Chicago has been about as average as a team can possibly be.
If Chicago hasn’t stood out to you this season, you could be forgiven for that.
The team, coming off a campaign in which it led the Eastern Conference standings for the majority of the season, stands at just 6–8 now. Yes, the Bulls have been good on D, ranking ninth, but they’ve been just as disappointing on O, ranking 22nd. Fittingly, Chicago basically has a neutral net rating on the year, meaning the club has scored just as much as its given up.
Put another way, the Bulls have been about as average as a team can possibly be. And perhaps that’s what’s so fascinating about where they’ve struggled thus far: They’d likely be pretty good if they didn’t keep blowing it at the end of close games.
Chicago is 0–6 in clutch situations—defined as games within five points during the final five minutes of play—leaving the Bulls as the only club without a victory in a clutch scenario. It’s a reversal from the way things began last season, when the team won four of its first five close games and went into the All-Star break with the second-best net rating in the clutch, trailing only the Suns, who breezed to the league’s best regular-season mark. By mid-February, the Bulls were drilling opponents by 20.7 points per 100 possessions in the late stages of tight contests.
Of course there were a few key differences: Defensive pest Lonzo Ball, who’d fully rounded into an impressive three-point shooter, had been healthy for much of that, and he was pairing with Alex Caruso to make life hell for opposing offenses. (Ball has missed the past 10 months, and it’s not clear yet when he’ll be back from his surgical procedures.) DeMar DeRozan generated some MVP buzz last season in part due to how well he played in those clutch situations, even at one point hitting game-winners on back-to-back nights for the first time in NBA history.
Neither of those things—DeRozan’s being a savior or the tenacious defense late—has really been true to this point. The All-Star swingman has shot 38.5% (5-for-13) in the clutch, while All-Star teammate Zach LaVine, who’s played in only three of the clutch games, has gone 0-for-5 to this point. (Only Hornets wings Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, 0-for-10 and 0-for-6, respectively, have shot worse in the clutch on more attempts than LaVine.) And the Bulls are hemorrhaging 135.1 points per 100 possessions defensively in those spots, second worst in the NBA, ahead of only a young Magic team.
Some of that is tied to shooting luck. The Bulls’ opponents almost certainly won’t hit 54.5% of their threes—the second-best rate in the league—in big moments all season, the way they have so far. But other aspects might be more problematic. For instance, in tight losses to the Wizards and Spurs, the small-ball Bulls—often playing center Nikola Vučević as their lone big—got burned when he was playing too high up, leaving no sizable backside help when Bradley Beal and Keldon Johnson, respectively, slashed toward the basket, then finished at the rim. Advanced numbers back that up: Just three teams surrender more points per game off back cuts than Chicago, and only two give up more points per cut than the Bulls, per Synergy Sports.
The clutch offense could certainly be better, too, given that it’s one of the least efficient in the NBA so far. But even when the club misses shots, there’s no excuse for a paltry 88.7 points per 100 possessions. Chicago’s offensive-rebound percentage in those moments is just 12.5%, a number that’s simply too low, even with the Bulls often playing as small as they do.
In any case, things figure to level out sometime soon. Chicago will need them to in order to make it back to the playoffs in a reinforced Eastern Conference.
Thanks for reading The Playmaker. Feel free to forward this email to a friend or tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any specific questions, just reply to this email or send a note to email@example.com and I may answer it in a future edition.
More NBA Coverage: