Chicago Bulls still figuring out their identity early on

Now sitting at 5-4 after a 3-0 start that had some people thinking we may have underestimated them, the Chicago Bulls again can’t seem to make up their minds as to who they are as a basketball team.

Tonight’s 98-95 win against the Miami Heat, aside from being a homecoming of sorts for longtime Miami man Dwyane Wade, was a microcosm of what makes the Chicago Bulls a playoff team and what will assuredly get them sent home early.

Obviously, it’s very early in the season for Chicago, and there’s no reason to think that this team won’t make the playoffs (albeit at a bottom-4 seed).

That said, it’s not too early to pinpoint some issues that the Bulls will need to address as the season progresses if they hope to be more than what they’re shaping up to be at the moment.

For one, can the Bulls consistently figure out how to score when teams refuse to respect their outside shooting?

While the dynamic duo of Wade and Jimmy Butler continue to out-perform their career 3-point shooting percentages (though Wade had a tough night against the Heat, going 0-4), Rondo has remained woeful from beyond the arc or really with any kind of jump shot.

He’s currently shooting 25% from 3-pt range and 33% on shots outside of the restricted area, where he makes 71.4% of his shots. That’s something you notice on a scouting report.

While Rondo has never been known as a scorer and certainly finds ways to contribute without putting the ball in the basket—he recorded 12 rebounds in addition to 7 assists tonight—it is still jarring to see defenses utterly disrespect his shooting ability even on higher percentage mid-range shots (~22%).

Eventually, Wade and Butler will start coming back to Earth from long range. Whether or not the Bulls can manufacture ways to score when opponents close off the lane will be something to watch as the season progresses.

Also, when are we going to see consistent scoring from Chicago’s bench?

We finally saw Nikola Mirotic have a solid offensive game as a reserve after only scoring 8 points in his previous 45 minutes coming into this game. Doug McDermott has begun to show signs of more frequent ability as a scorer, going 5-10 from the field tonight for 13 points and generally shooting the ball with more confidence than he did earlier in the season.

But aside from the 23 points they combined for, Bobby Portis had the only 2 points scored by the bench. Last night against the Atlanta Hawks, they only accounted for 18 total points. Portis in particular has not provided the Bulls much so far this season by just about any metric.

Isaiah Canaan, a reputed 3-pt marksman, has yet to make his presence felt in the backup point guard role following the knee injury to Michael Carter-Williams, and the likes of Cristiano Felicio and Jerian Grant haven’t shown enough in their limited to time to really merit more minutes at this point.

Even if the Bulls can get 40-50 points a night from Butler and Wade, the rest of the team needs to hold up their end of the bargain.

And, perhaps most importantly, can they avoid long stretches of bad defense?

If you look at the overall numbers, the Bulls actually came into this game with positive net rating of 4.4 (OffRating: 108.8; DefRating: 104.4), suggesting that they’ve at least held their own on that end.

But if you watched this game, you saw a Heat team take wide-open jumpshot after wide-open jumpshot without even the hint of a closeout. Clearly, it didn’t hurt them enough to cost them the game against the Heat, but the lack of aggressiveness defensively certainly did hurt them in the loss to the Hawks the night before, a game in which they yielded 115 points.

After the game, Butler wasn’t glowing in his assessment of the Bulls’ effort on that end of the floor (via the Chicago Tribune):

“Everybody in this locker room, including myself, the coaches, we have to start knowing what we’re supposed to be doing. The scouting report, we pay attention to it. And then we get away from it as soon as that ball is thrown up in the air. We lock in on that and we’ll be fine.”

Yeah…you guys should get on that. Also, that’s part of the problem when you try to play lineups that involve Mirotic and McDermott. Someone, inevitably, will get open.

Overall, one can’t be disappointed with a 5-4 start to the season. Hey, if the season ended today, they’d even be the 5th seed in the East!

Yeah, I know. Not that exciting. If that’s where the Bulls ended up, of course, it’d certainly be more than I expected and perhaps give them a legitimate chance at lasting more than one playoff round.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s see some improvement and consistency first.

Khari Thompson

I'm currently a graduate student studying biology at the University of Notre Dame that follows sports (especially the Bears and Bulls) less like a hobby and more like a second job. Also a fan of all things dinosaurs. And Tolkien. Twitter: @kdthompson5

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