The Return of the Bulls

For twelve seasons, beginning in 1986-87 and ending in 1997-98, the Chicago Bulls boasted a positive efficiency differential (offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency) every year.  And not surprisingly, this team was quite successful, winning 69% of its regular season contests.

Then in 1998 we saw the great exodus.  Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson all departed the Windy City.  Over the next six seasons this franchise had a negative efficiency differential, and again not surprisingly, only won 26% of its games.

Going from Bad to Average to Good

As detailed in The Wages of Wins (the following excerpt appears on p.156 of the paperback), in 2004-05 this team had a surprising turn-around:

The 2004-05 season appeared to continue the decline. After nine games the team had secured zero wins. After nineteen contests, the Bulls record was only 4-15, a pace that would give the team seventeen wins by season’s end. At this point, the Bulls became transformed. Over the remaining 63 games of the 2004-05 season, Chicago won 43 contests, for a winning percentage of 68%. Had the Bulls played at this pace the entire season the team would have won 55 games, a total that rivaled a few teams led by Jordan. In the end, their 47 regular season wins were good enough to return playoff basketball to Chicago. 

This is a great story.  But let’s delve a little deeper.  When we look at offensive and defensive efficiency we see that that the Bulls were not a typical 47 win team.  On offense the team scored 98.2 points per possession. But on defense Chicago allowed 97.1 points per possession.  With an efficiency differential of only 1.1 (98.2-97.1), the Bulls should have expected to win only 43.7 games (if you wish to see the equation, please click HERE).

This is important to note, because the next year the team only won 41 games.  Dropping six games in the standings suggested that Chicago had taken a step back.  But the efficiency differential of the 2005-06 squad was 0.7, which should have translated into 42.6 wins.  In other words, in terms of efficiency differential, the team only declined by about one victory from 2004-05 to 2005-06.  And any way you look at it, although the Bad Bulls of 1998-99 to 2003-04 had departed, Chicago from 2004-05 and 2005-06 were really little better than an average NBA squad.

Last year, though, this team took a big step forward.  Yes, in the standings the team progressed to 49 victories, the franchise’s highest wins total since 1997-98.   When we look at efficiency differential, though, we see an even bigger leap.  The Bulls scored 102.2 points per possession while allowing 97.0 points per possession.  The efficiency differential of 5.2 was better than the differential offered by the Pistons and Cavaliers.  So while the Pistons and Cavaliers won a few more games, it’s not a stretch to say the Bulls last year were the class of the East (even if only by a slight margin).

Going from the Team to the Players or the Players to the Team

Wins Produced is the model that links a team’s efficiency differential back to the players.  When we look at the Wins Produced of Chicago’s players over the past two years we can see why the Bulls improved.

Table One: The Chicago Bulls in 2006-07 and 2005-06

The big addition to this squad was Big Ben Wallace.  Wallace posted a 0.335 WP48 (Wins Produced per 48 minutes) in 2005-06 with the Pistons.  With the Bulls he was not quite as good. Still, both his 15.8 Wins Produced and 0.281 WP48 led the team.  And both marks were an improvement over what Tyson Chandler offered in 2005-06 (although not over what Chandler did in 2006-07).

Beyond Big Ben, the Bulls also were bolstered by the improvement seen in the play of Luol Deng (who went from great to greater) and Ben Gordon (who went from below average to close to average). 

Going Forward

One player who was added in 2006-07 that did not help was P.J. Brown.  Looking back at the 1992 draft, Brown is second in this class – to Shaquille O’Neal – in career Wins Produced.  So Brown has generally been very good.  But now he is just generally very old.  After offering only -0.7 Wins Produced last year, Brown has been let go by Chicago.

There are three candidates to take his minutes: Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, and Joe Smith.  Let’s start with Smith. After being taken with the number one pick in the 1995 draft, Smith embarked on a career where often he has been a bit below average.  His career WP48 stands at 0.065 while last year he had a mark of 0.083.  Given that average is 0.100, acquiring Smith should not make anyone that excited.  Still, he is likely to be more productive than Brown.

What might make Chicago fans excited – at least if “potential” is your thing (and I argued earlier in the week it shouldn’t be, so I am not being consistent here) – is the acquisition of both Thomas and Noah.  Each player came as part of the Eddy Curry trade.  Given the poor performance of Curry in his career, having either one of these players would be a bit of a steal.  Getting both is grand larceny (or some such term meaning more than a bit of a steal). 

To see this point, consider what each did his last year in college. As a freshman in 2005-06, Thomas posted a 0.452 Win Score per-minute.  Last year, as a junior, Noah posted a 0.398 mark.  To put these numbers in perspective, Greg Oden had a 0.402 mark last year.  Yes, I still expect Oden to be good.  And yes, there is a good chance that both Noah and Thomas will develop into above average players.

Last year we saw a glimpse of this potential. In only 966 minutes, Thomas posted a 0.105 mark.  Okay, that’s only slightly above average. Still, that is better than anything Curry has ever done.

With Thomas, Noah, and Smith assisting Wallace in the frontcourt, it looks like the Bulls can make another step forward in 2007-08.  Of course we have to assume that Wallace doesn’t decline further (perhaps a big if).  But if Wallace is steady, the Bulls should be better without Brown.

And since the efficiency differential of the team told us 54 wins in 2006-07, it looks like this team should clearly be a strong contender to win the East in 2007-08. 

Can they hold off the improved Celtics, as well as the Pistons and Cavaliers (or anyone else)? Well, this is why they play the games. Still, just looking at what this roster did in the past – which is a good but not perfect predictor of the future in the NBA – Chicago fans should expect a team that surpasses 54 wins.  And that means the Bulls — or Da Bulls — have returned.

– DJ

For a discussion of other teams see NBA Team Reviews: 2006-07

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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