The Bulls Have A Functioning Analytics Department (Yay!), But Are They Using It Correctly?

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The Bulls Have A Functioning Analytics Department (Yay!), But Are They Using It Correctly?

Chicago Bulls

Phew, we can finally confirm the Chicago Bulls have an analytics department!

The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry spoke with Bulls Assistant GM Steve Weinman, who is labeled as the team’s “analytics guy.” And according to Mayberry, Weinman is joined alongside assistant coach Dean Cooper, special assistant to the head coach Paul Miller, manager of minor league scouting and analytics Miles Abbett, and coordinator of basketball analytics Faizan Hasnany. Yup, sounds like an analytics department to me! (Thank god).

For those who’ve paid enough attention to the last couple of seasons of Bulls basketball, it’s easy to see how this year has looked different on the court. Yes, the team is losing games, but the style of play is more closely aligned to the trends we’re seeing throughout the NBA.

What’s that look like? Well, for one example:

The Bulls have gone from an average of 25.9 3-point attempts per game last season (27th in the NBA) to 35.1 this season (9th in the NBA). Chicago also ranks second in field goal attempts per game from less than five feet from the basket. So, yes, the new shot-selection is indicative of the new wave, which – admittedly – is refreshing.

But the thing about advanced analytics is that while you absolutely, positively must take any lessons learned into account, your actual decisions and application of those numbers still need to fit the personnel on the court. In other words, nothing is a one-sized fits all approach. And while that may be a subtle criticism with respect to these Bulls, who have made improvements, it’s also a particularly relevant one.

Indeed, Boylen’s new offensive system is probably doing this particular Bulls roster a disservice, even as it resembles something closer to a modern gameplan (again, I don’t want this to sound too nit-picky, because their reliance on analytics is better than the alternative, but it’s a fair criticism and something that must be explored).

When Mayberry (The Athletic) spoke with several players about how they believe the Bulls’ use of analytics has impacted their game, a few guys had some concerning things to say, including rookie Coby White:

“When I first got here, I took a couple of midranges and they were, like, ‘Nah, we don’t want that. That’s a bad shot. So it took some getting adjusted to because the midrange was a tool that I had in my bag that I liked to use. But if it’s a bad shot, it’s a bad shot.”

White’s mid-range game was something we praised after the Bulls drafted him, and while I understand (and acknowledge) that it’s not necessarily a “high-percentage shot,” I don’t exactly think you should make an effort to take it out of a player’s repertoire, particularly if its something he’s already good at.

(Michael: I will add that when it comes to a talented, but young/raw player like White it’s a particularly tough case. On the one hand, you have a rare opportunity to mold him into the sort of player that analytics might look upon more favorably down the line. But on the other hand, his talent and success is already obvious and perfecting the balance he’s already discovered could be his best shot at the most productive career overall). 

But, of course, he’s not the only example.

Thaddeus Young was another player who had to adjust his game, and told The Athletic: “This team obviously wants me to shoot more 3s. They want me to put them up when I’m open. So I have to approach the game a little bit differently than I have in the past. But I just try to go out there and play. Like I said: try to make plays for others.” See, now here’s the frustrating part.

Why bring in a 31-year-old veteran like Young if you’re just going to make him play out of sorts? Running in the pick-and-roll and attacking the basket is his game, yet the Bulls are using him like an off-the-bench shooter.

Overall, Otto Porter, Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, and White all reference the mid-range as either their shot or a major part of their game. Those are five of the most important players on the Bulls conceding that something the Bulls told them NOT to do is, in fact, one of their best attributes. That’s not great, analytics or not.

TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR: I’m not making a case for more mid-range shots, nor do I believe striving to maximize points per possession is wrong. It’s not. What I am saying, however, is if the offensive system in place isn’t working (that’s evident by the 28th offensive rating in the NBA, right?), then the coaching staff must be willing to adjust – particularly, when you’ve gone out of your way to change several players’ games to begin with.

By not changing the scheme, Boylen is basically admitting that he believes if the numbers say it works, then eventually it will work. But those numbers only say it works when the *right* talent is on the court. I always think back to Boylen’s perspective on the Bulls missing wide-open 3-point shots (currently 19th in the NBA), and when asked about it, he would kind of just bank on the idea of the team eventually starting to hit them.

“We have guys shooting below their career averages by multiple points,” Boylen told NBC Sports Chicago on November 9th. “Will that turn? I think it will. It’s frustrating when it doesn’t. I get it. Believe me. I’m sitting there with it too.” He later went on to say, “to come in here and think I’m going to change my system or change what we’ve been doing, it’s not what I’m about.”

Since then, the Bulls have made up very little ground on the offensive end of the ball. The problem isn’t missing shots (well, it kind of is, but whatever), it’s when and how these players are being asked to take them.

To sum up this long rant, the Bulls might finally be listening to the league data – and that’s great – but I’m not sure they’re using it in a way that betters the team. If Boylen doesn’t believe that, he can take a look at the standings.



Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.