Among the non-bubble NBA teams, the Chicago Bulls have certainly been the busiest during this extended down time. It started with the long overdue ousting of general manager Gar Forman followed by moving John Paxson from president of basketball operations to an advisory role, and it ended with the surprising hire of Billy Donovan as the franchise's newest head coach.
Donovan is coming off a season where he led an Oklahoma City Thunder team to 44 wins and the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. It's a position that only a few people expected, including our own Brad Botkin, who predicted they'd sneak in as an eighth seed. Either way, though, Donovan coached an underrated OKC team to a hard-fought first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, and after he surprisingly decided not to return as head coach, it was expected that he'd be a hot commodity on the coaching market.
The Bulls were fortunate enough to secure his services rather quickly after he and the Thunder parted ways, ringing in a new era of Bulls basketball. Last week, Chicago introduced Donovan as the head coach during a press conference with media. He explained his plan to restore this once-great franchise to its days of glory, and build close relationships with his players. The former Florida Gators coach also touched on something that many Bulls players are going to be delighted to hear.
When asked about how he wants his team to play, and if he'll play to the strengths of his personnel or fall in with the trend of shooting 3s at a high rate, Donovan said that while those analytics are important, it's not the end all be all.
"Analytics is a tool," Donovan said. "There are players -- and I had one last year -- Chris Paul may be as good as there is playing in the mid-range. I think it all comes down to the confidence of a player. If you've got a team that maybe is not a great 3-point shooting team or you have a team that has some players that like playing in the mid-range. ... "I had Carmelo [Anthony, and he] liked doing that. So did Paul George. Those guys were elite offensive players for their entire careers. So you don't want to take away what's made them who they are."
Hold on, it gets even better.
"I still do believe that quality of shots, distribution of shots, generating good shots is really critically important. But I've always said, personnel-based, if you don't want to take non-paint 2s, then you can't have non-paint-2 players," Donovan said. "If you want to be a 3-point shooting team, you got to put all 3-point shooters out there. So I do think that, as more and more 3s have gone up, I do think the numbers will prove that, for certain players, it's not a great shot. And I think there's certain players that feel more comfortable under 15 feet."
What a concept.
Listen, the Bulls are in no way an elite team at any aspect on offense, but one thing that was abundantly clear this season, was that this team did not have the correct personnel to be launching as many 3s as it did. Chicago ranked 11th in the league in 3-point attempts per game (35.1), and yet ranked 22nd in 3-point percentage (34.8 percent). It was an ongoing battle in Chicago between the Bulls analytics department and the players, where the players were discouraged from shooting mid-range jumpers, because it's not a high efficiency shot -- despite the fact that this team wasn't efficient at connecting on 3s either. It was something that rubbed several players the wrong way, most notably franchise star Zach LaVine.
"I mean I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan. I know that some of the greatest scorers in NBA history were mid-range, mid-post guys. It's sad to see it be pushed to the side ...," LaVine said. "I think it takes away a little bit of the skillfulness and it takes away some of the weaponry. But I'll tell you this, there's still guys in the NBA -- and I think I'm one of them -- that can still get it done."
LaVine had the best individual season of his career to date this year, averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game, and he was able to do it while taking the second-fewest mid-range jumpers (151) of his career. You may look at LaVine's mid-range numbers (34.6 percent in his career) and think, he's not efficient scoring from there, so why take those shots? But as Durant argued, players aren't going to work on that shot if they're being told by coaches and the analytics department to not practice it. Taking that area of the game away from a talented shot creator like LaVine limits the ways in which he can make an impact offensively.
It also makes the Bulls that much easier to guard for opposing teams. The Bulls attempted just 7.6 mid-range jumpers per game this season, which ranks 25th in the league. Without that mid-range game, it made their offense predictable, which wouldn't be a problem if this roster was built like the Utah Jazz, who attempted the same number of mid-range jumpers as the Bulls, but also led the league in 3-point percentage (38 percent) on 35.2 attempts per game. Chicago wasn't efficient at shooting 3s this season, so taking out an entire area of the floor where the players shouldn't score from makes no sense.
It's not just the Bulls, though. It's a league-wide trend. Teams are relying more and more on advanced analytics, which are saying that mid-range jumpers aren't as valuable or as efficient a shot as points in the paint and 3-pointers. While on paper that may be true, not every team in the league is built to exclusively adhere to those analytics, and Chicago certainly falls under that category.
Luckily, though, Donovan's comments at the introductory press conference should mean that the Bulls will look slightly different on offense next season. Although Chicago doesn't have a floor general with the mid-range game comparable to Chris Paul that Donovan had in Oklahoma City, you can still bet that he's going to play to the strengths of his players. That means that someone like Lauri Markkanen may finally be able to showcase the entirety of his skills, rather than be relegated to a spot-up 3-point shooter most of the time.
In Markkanen's first two years, he showed great promise as a skilled 7-foot forward who could score at all three levels, displayed sneaky athleticism as well as the ability to put the ball on the floor and create for himself a bit. He averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds in his sophomore campaign. However, in Year 3, he significantly regressed. He wasn't being used in the ways that made him special in his second season, and it created frustration for the Finnish big man to the point where in April he reportedly told the franchise that he would like to be traded if changes weren't made.
Chicago clearly got the message, because it began to clean house. As I wrote a few months back, Markkanen is a more dangerous player when he's given more freedom on offense. In his second season he cut to the basket more, led the charge in transition and was allowed to put the ball on the floor and pull up from mid-range at a higher rate than what Jim Boylen and the Bulls had him doing this season. As a result, he was far more difficult to guard because he could score in a variety of ways.
With a new regime in Chicago now, Markkanen's skills should be on full display once again.
Since Donovan entered the league as a head coach, his teams have routinely not shot 3s at a high volume. This season, Oklahoma City ranked 27th in the league in 3-point attempts (30.2), which is on par for what his teams have shot in the five years he's been in the NBA. As he said during the press conference, that's because he's been coaching players who have elite mid-range games, like Paul, Anthony, George and for one season, Durant. Donovan worked his game plan around the assets that were at his disposal, and it clearly worked considering he's made the postseason each of the five years he'd been with the Thunder.
That same line of thinking should carry over to Chicago, where he has players in LaVine and Markkanen who like to work in the mid-range, in addition to shooting 3s and attacking the rim at a high clip.
"I feel like it's going to be a lot better for guys, especially for me," LaVine said via the Chicago Sun-Times. "Like, if you have that part of your game, now you can use all of your tools instead of almost playing with one hand behind your back. You're supposed to shoot a shot that's open. Don't pass on the best shot. I'm not saying that we should be taking strictly mid-range jumpers, and I know [Donovan] doesn't think that, either. But if it's a good shot, you should take it. And you shouldn't feel bad about it, either."
From the sounds of Donovan and LaVine's comments, it seems like the Bulls are already on the right track in terms of how this team will play next season. And for key players like LaVine and Markkanen, that should instill some trust in their new head coach.