The Chicago Bulls’ start to the season has been __________. Go ahead and fill in the blank with whatever adjective you want because it’s been such a roller coaster ride, virtually any of them work.
Promising, frustrating, disappointing, hilarious… Take your pick.
Not to worry, though, because what we’ve been seeing is a team experiencing growing pains. It might seem like a long time ago they swapped Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine, Laurie Markkanen and Kris Dunn, but this is only the third season.
Their average age of 28.3 is the NBA’s second-youngest, and at 3.07, they’re the third-least experienced. So of course, they’re going to have some struggles with consistency.
If you want a weird number that amplifies their up-and-down inconsistency, here it is: The Bulls have had at least 10-point run in every game they’ve lost but in neither game they’ve won.
Lack of Individual Consistency
There are times when the team is genuinely entertaining and the stars shine. Then there are times when they go three-and-a-half minutes to close out against the Knicks and blow a double-digit lead.
Probably the most impressive thing about the Bulls’ inconsistency is that, except Thaddeus Young, it feels like it’s across the board. Just look at the game-to-game scoring numbers.
(NOTE: While the above chart and stats don’t account for Sunday night’s 108-95 loss to the undermanned Indiana Pacers, that game was absolutely just more of the same: 15 points combined from Laurie Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. on 4-of-19 shooting while Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter Jr. combined for 41 points on 17-of-30.)
Then, there’s rookie Coby White, who went from looking absolutely ready during the preseason and the first game or two, to reverting below the steep learning curve many expected for his year:
[whispers softly, hoping no one hears]
Coby White is averaging 6.2 PPG, 1.4 APG (1.6 TOV) and 2.8 RPG over his last five games.
24.5 percent from the field, 18.2 percent from three.
— Mark (@mkhoops) November 4, 2019
When all the players are inconsistent, it’s hard to have team consistency, but that’s one of the indicators of a young team experiencing growing pains. While that can get frustrating, the bright side is that the Bulls have shown that all their young stars are capable of having scoring big games.
Lack of Team Chemistry
Part of the problem is that the Bulls just haven’t much time playing together, and that amplifies the inconsistency.
While Markkanen and LaVine are in their third year together, they’ve only amassed 1,681 minutes alongside one another on the court. For perspective, 41 duos shared the court more minutes than that last season alone.
And the Markkanen-LaVine paring leads the Bulls.
When you mix inexperienced players and a lack of experience playing together, the inexperience goes up exponentially. And it can be manifested on both ends of the court. Blown assignments on defensive schemes and missed connection on offensive plays can compound one another.
For instance, LaVine just misreads the cut on this would-be assist:
Or here where Markkanen just loses track of Tony Snell on the back-pick for an easy dunk:
It’s the sort of thing where communication could have made things easier. Communication is one of the easiest things to overlook in basketball, even though it’s one of the most important.
It’s the little things that win or lose games, that turn a big lead into a deficit faster than you can say, “Knicks.” But these are issues that time and experience can iron out.
Lack of Glue
Every winning NBA team has a “glue guy”—the dude that does a little bit of everything, especially the things that don’t show up in the box scores. It’s one area where the Bulls are missing the most.
LaVine does a good job scoring with 21.2 points per game. But he’s averaging fewer than 4.0 assists and rebounds, and his defense is still not very good.
Tomas Satoransky is the only player averaging over four dimes, but he’s only getting 1.7 rebounds.
Wendell Carter Jr. is first on the team with 2.5 screen assists per game, which puts him at 31st in NBA, according to NBA.com. He’s 30th in defensive balls recovered overall, but 1st on the Bovines.
Kris Dunn leads the team in deflections at 3.2, which is only 28th in the league. He’s 47th in offensive balls recovered, but that’s good enough to lead Chicago.
And so it keeps going: Dunn and Markkanen are tied at 42nd in loose balls recovered. Young is 35th in charges drawn and shots contested.
The Bulls don’t have a single player in the top 20 of the Hustle Stats. That’s pretty glaring. (Especially for a Jim Boylen-led team that’s supposed to be built on that and???)
Absent a glue guy, the Bulls collectively must pay more attention to the little things. As they do that, you’ll see the team grow.
Will they reach a “Boylen” point?
This does beg the question: How much of this on the coach?
And the honest answer has to be a lot of it. If the team isn’t growing through the year, then Jim Boylen might be on the hot seat. And things could reach a point where the front office has to decide whether to let him go and bring on someone who does a better job of player development.
Then again, isn’t that what former coach Fred Hoiberg was supposed to be there for? It’s interesting that he was the development guy saddled with set-in-their-ways veterans, while Boylen got the impressionable youngsters despite his apparent lack of innovation.
So, yup, some of this goes back on Bulls headmen Gar Foreman and John Paxson, but you’ve heard all that before…
Nonetheless, these are the things that you can watch for. And if Chicago begins improving, Boylen will deserve the credit: If you see them gain consistency, chemistry and attentiveness, you’ll see the team grow and win more.
You might just have to bear through some growing pains while it happens, and it’s too early for a final verdict.
Stats are accurate as of November 2.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.