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How the Bulls have emulated the Warriors’ style of play during their hot streak

The Bulls host the Warriors tonight having won three straight and shooting extremely well since December 8. What exactly can we make of their performance? And do they have enough to beat the Warriors?

Chicago Bulls v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Back on January 9th — after that home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers — Twitter user @RGWallace tweeted the Golden State of Mind account to ask, “Tough road trip ahead: Bucks, Raptors, Cavs, Bulls and Rockets in an 8 day span. Thoughts?”

The answer might appear to be “anyone but the Chicago Bulls” based on their record at first glance. Their 3-20 start to the season pretty much met expectations given the way they entered the season. The consensus was that their offseason was a series of disastrous decisions, which included the infamous trade of Jordan Bell to the Golden State Warriors for “cash considerations.”

However, Wallace responded to the person who tweeted that the Warriors’ game against the Bulls would be “a rest game” by noting that they have been better lately and he has a point.

The Bulls did in fact get hot in December, winning seven in a row and 10 out of 12 leading up to New Year’s Eve. After losing five of six games to ring in the New Year, the Bulls have since won three in a row.

Yet as the Bulls try to win their fourth straight home game against the Warriors tonight, I wondered two questions: what exactly have they been doing so well? And how much of their recent play is sustainable versus just plain luck or random chance?

The Bulls are living by the three

The Bulls will host the Warriors tonight having won three in a row and, aside from an early-January slump, they’ve looked like an impressively efficient pace-and-space team — beyond just defying the odds, the Bulls’ future is suddenly looking promising on paper.

JayPatt of SB Nation’s Blog-a-Bull summarized the Bulls’ recent hot streak in a piece hosted yesterday, noting that they have been “chucking and hitting at an incredible rate” from beyond the 3-point arc recently.

Extending the sample size to all of January (eight games), and the Bulls are shooting 42.2 percent on 3-pointers, the best mark in the league. They rank eighth in 3-point attempts this month (32 per game), and the other four teams shooting 40-plus percent from distance are all taking roughly 25 3-point attempts per game or less. The Bulls have made the most 3-pointers in the league (108), though the Rockets have played one less game.

Extending the time period a bit further, over the last 21 games, the Chicago Bulls have gone 14-7 and have won 9 of 12 games at home. And to further underscore JayPatt’s point, their numbers during that time period have the Bulls looking like a prototypical “pace-and-space” squad. In fact, with the volume of threes they’re making, their overall shooting efficiency and offensive rating has shot way up — during this period, they’re right up there with the Warriors and Rockets in terms of their embrace of pace-and-space.

The table below compares the Bulls’ performance to the Warriors, Rockets, and Charlotte Hornets (I’ll explain that a little later) from the period since their 21-game hot streak began and for the 2017-18 season overall.

(Mobile users: it might be easier for you to view the table by clicking here.)

Putting the Bulls’ increased shooting efficiency in context

Team Pace since 12/8 Rank eFG% since 12/8 Rank ORtg since 12/8 Rank
Team Pace since 12/8 Rank eFG% since 12/8 Rank ORtg since 12/8 Rank
Chicago Bulls 101.41 5 53.2 8 107.4 12
Golden State Warriors 100.56 8 56.3 2 112.7 2
Houston Rockets 101.49 4 54 5 112.3 3
Charlotte Hornets 100.18 10 49.7 26 104.3 21
Team Season pace Rank Season eFG% Rank Season ORtg Rank
Chicago Bulls 97.7 12 50.3 26 101.6 28
Golden State Warriors 100.1 3 57.6 1 113.6 1
Houston Rockets 99.3 8 55.2 3 112.3 2
Charlotte Hornets 98.5 9 49.3 30 103.7 20
Comparison of Bulls’ shooting to Warriors, Rockets, and Hornets from Dec. 8, 2017 - Jan 16, 2018. All data from NBA.com/stats.

Although the Bulls pushing the pace a bit more is interesting, far more remarkable is the leap they’ve made in both effective field goal percentage (a team’s field goal percentage adjusted for the added value of made threes) and their offensive rating (a measure of a team’s points score per 100 possessions). Perhaps even more interesting: they’re not really shooting threes at a higher rate (in terms of the percentage of their field goal attempts that are threes), but they’re just making more — as a team, their 3-point rate has stayed the same (as have most teams’ in the league).

The Bulls are not nearly as extreme in their embrace of the 3-point shot as the Rockets, but they look awfully similar to the Warriors (offensively). While it might be an exaggeration to say that they’re playing like the Warriors right now in terms of pace-and-space — they have nobody to even approximate Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — they’re definitely rivaling the elite.

As K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune wrote just yesterday, the Bulls are very much following the fleet footsteps of the Warriors.

...the matchup represents a measuring stick on two fronts.

The Bulls are playing different basketball than they were in November, leading the NBA in made 3-pointers and 3-point percentage in January. They’re healthier, sharing the ball and — dare it be said? — flashing the pace-and-space philosophy the Warriors seemingly have perfected to win two of the last three titles....the Bulls also are in the first season of a full rebuild, hoping to emulate the path the Warriors traveled.

But the big question here for those looking for hope in Chicago is whether all this is sustainable.

Will the Bulls die by the three?

In the grand scheme of things, 21 games is a relatively short period of time to draw any conclusions — small sample sizes can be deceiving, as the NBA analytics community has been preaching for some time. Yet, as Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus has noted in the past, while small sample sizes might have little value “in the predictive sense...dismissing small sample sizes as worthless is equally disconcerting...” as they can “...add depth to the portrait we’ve seen take shape.” In writing about how many games it takes to “trust a team’s stats” more recently, Narsu added some statistical weight to the point by looking at how long it takes for a team’s statistics to be predictive of where they’ll be at the end of the season. For eFG% — the key stat we’re looking at here — that number is 12; for ORtg, it’s 13; for 3-point percentage it’s 26 games until it stabilizes.

And perhaps the variable nature of the 3-point shot is what we should be paying the most attention to here: as multiple people have noted at Nylon Calculus, 3-point shooting at the team level is “virtually all noise.” The quality of defense doesn’t seem to affect it as open threes are as noisey as anything else and the presence of individual players don’t affect it quite as much as people sometimes speculate.

So does this mean that we should just ignore the Bulls’ recent success? Not necessarily — similar to what Narsu has said in the past, sometimes statistical trends help to give us a clearer picture of how small changes are impacting the fabric of a team and that may well be the case with the Bulls.

  • There has been plenty written about rookie Lauri Markkanen, who was compared to former top pick/bust Andrea Bargnani after the draft before actually playing games and turning out to be a 3-point assassin. Who knows if the man will ever find the rookie wall, but as JayPatt wrote over at Blog a Bull, dude has been on fire all season and only getting better.
  • It’s pretty much impossible to separate this hot streak from the return of Nikola Mirotic: he returned to action on December 8; the Bulls have been on a tear ever since. Mirotic has career-highs in 3-point percentage (45% — third in the NBA), usage rate (26%), and true shooting percentage (.624). Nick Friedel of ESPN reported on Monday that his hot play is because of all the trade speculation. Whatever the reason, it’s working.
  • K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune recently highlighted the improved play of Kris Dunn -- a player acquired from the Timberwolves in that Jimmy Butler trade — noting that he has been far more productive this year (and, to add, more efficient albeit not a particularly efficient player).
  • Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald has written about Denzel Valentine’s improvement over the last few week, which has included, “...using an effective floater when he gets near the basket and has finished a few layups by using his body to shield defenders.” He’s shooting an outstanding 39.4% from the 3-point line this season.
  • And the biggest news that provides hope for the Bulls continuing to trend upward is the return of Zach LaVine, who could permanently push Valentine into the role of bench shooter, according to McGraw.

Kelly Scaletta of FanRag Sports recently described how the combination of that young core could develop into a lethal core once Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg gets some time with them.

Dunn’s ability to push the ball and vision, coupled with Markkanen’s shooting and impressive handles for a big man, plus the extreme athleticism and shooting of LaVine, will be a nightmare for opposing defenses, particularly as the Bulls pile up shooters.

Over the last 10 games, the Bulls are making 12.8 3s per game (second to the Houston Rockets) and shooting 40.1 percent from deep (second to the Golden Warriors). Fred might finally be starting to Hoiberg. The overall ball movement seems to grow every game, as evidenced by the 24.5 assists over the last 10, which is fifth in the NBA.

All of this will work together with LaVine, and he’ll be able to perpetuate the improvement, adding space with his shooting and seizing advantage of it with his blazing speed and cuts to the rim.

This is a team that is brimming with potential not because of a statistical trend but because they may have stumbled upon put together a group of extremely complimentary players that can grow into a dynamic offensive core.

Defensively, the Bulls have weaknesses, as Johnson described in his Chicago Tribune article: Tony East of NBA Math noted on January 9 that the Bulls, “...allowed the sixth-highest shooting percentage on shots inside five feet while giving up the fourth-most attempts. That is as dismal a combination as you can have and reflects poorly on their overall ability to stop drives.” And they’re ranked 23rd in defensive rating for the season. They’ve ranked 28th in opponent turnover percentage all season.

However, they’ve posted a DRtg of 106.4 since December 8, which is ranked 16th in the NBA during that period. So something is going right on that end...but is it enough to beat the Warriors?

Are the streaking Bulls a threat to beat the Warriors?

I posted those stats for the Charlotte Hornets because a) the Bulls were a remarkably similar offensive team to them earlier in the season (fast pace, poor shooting) and b) the Hornets beat the Warriors at home back on December 29.

Yes, yes — the Warriors didn’t have Curry in that game. But the way the Hornets did it is somewhat interesting: they didn’t shoot well, but they dominated the Warriors in rebounding, turnovers, and free throw rate. As a fast-paced team that has only “added” firepower since their November meeting — in the form of Mirotic’s return and LaVine’s debut — there’s a blueprint for the Bulls to win this game without shooting particularly well.

The Bulls are an excellent defensive rebounding team (80.9% is third in the NBA) and if the Warriors have an off-night this season has provided plenty of examples of how things can go sideways. Neither of these teams are particularly good at offensive rebounding — the Bulls have ranked 28th no matter what period you look at — but that becomes a bigger issue for this game: someone has to win the rebounding battle. Likewise, the Bulls are 28th in turnover percentage, but the Warriors have been known for having long stretches of bad turnovers since before the Steve Kerr era — something has to give there too.

Going back to the opening question: if, for whatever reason, the Warriors can’t capitalize on the Bulls’ weakness during an off-night on the road, it’s not impossible to imagine a disappointing loss to end this road winning streak.

Upsets happen, undefeated road trips are hard to come by, and it’s fair to say that this just isn’t the same team that the Warriors smashed by 49 points in November. If nothing else, this game should be more interesting than it first appears on paper.