Though Tom Thibodeau is typically renowned for his defensive brilliance, he's also—and quietly—an excellent offensive tactician. Without Derrick Rose and his explosive offensive game last season, the Chicago Bulls struggled to generate points.
Luol Deng, a fine player in his own right but hardly talented enough to carry an offense, was forced to carry a larger share of the scoring burden. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer saw expanded offensive roles. Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli mattered more than they should have. Nate Robinson, who has bounced around the league his entire career, dragged the Bulls to the second round of the playoffs after multiple miraculous performances.
But it wasn't just a matter of other Bulls players stepping up on the offensive end; intricate offensive game plans precisely attacked holes in opposing defenses to give Chicago every offensive advantage possible. During the regular season, Thibodeau drew up a counteraction to Miami's trapping pick-and-roll defense that required a big man to flash to the high post before Miami defenders could swarm the ball-handler. In the playoffs, Chicago continued relying on this action with a relatively high rate of success.
Here’s how it worked: When Chicago would initiate a pick-and-roll, its players knew the primary on-ball defender and the big man hedging would likely double the ball and try to force an errant pass. But before this double-team could cut off passing lanes and trap, another Bulls big would flash to the free-throw line area.
Instead of having to wait for the pick-setting big man to roll and be ready for a pass, the flashing big is already waiting. Therefore, as he catches the ball and turns, a two-on-one disadvantage on the perimeter is flipped into a three-on-two advantage below the free-throw line.
In the playoffs, Chicago varied its attack by slipping the pick-and-roll, a strategy San Antonio relied on in the Finals. But Miami's traps aren't limited to pick-and-roll situations. Any time defenders sense an opportunity to trap a ball-handler, they do so. Chicago, however, was ready and whipped out their high-post counter.
Here, Rip Hamilton catches the ball at the top of the key off a Boozer pin-down screen. But instead of finding himself freed up for a jump shot, he’s immediately attacked by both Ray Allen and Shane Battier. This action triggers Joakim Noah to spring off the left block and towards the foul line, hands at the ready.
Hamilton's pass doesn't come Noah's way, and instead finds Boozer on the opposite side of the floor. But because Noah has created extra distance between himself and his defender, Chris Bosh, he forces Bosh to choose: stick with Noah, or race out to the open Boozer.
At this point, Miami's defense is exactly where Chicago wants it: scrambling. Mario Chalmers leaves Jimmy Butler to recover on Bosh’s behalf but leaves Robinson wide open. Boozer quickly fires a pass his way, and Robinson knocks down the three-pointer.
Even though Miami did handle Chicago in the playoffs rather easily, it wasn't due to poor tactics; their overwhelming talent proved too much to overcome. And their main problem, both obviously and precisely, was the absence of Rose. What he brings to the offense is obvious: explosive athleticism, unmatched speed in transition and an ability to shoulder the scoring load while involving his teammates. But the most glaring hole in Chicago’s offense was a lack of respect for point guards.
Though Hinrich ran the offense admirably throughout the season, he was never regarded as a real threat to breakdown a defense and slice to the rim. As dynamic a finisher as Nate Robinson can be, his attempts at the basket are often restricted by an inability to get his shot off. More simply, he's too short and help defenders aren't threatened enough to over-rotate against him.
This is where Rose comes in. The threat of Rose is often enough to suck in defenders and open up shots for his teammates. Here’s a play from the 2011-2012 regular season, when Rose and Noah ran a pretty standard pick-and-roll. But Noah's screen is solid enough to give Rose a gap for penetration with a good head of steam. Dominique Jones, who's on the weak side, panic-rotates at the mere possibility of a Rose drive to the rim, leaving Deng by himself on the left wing. Rose finds him for the easy three points.
This is what Rose does: He draws attention. On the play above, it was drastic enough to cause a poor rotation. But often times it's subtler, such as momentary ball-watching leading to a backdoor cut. Hinrich, on the other hand, doesn't garner as much offensive respect. But it's more than his incomparable offensive explosiveness; it's how defensive adjustments against Rose make the game easier for those around him.
With Hinrich leading Chicago's attack, everything was a bit more mechanized. Less offensive talent dictated more rigid and over-utilized offensive sets, because there simply wasn't enough offensive creativity otherwise. With Rose at the helm, however, there’s a two-pronged effect: Specific offensive plays become less repetitive because the Bulls don’t need them as often, and possessions without a particular design aren't necessarily doomed.
This is particularly noteworthy in the pick-and-roll, the centerpiece of most NBA offenses. When Hinrich runs the pick-and-roll, defenses more commonly focus on the roller and play a zone-like contain on Hinrich. If he pulls up for a jump shot or drives to the rim, this is generally a win. He's not a creative enough finisher to handle secondary help in the restricted area, and the mid-range jump shot is one of the worst shots in the game.
See here, as John Wall slides under a Deng pick and Trevor Ariza doesn't even bother hedging.
There's simply no concern for Hinrich whatsoever; Wall barely even attempts to contest the shot. And there's good reason for that, because Hinrich only averages 0.71 points per possession on pick-and-rolls in which he's forced to shoot the ball, according to Synergy.
Rose, however, stretches defenses out. As one of the fastest players in the game, allowing him to build a head of steam is one of the most dangerous blunders a defense can make. That's why defensive big men often hedge the pick-and-roll hard against him, no matter where he is on the floor. They don’t want him turning the corner at full speed.
But every defensive maneuver carries risk. Extending defensive responsibilities well above the three-point line creates huge gaps of space, and a blown hedge can be particularly devastating. That's what happens here, as Detroit's Greg Monroe tries to cut Rose off before he explodes around Noah's pick. Monroe slides out a bit early, and Rose is able to split the defense on his way to a layup.
Here's the play in full:
Even though their 100.4 offensive rating last season (7th-worst in the league) wasn't very impressive, Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls did an admirable job recalibrating their offensive game plan. But the mere presence of a great player changes the landscape of any game. Defenses must tailor game plans to stop him; offenses can counter by capitalizing on the gulfs of space for non-star personnel; there’s a lot to work with, at least offensively, before the game even starts.
For the Chicago Bulls, that’s what Rose does. Even if he doesn't return to his pre-injury form right away, the mere threat of that possibility will help to unleash the full potential of Chicago’s offense.