The Bulls are in big trouble.
Wait, let me structure that a different way.
The Bulls bigs are troubled.
“I’ve got to be more aggressive offensively and look for my opportunities,” said a somber Joakim Noah late Friday night after the Bulls loss to the Golden State Warriors. “Right now I’m not really sure where I can get them, but when they come I have to be ready and I have to be ready to score.”
Because Noah Friday in 17 minutes had his fifth scoreless game of the season; he has yet to score in double figures in any game despite averaging in double figures in five of his first eight Bulls seasons. He’s had fewer than five points in all but two games.
Noah is averaging a career low 2.5 points per game along with 8.4 rebounds. He’s shooting, the rare times he does, a career low 31.6 percent and 30.8 percent on free throws for a career 71 percent free throw shooter, likely a lifetime low. He’s at a seven-year low in rebounding and career lows in blocks and minutes played and the first season in his career, at least thus far, he hasn’t started a game.
Well, he does say he has his health.
“Physically, I feel good,” Noah insisted. “Now it’s trying to figure out where I can get opportunities offensively and just helping the defense. That’s it. I’ve to be more aggressive when I get my opportunities. There are less. But I’ve still got to still figure it out. It’s tough. Just trying to figure it out; keep working. But it’s definitely an adjustment. I feel like I’m rushing a little bit. I’m making too many turnovers. I like to help the team win. I wasn’t able to do that.”
And then there’s Pau Gasol, who hasn’t fallen to those sorts of extremes. But Gasol is averaging 13.8 per game, just .01 above his career low scoring season. And that was in 2012-13 when he was injured and missed 33 games. Gasol is averaging fewer than 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career and his 45.5 percent shooting percentage is a career low.
“I think you have to play to the strength of your players and the weapons,” said Gasol after the Golden State loss, ever diplomatic. “You have to utilize them; you have to maximize them. If you don’t do that you’re not being very smart.”
That was Gasol’s way of saying the Bulls had a substantial size advantage against Golden State, which had Draymond Green defending him much of the time, especially late in the game. Though Green is the kind of defender who troubles Gasol, like Dennis Rodman did with Karl Malone or Shaquille O’Neal and teams have done against Dirk Nowitzki to have success. Those players can have trouble against a 6-6 or 6-7 player who is strong and aggressive and plays them physically to their lower body, as Green did with Gasol. Still, Gasol hewed toward the philosophy that you don’t run with a team like the Warriors but use your size.
“We took a lot of jump shots,” observed Gasol. “I don’t think it was too many; for the most part we got good shots. We missed some really good looks at the end and they made them. I’d like to see more action in the paint myself and get better rhythm shots from outside. But we’re all trying to figure things out and I know it’s early in the season. But we have to learn from games like this to be a better team.
“There are plays that can be called,” added Gasol. “Sometimes we go one way and sometimes we go another. Especially when they go small they’ve got an advantage on the other end because they are going to spread the floor. But then you have to punish them on offense, make them pay for going small. That’s what we didn’t do; we don’t do enough. That’s the balance between our outside game and our inside game.”
Gasol’s tone was less accusatory than observational, more instructional and philosophy oriented. He wants success for the team. He just believes there are alternatives to the way the Bulls have managed, though they are a respectable 8-4 and play in Portland Tuesday.
Though Noah’s issues seem more puzzling than Gasol’s, the source is similar.
The Bulls are changing.
They are trying to evolve into a team that plays freer with more movement and fewer called plays. Plus, a lot of the Bulls offensive action comes out of dribble handoffs on the perimeter. And Derrick Rose, who was sidelined the last two games with an ankle sprain, has been the best working pick and pop and pick and roll with Gasol. Rose hopes to return in Portland.
The offensive sets are designed to get more three-point shooting, though it hasn’t occurred yet as efficiently as hoped. It would seem the Bulls need to especially find more shots and opportunities for Doug McDermott, who is third in the league in three-point shooting at 51.2 percent. After all, if you are not going to work inside/outside, then you have to maximize your court spacing shooters.
Nikola Mirotic had a bounce back game against the Warriors with 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. But he is shooting just 31.3 percent on three pointers after 31.6 percent last season. Perhaps a pattern is emerging.
He is a good shooter when set, but he still tends to try to manufacture shots too often, which is not his specialty. But he does know how to take advantage of the mismatches inside when he gets them.
Changes are most difficult for veterans. And not that Gasol and Noah are disruptive players. To the contrary, both have long been regarded as supportive, helpful team players willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
But both are competitors, Gasol having played on two championship teams with the Los Angeles Lakers and Noah a top five Most Valuable Player in the voting two years ago when he was Defensive Player of the Year. So both also have been frustrated over ther inability to help more, especially after a loss like Friday’s that was so close, and especially Noah.
Noah played 17 minutes as the Warriors continually backed off him because of his lack of offense, thus limiting Noah to 90 seconds playing in the fourth quarter.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was asked afterward about Noah and said Noah is doing what he is asked for the team, especially since Noah now comes off the bench.
“Jo, I think, has done a good job of kicking it out to our shooters when he gets an offensive rebound and that’s one of the things we talk about,” said Hoiberg.
But Gasol also can understand his fellow seven footer’s frustration.
“Try to give him positive messages and words,” said Gasol about discussing the circumstances with Noah. “He’s going through a struggle right now; just try to stay positive and play his game. It’s not easy. We’re all trying to adjust to the new situation; we are all trying to sacrifice part of our games for the benefit of the team or to follow the lead of the coaching staff. That’s where we are at and hopefully we will do the best we can.”
Of course, there is a long run strategy to all this as the fewer minutes now are expected to lead to healthier players in the post season. After all, Gasol, 35, did come up with a hamstring injury that was devastating in the Cleveland series after leading the team in total minutes played last season. And Noah, 31 in February, needed serious knee surgery before last season after pushing himself through so many injuries previously. Noah is a free agent after this season and Gasol has an opt out clause in his contract.
But both are much more attuned to the current circumstances as everyone goes through Hoiberg’s orientation. It’s also why basic training in the military is two months and not three weeks. New habits take a long time to develop.
Hoiberg has said nothing about the lineups or rotations is set and many changes and adjustments still are to come as he adapts to his players’ strengths and the style of play he favors and what he believes will work best for this team. Sometimes new coaches try different things and then find out some of the old stuff is better along with some new stuff.
It takes time for coaches as well. Though that’s no comfort to Noah quite yet.
"I guess be more aggressive,” said Noah. “It’s just frustrating right now, not being able to help the team win (Friday). Disappointing, but just come back next game and do better."
It will be the game plan for a lot of the team for some time to come.