By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
This week marks the first month of this season of NBA play, and while most teams still have yet to discover their true selves, humans love marking milestones, so we’ll use this as an excuse to thoroughly examine the 2018-19 Chicago Bulls to this point.
Sitting with a 4-11 record, good for 12th place in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are only being kept out of the Central Division cellar by a hapless Cleveland Cavaliers team. This early record was to be expected, however, the prolonged absence of four key players may have fans wondering if the Bulls are somewhat better than their wins and losses indicate.
Merely watching games right now won’t reveal the answer to those questions as Fred Hoiberg’s staff have shuffled lineups early in the season to find a winning combination (or at least the appearance of one).
While the Bulls are limited still in terms of talent and cohesion, they have proven to be a watchable product on most nights. Wendell Carter Jr. is blossoming, Jabari Parker is playing like a man on a prove-it deal (which might actually benefit both parties if Parker’s willingness to shoot submarines the Bulls in close games) and some pleasant surprises have emerged off the bench. So how to tell the interesting stories of the season’s first month? Statistics! Pull on your sabermetric goggles and prepare to take a deep dive…into the numbers!
The Zach Show
Zach LaVine has emerged as a top NBA scoring threat this year and he’s the probable choice to be the Bulls’ lone All-Star selection (though Carter should be in the Frosh-Soph game). LaVine’s per-game averages of 36.4 minutes, 27.1 points, and 86.2 percent free throw shooting are all career-highs, and he’s fifth in the league in scoring. Might those be empty calories, though? Take a look:
- LaVine is third among NBA starters in usage rate (33.7), trailing only Russell Westbrook and James Harden. His true shooting percentage (combined FG%, 3P% and FT%) is 58.5%, fifth of the top ten usage rate players and 31st of all NBA players who have started at least 10 games. However, that puts him 22nd of the 59 guards who qualify.
- Of the five players who have logged 500 minutes or more this season, LaVine’s 38.1% free-throw rate (free throws per field goal attempts) ranks second only to Joel Embiid (59.9), his FT% is third in the group, behind Kevin Durant (92.4) and fellow Bull Justin Holiday (90.9), who only has 11 FTA to LaVine’s 109.
- More charity stripe stats: in the first nine games of the season, LaVine averaged 19.3 FGA and 7.1 FTA, with two games of 10+ FTA. In the last five, those averages jumped to 22.4 and 9.0. (His field-goal percentage in the first nine games was 49.4%; in the last five, it’s dropped to 31.2%.)
- 98 players have at least 30 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter of games this season. LaVine’s 42.3 FG% is 62nd on that list, behind Jabari Parker (58.5) and Antonio Blakeney (48.9). Parker and Blakeney are second and third in three-point shooting in the fourth, while LaVine is 63rd.
LaVine has always projected to be a volume scorer, and the Bulls showed their commitment to building with him in the off-season, but those fourth-quarter stats show the Bulls need Zach as a second or possibly third option in order to be successful on a championship level.
The Most Famous Wendell Since Bunk Moreland
It’s hard for me to say more than I have already about Wendell Carter who has drawn praise from many Chicago opponents, including Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who compared him to a former All-Star and All-NBA center:
“He [Carter] had a great workout for us, Carlisle said. “I see him as another coming of an Al Horford type player, a guy that’s a force on the inside and he’s going to be a force shooting the ball from midrange and the 3. He affects the game in many ways.”
Not bad for a rookie with 15 games under his belt. On the rookie per-game leader-board, Carter is fifth in minutes, sixth in points, second in rebounds, and fifth in assists. When compared to 2018 No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, Carter stacks up very favorably:
Stats per 36 minutes:
Ayton: 17.6 PTS, 11.7 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 2.5 TOV
Carter Jr.: 15.8 PTS, 10.8 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 2.8 BLK, 2.3 TOV
It’s not like Carter was an underdog coming out of Duke, but he was widely overshadowed by international talent Doncic and his college teammate Marvin Bagley III in lottery talk.
Now, Carter’s game is attracting attention on the big stage, and he’s entrenched his spot as the starting pivot for the Bulls. (Oh, and speaking of stages, did you know he took up acting in high school?)
Archie and Hutch
Stacey King has found a new favorite catchphrase, and surprisingly, “Archie and Hutch,” beyond being a catchy pop culture reference, might be the Bulls’ most productive duo.
Ryan Arcidiacono has run the Bulls’ offense well in his three starts and his 5.9 assist-to-turnover ratio is the best of any player averaging 25+ MPG. Chandler Hutchison has taken a bit of time to find his footing in his first pro season, but he just missed out on a double-double against Dallas (nine points, nine rebounds) and his athleticism might reintroduce the old Jimmy Butler “backdoor lob” into the playbook.
There’s also this: of all the five-man lineups the Bulls have used this season, the Arcidiacono/Blakeney/Hutchison/Cristiano Felicio/Parker lineup has the fifth-most minutes played, but is the best in terms of net points and free throws made and attempted and is positive in most categories save for rebounding.
When Archie and Hutch have been on the floor together this year (138 minutes), the Bulls have outscored opponents by 12 points and shot better than them as well. They might be worth the poster.
Beast of the Week: Arcidiacono gets the nod here, as he’s made the most of his starts this week. We went over the assist-to-turnover ratio earlier, but Arch also posted a career-high 15 points against the Cavs (10 in the first quarter), then nine points, five boards and six assists against the Mavericks for a combined plus-15 over the three games prior to last night’s game against Boston.
Last season, Arcidiacono was a roster afterthought. Now, he seems a viable candidate for a spot in the rotation, his penetration ability and defense will need to improve (3.6 fouls per 36 minutes), but he’s been a nice surprise for the rebuilding Bulls.
Quick shout out to Shaquille Harrison as well, who has seized on the opportunity presented by his two-way contract. Harrison led the Bulls in scoring in last night’s loss to Boston and he’s been disruptive defensively, totaling nine steals in his last three contests.
Predictions for Next Week: A back-to-back versus Milwaukee and Toronto this weekend? That’s mean AND vicious. Don’t look for any surprises here, just more growing pains in the form of Giannis, Kawhi and Devin Booker dissecting the still-gestating Bulls defense.
Nov. 16 at Bucks – L
Nov. 17 vs. Raptors – L
Nov. 21 vs. Suns – W
One Last Thing: With the way Arcidiacono and Blakeney have played of late, I might have to change the name of this column to “Champagne and BENCHED.”
Until next week, keep your champagne on ice.
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR