What Happened to the Bulls' Early-Season Flow?

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What Happened to the Bulls’ Early-Season Flow?

Chicago Bulls

Right now, the Chicago Bulls have less chemistry than I had with my sophomore year homecoming date. Sure, we may have looked the part in photos and at dinner, but when it was time to step on that floor and dance … there was no rhythm (and, by “no rhythm,” I basically mean no dancing).

The Bulls team we see on the court today versus the one we watched three months ago, appear polar opposites. Even in December, during a month ravaged with injuries and COVID outbreaks, the Bulls found a way to play like one of the best units in the NBA. They had an impeccable two-way flow and turned defense into offense quicker than Michael Jordan could place a bet. Fast forward several injuries and a ramped-up schedule later, and what made the Bulls one of the best stories in the league is nowhere to be found.

We need to look no further than Thursday night’s brutal double-digit loss to the 10th-seeded New Orleans Pelicans to see just that.

Zach LaVine dropped a season-high 39 points in one of his most explosive showings in weeks. He dominated the game from start to finish with some eye-popping defensive plays and ferocious downhill bucket-getting. But when the final buzzer sounded, the game was just another example of a team that has recently relied far too much on individual talent to stay alive. There was little cohesion, no free-flowing offense, and no athletically pesky defense.

“It’s frustrating,” LaVine said after the game about the team’s recent struggles. “Obviously, we’re just trying to figure out how to get back in a rhythm. We want to catch this rhythm and at the end of the year, going into the later part of the season, on a high note.

We got to figure it out. Nobody is going to help us. We’ve done enough talking … You just got to get it done now. It’s time to stop talking and get it done and start playing the right way to win these games.”

Over the last 15 games, the Bulls hold a Net Rating that ranks just 27th in the NBA. ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry’s latest efficiency landscape chart put the Bulls in the same tier as teams outside the Play-In Tournament like the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Washington Wizards.

Having a Net Rating that low means even the team’s greatest strength has finally started to falter: Their offense. Since the All-Star break, the Bulls have held the 5th-worst offense in the NBA, which is a staggering change from the No. 4 offense they held heading into mid-February. The team’s offensive rating on the season as a whole has now dropped to 10th.

Of course, there is a handful of reasons for the team’s dip on that side of the ball. DeRozan has cooled off a bit after a heavy workload for much of the year, averaging just a 45.6 percent clip from the field since the All-Star break after playing some of the most efficient basketball in the league. The absence of Lonzo Ball has also been pivotal in the disruption of this team’s natural flow.

To be clear, I’m not saying all would be fixed with Ball on the floor (we learned one man can’t heal all wounds upon Alex Caruso’s return), but I think a big reason we saw this group immediately mesh is his outstanding playmaking ability. Not only is he a facilitator who sets the tone with his up-the-floor heaves, but he is a solid ball-mover in the half-court. He can often be the connecting thread between the team’s three individually gifted offensive scorers. Not having him on the floor as players come in and out of injuries has made the ability to quickly slip back into a rhythm that much harder. Not to mention, his 3-point shooting has taken a much-needed skillset off the floor. He was always a fantastic kick-out option.

Arguably the biggest reason for the team’s offensive inefficiency, though, is their play on the other side of the ball. The best offense is a good defense, and the Bulls’ atrocious defense is finally catching up to them. Thanks to their inability to get stops, we’ve seen the Bulls go from averaging the 13th-most transition opportunities per game up until January 1st to the 3rd-fewest transition opportunities per game, per Cleaning the Glass.

Similarly, the Bulls were a team that averaged the 6th-highest percentage of their points off turnovers heading into the new year. Chicago has now averaged the 4th-lowest percentage of their points off turnovers since the start of 2022, per NBA Stats. For a team that Cleaning the Glass lists as the second-most efficient transition team in the NBA … that’s bad news. Really bad news.

So what’s the good news? Well, for these numbers to be as lopsided as they are, the Bulls had to have played really well at one point in the season. The fact they did play that well should give us reason to believe it can happen again. It’s not like we’re waiting to see what this team is really good at; we have the answer. What we don’t have the answer to is when will they get back to doing things like dominating in transition and playing sound defense?

Unfortunately, only time will tell.

Author: Elias Schuster

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