The Orlando Magic got off to a hot start this year, but their record has slipped in recent weeks, and they’re only a few games out of the playoffs — it’s hard to know exactly what to make of them in the long term. A major part of their recent slump is the play of Bismack Biyombo, who has been their starting center since Orlando traded Nikola Vucevic to the Philadelphia 76ers for him before the season began.
As the trade deadline approached at the end of February, reports surfaced that the Orlando Magic were engaged in talks with the Chicago Bulls about a deal centered around Nikola Vucevic. The Magic were looking to shed salary and add pieces to a young core that also featured D.J. Augustin, Tobias Harris, and Maurice Harkless. The Bulls were looking for help in the frontcourt to compensate for the loss of Joakim Noah, who had undergone his second knee surgery of the season.
With tonight’s game against Milwaukee coming up, the Bulls are ten games under .500 and two games behind Washington for the final spot in the tournament. After trading superstar center Nikola Vucevic, most NBA analysts predicted that the Bulls would rise in the standings and pose a real threat to the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference.
As Arturas Karnišovas and his teammates attempt a cultural overhaul of the organization, it’s important to analyze why things didn’t go as planned after Vucevic’s arrival. This should reassure Bulls fans, but also make it clear where the team needs to improve and how to get there. Let’s start with the factors that were beyond the Bulls’ control, and then move on to the on-field shortcomings.
Vucevic joined the team in an always worrying West Coast matchup against San Antonio, Golden State, Phoenix and Utah. The Suns and Jazz, who currently occupy the first two spots in their pool, have already secured a spot in the playoffs, while the Spurs and Warriors would occupy the ninth and tenth spots, respectively, in the tournament if the season ended today.
The Bulls then returned to the United Center to take on the Nets, considered by most to be the favorites in the Eastern Conference, before embarking on another five-game road trip. It’s hard enough to rebuild a team after a reorganization, but it’s not easy to do so away from home, to say the least.
Of Vucevic’s first 10 games with the Bulls, only one was in Chicago, and of the 10 teams he played against during that time, eight were in the playoffs. The Bulls have won just .537% of their games against other teams during this difficult period. So it’s not surprising that a team that had to drastically change its style of play to accommodate Vucevic went just 3-7 in those games.
While Chicago is now struggling to keep its postseason hopes alive, the final 10 games of the year include nine games against Eastern Conference teams that have already made the playoffs or are still struggling. That includes two against Milwaukee, two against Brooklyn and one against Philadelphia. If the Bulls find a way to slip into the tournament, it would be a great achievement.
On the Chicago Bulls
In addition to a busy schedule, injuries, personal issues and the league’s health and safety protocols have plagued the Bulls since their shattering trade. The 24th. In March, three days before Vucevic’s debut, Zach LaVine sprained his ankle in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took the aforementioned trip to the west coast with the team and tried to play against the Spurs, but finished with just 18 points and just 11 minutes in the second half.
Two days later against the Warriors, LaVine scored 12 points on 4-16 shooting from the field (1-7 from downtown). After the game, he admitted to reporters that he had re-injured his ankle and needed rest to regain full fitness. Although he missed the next game against the Suns, he returned a few days later against the Jazz.
Then there was Kobe White, who missed two games for the first time in his professional career because of neck cramps he had before the game against Golden State. Before his injury, he was the only Bulls player to play in all 109 games last season. Like LaVine, he was able to come back into the game against the Jazz, but only scored four points on 2-6 field goals and 0-3 from long range. That same night against the Warriors, Garrett Temple sprained his hamstring in the first half of the game and was benched for eight games.
It continued on the 6th. April, when Daniel Theis missed the game against Indiana for personal reasons. Fortunately for the team, Theis returned two days later to take on Toronto. The Bulls also had to do without Troy Brown Jr, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, who has been out since Week 19 with an ankle injury. April didn’t play. But Chicago’s losing streak didn’t end there, as several players were forced to sit out due to COVID-19 safety issues.
The first of the Bulls to meet such a fate was White, who was suspended in the game against Brooklyn on April 4 and only missed on the 6th. April took over the action against the Pacers. The 15th. In April, LaVine became the second Bulls player to undergo the league’s health and safety protocols. He is still on sick leave and will miss his ninth consecutive game tonight against the Bucks. Unfortunately, and much to his chagrin, reports have surfaced that he may have to miss another week.
That said, it’s important not to make excuses and to remember that injuries are part of the game and that every team has had to deal with COVID-related drama at some point over the past two years. In the end, eight Raptors players had to be quarantined, but miraculously remained among the play-in candidates. So instead of focusing on things out of the team’s control, we look at what they need to improve on to make the playoffs this year and be contenders in the (hopefully) not too distant future.
Photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
If you’ve been following our coverage of Bulls this season, you’ve probably noticed a common thread in all of our game reports: listless first quarters in which opponents come out with more energy and tenacity. In fact, the Bulls’ average margin in the first quarter is -1.3, which ranks 23rd in the league. Always winning in the NBA is hard, and it’s even harder when you have to constantly catch up. Usually when a team has this problem it can be attributed to age, but more often than not it shows that the coaching staff did not prepare their team for the game.
Interestingly, the Bulls ranked 13th with their average margin in the second quarter (+0.2) and 5th with their average margin in the third quarter (+1.1). So you can see that while coach Billy Donovan has problems with game preparation, he is one of the best when it comes to adjustments, especially at halftime. Donovan deserves respect so far, but his team’s disgusting habit of starting slow is something that needs to be rectified by next season.
However, the Bulls’ biggest weakness is their inability to finish games winning. So far, the team’s average margin in the fourth quarter is -1.7, which ranks 27th in the NBA. And that doesn’t mean they consistently go into the final period with a big deficit, as their average lead at the end of three quarters is exactly 0.0, meaning that in most cases they give themselves a legitimate chance to win before the final period even begins.
The question then becomes why are the Bulls struggling so late in the game? Let’s start with the obvious: The team allowed an average of 28.3 points in the fourth quarter, which ranks 28th in the league. More importantly, three statistics highlight the weakness of the team’s interior defense, a key element at a crucial time that plays a big role in the outcome of the game.
- Scored 49.6 points per game in the paint (25th)
- 60.9% of all points scored from two-point range (28.)
- Scored 15.6% of his points from the free throw line (22nd).
Offensively, the Bulls ranked last in free throw percentage (12.7), an important statistic in the closing stages of the game. Translation: Vucevic needs help downstairs urgently. So who can the Bulls focus on this season to play alongside their newly acquired center? We have found two players, Plan A and Plan B, who we believe will be excellent complements to Vucevic.
There’s a reason the Bulls were linked to Drummond before he was acquired by Cleveland. According to Dean Oliver’s defensive rating system, he is the 10th best defender in the NBA with 103 points and an average of 1.5 blocks and 1.4 steals per game in his career. He’s also a double-double machine, averaging 14.5 points and 13.8 rebounds since entering the league in 2012.
The only downside to Drummond’s game is that he has only shot 60% from the free throw line since 2017. More importantly, he has made 168 free throws this year and would automatically be the Bulls’ all-time leader in that category if he were in the lineup today. Sure, you’d like to see him shoot a higher percentage, but fouls and forcing a team to take free throws is important, especially in the fourth quarter.
Another factor to consider is price. In all likelihood, Drummond earned a big payday this season, and rightfully so. If the Bulls are thinking big, it would make sense for the team to consider cheaper options this summer and save their money for a crowded 2022 free agent class. Maybe Bradley Beale? Which brings us to plan B.
Yes, it’s true, Nerlens Noel could be a big help to Vucevic, and here’s why. While he doesn’t have the same offensive output as Drummond, Noel is the fourth-best defender in the NBA with a score of 101 (just like in golf, the lower the number, the better). For his career, he has the same number as Drummond, averaging 1.5 blocks, and only 0.1 fewer steals.
On Wednesday, the Bulls could see Noel being the difference maker, with eight points, eight rebounds, three assists, four steals and five blocks, as well as a +24 performance. And while Drummond is a better rebounder than Noel, Vucevic averages double digits in that category and can make up for any deficit.
Noel is also an excellent free throw shooter with 72% of his shots coming from the free throw line over the past four seasons, and because he is primarily a defensive specialist, his price tag will undoubtedly be lower than Drummond’s. Vucevic and Thaddeus Young are currently the Bulls’ best defenders (110) and rank 107th in the league. Purchasing a defender like Noel (or Drummond) would be a welcome addition.
Photo: USA Today
It’s no secret that the Bulls have been trying to acquire Lonzo Ball, and it’s been reported that Chicago is one of the two teams he would most like to play for. Ball could receive a qualifying offer from New Orleans this season, which would be around $14 million. But since Ball wants something around $20 million, he probably won’t sign, making him a free agent and allowing the Bulls to acquire him.
But in looking at the above analyses, something stood out: Chicago’s ability to defend the perimeter. The Bulls are allowing opponents to score 34.2 percent of their points from long range, which is fourth in the league. So you could argue that adding Ball is an unnecessary luxury if the team already has the personnel at its position to succeed.
This feeling is especially true when you realize that Ball ranks 261st in the NBA with a defensive rating of 113. That’s exactly the same as two current Bulls, Tomasz Satoranski and Troy Brown Jr. So it’s hard to justify spending more than $20 million a year on a player who won’t make the team better. Sure, his ability to distribute the ball is impressive, but in the grand scheme of things, the team has bigger needs.
Fortunately for the Bulls, both Satoranski and Brown Jr. are under contract next year, so the front office can focus on acquiring help for Vucevic. A move to Drummond would be interesting, but the most reasonable option seems to be Noel, who would immediately give the team a great defensive frontcourt and the financial flexibility to give a player like Beal a max deal in 2022.
This year has been a roller coaster of emotions for Bulls fans, but despite the team’s collapse at the end of the season, it’s important to take a step back and realize that their arrow is still pointing up. We must not let the scars of GarPax cloud our judgment of the new regime. They deserve to be able to enjoy their own victories, make their own mistakes and create their own legacy. All we can do is be patient and trust them to get our beloved Bulls back on track.
So far, they have given us no reason to think otherwise.
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