Anyone who regularly watches the Chicago Bulls, before and after the Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott trade, has at least once (per game) loudly declared, “Who in the hell put this lineup in?” You aren’t just glitching in the Matrix. Fred Hoiberg does not have a handle on how to run a consistent rotation during an NBA game or season. The numbers prove this out. I’m sure there is a Kyrie-Flat Earth-rotation joke in here somewhere, but there is too much math to be calculated to take pot shots that will just fall off the edge anyway. So, let’s get right into it.
I’ll start with an important caveat: this team was designed by the front office to make zero sense and the roster experienced an incredible amount of turnover from last season. Experimentation with the rotation was very necessary to understand how this team would function together. That said: when you filter for five-man lineups that have averaged at least three minutes per game this season, the Chicago Bulls are tied with the also-poorly-designed Denver Nuggets for 4th in amount of lineup combinations used so far this season. Only being outdone by the chronically injured Pelicans, the irrelevant Nets, and the rebuilding Heat.
At 121 different lineups in 63 games, the Bulls are by far an outlier when you compare that to the average of 72.5 lineups for the rest of the playoff-bound teams. This should be pretty shocking for a team that has not had any significant injuries to contribute to the turnover in the rotation. This is just the tip of the iceberg. When you look at rotations that were used only once for more than three minutes per game, the Bulls bump up to 3rd behind the Nets and Pelicans in lineup combinations. These one shot lineups have persisted throughout the entire season.
The three alphas obviously don’t work together, yet Hoiberg continues to deploy this non-shooting lineup. The Wade-Butler-Rondo combo has averaged 14 minutes per game in the 38 games they have played together with a -0.2 plus/minus. 21 of those games were losses. This combo utilization has been reduced since the social media blowup between the three, but somehow has continued in five out of the six games since the All-Star break.
Let’s look at the post All-Star stretch. The trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott has opened up more playing time for some of the younger players and should theoretically remove the logjam in the frontcourt stabilizing the rotation. Bobby Portis has moved into the starting lineup, but in the six games since the trade, he has only closed in two of those matchups.
Denzel Valentine was part of the Wade-Butler-Lopez-Mirotic lineup that made the 17-4 run needed to force Phoenix into overtime and part of that same lineup for an overtime win. After playing 34 minutes in that game, Denzel has seen his minutes cut in half. Also, this effective five-man lineup has not been seen since. Cameron Payne has been forced into the lineup at sporadic times, as well. The only consistency with his playing time is that opposing teams seem to go on huge runs when he is playing and is yet to produce a positive plus/minus. Since the All-Star break, nine different players have closed games that have been tight enough to matter in crunch time.
In what way is this much experimentation with the lineup benefiting the team or even needed? I can’t find any tangible evidence that it is. Does this even matter, though? There is a positive correlation between good teams and fewer lineup combinations, but that seems fairly intuitive that good teams already have an established rotation. I think it is safe to say having a reliable and consistent rotation in crunch time is important, especially in the playoffs. The Bulls have not even figured that out yet, consistently giving games away in the fourth quarter. If Fred Hoiberg wants to coach his way into the playoffs, he has about a month to figure out one rotation that works.