't break down in big glaring ways, the Bulls simply default to letting DeRozan and LaVine cook up some shit off the bounce, and very often that shit happens from the dreaded midrange. LaVine is a magnificent scorer, but his deficiencies as a playmaker and well-chronicled struggles as a defender give his eye-popping productivity a whiff of the empty calorie. Not to twist the knife on long-suffering Bulls fans, but one of the three other teams to suffer such a loss in NBA history was also the Chicago Bulls, in 2021. Their leading scorer was Zach LaVine. He scored 45 points on 26 shot attempts. If there's a Burn The Building Down And Still Lose archetype, Zach LaVine is the exemplar.

In an agonizing last-second loss earlier this season to the Wizards, the Bulls went for two when down three on the scoreboard. Looking back, it's almost a little bit too on-the-nose. It's also a little bit tragic, how suited or unsuited a given player might be to the style of his time. I once talked to a journeyman veteran who had a minor career renaissance in his mid-30s, well past his athletic prime, who shook his head and stared off into the middle distance while pondering what might've been if the three-point revolution had come along five years earlier. DeRozan and LaVine are incredible offensive players. The things they do with the ball are spectacular. And those guys are having great years! The problem in Chicago has been how to make it all make sense together in the context of the modern game. The temptation is to blame the supporting cast, but I submit that an offense that cannot function reliably without Lonzo Ball's 13 points and five assists has more fundamental problems than the precise fit of the role players filling in the margins. In the modern game, being last in the league in three-point attempts is not different from being bad at offense. In another era, DeRozan and LaVine might've isolated and mid-ranged their team all the way to the mountaintop.

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