On March 1st, Arturas Karnisovas stated the obvious.
“We still have the two problems all season long that we’ve tried to reduce, turning the ball over and then fouling. Those are the two that’s actually impacting our defense … when turnovers and fouling get back in, creeping up, that’s when we get ourselves in trouble and we beat ourselves. You look back at 50 percent from the field, and 40 percent from 3, and you beat teams in rebounding – you should be winning those games. But then, you look at the turnover column and that’s been effecting us consistently, so I think if we can focus on those two things, to reduce turnover and fouling, I think we’re going to be in a much better position to win games.
Turnovers and fouling have been right at the top of this team’s “must fix” list since the ball was tipped on December 23rd. The Bulls had played the fourth-most clutch games in the season at the trade deadline, and all they had to show for it was a lousy 9-15 record. These self-inflicted wounds were a large part of the reason why. And while the question that provoked this Karnisovas tangent was not directly tied to the (then) upcoming trade deadline, I do not think it is crazy to believe these woes played a role in the front office’s deadline dealing. After all, just look at the recent results.
Before the deadline, Chicago turned the ball over more than any team in the league, averaging 16.0 per game. Their fouling trouble had improved slightly over the course of the season, but it still sat at an underwhelming 19.7 per game, which ranked 16th in the league. Since the moves were made, however, we have seen a pretty drastic improvement in both areas (despite the team’s rather lackluster 5-9 record). The Bulls have moved into the top half of the league in each category, committing the 13th-fewest turnovers per game (13.4) and the 2nd-fewest(!!) personal fouls per game over the last 14 contests (17.1). Coincidence? I think not.
While the offensive capabilities are obviously the most significant difference between Wendell Carter Jr. and Nikola Vucevic, there is also a relatively sizable difference in their ability to take care of the basketball. According to Cleaning the Glass, Carter carried a 14.5 TOV% during his time with the Bulls this season, which ranked in the league’s 38th percentile. Take a look at Vucevic’s numbers before the trade, and he was at a desirable 8.6 percent, which ranked in the 87th percentile. Since coming to Chicago, that number has also only done down (a good thing when we’re talking turnovers) to 6.1 percent.
Of course, the Bulls also got rid of Daniel Gafford, whose 18.6 TOV% was worst on the team among players who appeared in at least 10 games. Replacing any of those minutes with a guy like Daniel Theis should also have things trending in the right direction. Theis isn’t nearly as skilled as Vucevic at holding onto the ball, but the 12.4 TOV% he had with Boston this season is at least better (plus, he’s shown he can be responsible by fitting into the 78th percentile last season after starting 65 games).
Another factor at play is probably the team’s revamped offensive scheme. While I think we can say it’s still a work in progress, we do know for sure that the Bulls are playing a much slower game. Before March 25th, the team played with the 8th-highest PACE in the league, but that number has dropped all the way to 24th since the deadline.
Fewer turnovers mean fewer instances where the defense is put at a disadvantage in fastbreak or transition situations, which likely ties into the Bulls’ decrease in fouls per game. Also playing a role in that, again, is the presence of Vucevic. Much like his ability to limit mistakes on the offensive end, Vucevic is one of the better starting centers in the league at controlling his fouls. Sure, part of that is because he isn’t the most gifted or physical rim-protector/defender, but that fact still works in the Bulls’ favor nonetheless. Vucevic has averaged just 1.9 fouls per game this season, which is a career-low. He came to Chicago with only a 2.0 FOUL% (how many defensive fouls a player committed per team play), which ranks in the 98th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
Then, the addition of players like Theis and Troy Brown Jr. has surely helped the cause. While neither is necessarily proficient in the art of, uhm, not-fouling, their ability to read the offense and stay on their man has made the rest of the team’s job easier.
Now, to be fair, we should factor in that (1) this isn’t the largest sample size and (2) Zach LaVine has been off the court for four of these games. The dip in fouling could still be a bit of a fluke, and it’ll be interesting to see if it continue to trend in a positive direction as the team attempts to up their defensive identity.
As for LaVine, his absence could have a tiny impact on the turnover department. The All-Star has led the team this season in TOVs per game with 3.6, and he has also recorded the most since the trade deadline (30) despite only playing 10 games. I don’t type that as a way to bash LaVine – the Bulls are still, by far, a better team with him on the court – it is just a possible variable we should mention when having this discussion.
How important cleaning up both these areas will be in the grand scheme things is hard to say. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll gladly watch some better basketball over these next couple of weeks, but it’s also not as if we don’t expect to see a pretty new roster next season. I do think there is something to be said about the front office’s ability to recognize these inefficiencies and correct them rather quickly, though. Again, the sample size is small, but this could be another example of why we should have faith in the new guys upstairs.