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Around the NBA: The directionless Bulls and trouble in the North

Let’s discuss a few concerning teams this week.

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NBA: Toronto Raptors at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like I’m a bad luck charm.

We already discussed how Phoenix began its downward spiral as soon as I talked about them a few weeks ago, and now the Pelicans have gone 1-4 after I wrote them a love letter in the previous article.

So, it’s time to reverse the trend! Let’s analyze some struggling teams this time in the hopes that their fortunes turn around, although these clubs might be better off blowing it up anyway.

One of which is the Bulls.

Pull the plug, Chicago!

Remember when the Bulls were first in the East to start last year?

Well, in 2022, they’ve now gone 35-44 in the regular season.

The only way to describe this team is just... meh. They have good pieces on paper including a supposed “Big Three” in DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic, but it’s probably more appropriate to call them an overpriced “Mid Three” instead.

Consider this: with that trio on the floor this season, the Bulls have a net rating of -2.5, which would rank 24th league-wide. In fact, their overall net rating is -1.0 (20th), so Chicago actually has a better point differential when their supposed three best players don’t share the floor together.

But if that’s the case, then what’s even the point of keeping them together?

Surprisingly, the Bulls’ defense (113.1 defensive rating, 12th) has actually been better than their offense (112.0, 20th), and there are reasons to be optimistic about their chances of being decent at both ends.

So far, Chicago’s defense has been a bit unlucky, as their opponents’ eFG% has been slightly higher (56%) than their location expected eFG% (55%). And although they give up a ton of threes (37.9% of opponent shots have come from deep, 7th most in the league), opponents are also hitting them at an unsustainable 38.3%, especially considering that they’re making an absurd 38.5% on non-corner attempts.

Does Chicago lack good perimeter defenders to stop those high-percentage shots? Sure, but history tells us that three-point percentage normalizes over the course of a season, so opponents will likely see a drop-off in their percentages, meaning that the Bulls’ above-average defense could be legit.

Offensively, this team is a conundrum. I expected them to run an iso-heavy system since they have DeRozan and LaVine, but the opposite has happened.

Chicago is third in passes made per game at 305.5 but 20th in isolations at only 6.5 — a shockingly low number considering they’re scoring at the second-highest rate (1.06 points per possession) on those plays. Interestingly, the Bulls are also 17th in potential assists (44.1 per game), meaning that their passing doesn’t really lead to efficient looks.

The whole point of making extra passes, though, is to generate better shots. So if that’s not working, why not switch to a more iso-heavy system? This is especially confounding when considering DeRozan is scoring an absurd 1.24 points per isolation, which ranks in the 92.4th percentile. LaVine isn’t bad either at 0.95 points per isolation, a rate that’s still above average (53.8th percentile).

However, they only run 5.9 such plays combined per game, and even though both are still in the top 30 in iso possessions, that number can definitely be increased — especially when factoring in their below-average offense.

If Chicago switches up their scheme, they could conceivably have a slightly above offense and defense. But what would that accomplish? They’re too far down the East standings (currently 11th) to grab one of the top six playoff spots, and even if they make it out of the play-in, they'll likely be first-round fodder for a legitimate contender.

With that in mind, the Bulls should contemplate a full rebuild. LaVine’s on the first year of a max extension and his trade value will likely only decrease from here since he’s already showing signs of decline after undergoing knee surgery in the offseason.

Meanwhile, DeRozan’s set to be a UFA at the end of next season, and although he’s performed well on his current deal, I don’t think it would be wise to reward him with another big extension that’ll end in his late 30s.

As for Vucevic, well, Chicago just needs to treat him as a sunk cost at this point. Ironically, the Magic were in a similar position to the Bulls when he was their go-to option, as Orlando was a low seed every season and consistently lost in the first round.

Oh, and to make matters worse? Chicago is only two games ahead of the Magic.

So, perhaps the Bulls can learn from their Floridian counterparts and flip DeRozan / LaVine for a package similar to the one they gave up for Vucevic. This will allow them to enter a rebuilding phase like Orlando, whose future is looking a lot brighter because of it.

Remember, the NBA is a copycat league, just like rhyming poetry.

What’s going on in Toronto?

If the Bulls should consider rebuilding, then the Raptors absolutely need to.

That might sound strange considering Toronto is ahead of Chicago in the standings, but the difference between them is that the players whom the Raptors can trade currently have peak value.

For example, Zach Lowe recently said on his podcast that OG Anunoby could command a return that “might be on par almost with what the Cavs gave up for Donovan Mitchell.”

If OG (a very good player, but not a star) is worth that much, can you imagine what teams would give up for a legitimate All-NBA caliber piece in Pascal Siakam, who just dropped 52 on the red-hot Knickerbockers?

Siakam’s had hot stretches to start seasons before, but this is the second consecutive year in which his points per shot attempts (116.2 points per 100 shots), which includes free throws, has been above league average (57th percentile last year, 58th this season).

He’s become a legitimate go-to option as an individual shot creator, as he currently ranks 7th in isolations per game (4.6) while scoring an eye-popping 1.05 points on such possessions (78th percentile). One of the more under-the-radar stories of the season has been Toronto’s reliance on Siakam — he currently has a usage of 32% (11th highest) and the Raptors have a net rating of +4.5 with him playing, which craters to -5.2 without him.

More impressively, Toronto actually has a 117.1 offensive rating with Siakam on the court, which would be good for the third-highest league-wide. That’s especially telling given their struggles to score over the past few years, but they still have an anemic 90.5 offensive rating in the half-court.

In short, Siakam is the biggest reason why the Raptors don’t have one of the absolute worst offenses in the league (they’re currently 14th), and he’s doing it all on high usage and above-average efficiency. I don’t think that he could be the best player on a contender but he’d absolutely be one of the league’s best second options, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a team also give up a Mitchell-like haul (if not more) to acquire him.

Another reason why Toronto should blow it up is because this team could get really expensive, really fast. Siakam will be eligible for a supermax if he makes another All-NBA team this year, which could be worth up to $300 million(!!!) over five seasons.

Meanwhile, Fred VanVleet has a player option for 2023-24 ($22.3 million) and OG has one as well in 2024-25 ($19.9 million). Both of them will undoubtedly be looking for raises from their current deals, and that doesn’t even factor in the rookie supermax extension that Scottie Barnes will likely sign in 2025.

In short, keeping everyone together would lock in this Raptors core for the foreseeable future, and while they’ve proven to be a good team in the past, it’s not one that could realistically compete for the title.

Considering everything, it seems smart to gauge the market on Siakam, OG, and FVV. Toronto already has a cornerstone piece in Barnes, and if they do trade any (or all three) of those players, they’d have a war chest of assets that would rival any team in the league.

If that doesn’t happen, the Raptors would be stuck in the worst place: the NBA’s mushy middle.

This week, please check out Jesus’ article on Tre Jones’ play in transition! As always, there’s a great blend of stats and video analysis that makes for a great piece.

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you’ll all get to spend some great time with your loved ones.

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.