The Chicago Bulls are putting the finishing touches on their 2014-15 team, and they now easily have the best offensive roster since Tom Thibodeau became the head coach. With three simple adjustments to his coaching philosophy, the Bulls can compete for an NBA title.
The Bulls have had brilliant defenses during Thibodeau’s tenure. In fact, according to Basketball-Reference they have the lowest defensive rating in the Association since he took the position in 2010-11. They don’t need to worry about defense.
However, on the other end of the ball, they are only 17th over the same span.
Additionally, in three of the four years with Thibodeau at the helm, they’ve underperformed in the postseason compared to what their seeding would suggest. In the 2011 postseason, they finished first in the NBA but were ousted in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2012, they finished first but were beaten in the first round. Last year, they had the No. 4 seed and lost in the opening round.
Ergo, for the Bulls to improve, they’ll need to address two things: offense and underachieving in the playoffs. If Thibodeau can incorporate just three things, Chicago should be able to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. They are: embracing, spacing and pacing.
But one thing needs to be touched on prior to elaborating on those. I need to do a little erasing of a common misconception held by NBA fans and some analysts.
The misconception is that “shot-creating” is the all-important talent a team must have in order to win. That’s not nearly as true as you might think, and the numbers prove it.
Every shot is either assisted or created, i.e., it’s either from someone off the dribble or someone passing the shooter the ball. The relative significance of each is distorted. The general idea seems to be that the teams with the best “shot creators” tend to be the elite offenses.
Curious as to whether this was true, and using the tracking data made available at NBA.com/STATS, I broke field goals up into three categories: unassisted, primary assists (i.e., only one pass to create the shot) and secondary assists (two passes to create the shot) and totaled them by team.
I then ranked the teams, 1-30 in each category. Then, I compared those results with the top 10 teams in offensive rating to determine which categories were the most relevant to scoring efficiently. On average, they were ranked 14.4 in unassisted field goals, 12.2 in primary assists and 12.3 in secondary assists.
In other words, of the three shot types, the least impactful on an elite offense was unassisted field goals. In fact, the Los Angeles Clippers, who led the league in offensive rating, were only 26th. The San Antonio Spurs, who won the NBA title, were 21st. However, they were first in secondary assists and fourth in primary assists.
In other words, it’s passing, not dribbling that makes an offense elite. The Bulls were a decent passing team, ranking fifth in secondary assists and 14th in assists off the dribble, but they were dead last in shots created.
Rose returning will help that. In his MVP season he had 516 unassisted field goals all by himself. That alone is more than half the 983 total unassisted goals the Bulls accrued this year on their own. That’s enough to vault them to at least average (1,288) in that category.
In one sense the Bulls are adding a shot creator, just by Rose coming back. The question isn’t whether they need one, it’s whether they need two. And while a second would help (and might come in the form of Aaron Brooks, per Aggrey Sam of CSNChicago.com), it’s not imperative.
The greater problem they had was in not making their shots.
I also calculated the league total for catch-and-shoots (meaning assisted jump shots). The league averaged an effective field-goal percentage of .518. Comparably, in pull-up situations, (or unassisted jumpers), the league average was just .403.
The Bulls were well below average in the former, .483, but just above average on the latter, .403.
While another elite shot creator would be nice, those come at a premium price. Failing that, adding shooting opens up a lot of avenues and could be better for the Bulls in the long run. And the Bulls did a good job of adding players who can fill up the nets from all over the court, but we’ll touch on that more in “spacing.”
The first thing that Thibodeau must do is embrace his full roster. One of the problems the Bulls have had the last two years, and last season in particular, is his reluctance to use his full bench. That’s not entirely his fault.
The bench hasn’t been very good the last two seasons. Many of the flaws on offense were unavoidable because there just weren’t players who could score. It’s as if someone gave a jet-engine mechanic a kitchen knife and told him to go build an airplane with it.
The best scorer the Bulls had after Luol Deng was traded on Jan. 7 was D.J. Augustin, a waiver-wire pickup who averaged a whopping 14.9 points for the Bulls. They didn’t have a single player who tallied 24 games and 15 points.
But now, the Bulls have added real scorers. Doug McDermott is the NCAA’s fifth all-time leading scorer and the Naismith Award winner. Nikola Mirotic is the reigning ACB Finals MVP and led the league in index rating, their equivalent to player efficiency rating.
And of course, Rose, the 2010-11 MVP is coming back, as is the bulk of the core who won 48 games, last season. Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah might not be most optimal first options in an offense, but when they’re the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, the team can score.
However, the new guys can only help if they’re on the court, in particular the rookies.
In his four seasons as a head coach, the rooks have totaled just 3,033 minutes under Thibodeau. Tony Snell has the most, 1,231.
Two of the Bulls incoming freshmen, Mirotic and McDermott, are far more NBA-ready than their predecessors, though, and should get more run.
Having said that, Thibodeau will have to curb his desire to yank them every time they make a defensive error. He’ll have to let them learn on the job. The same goes for Snell, who will be in his second season, but who fell out of the rotation late last year.
If Thibodeau embraces his full roster, it will go a long way toward winning.
Typically, when we think of spacing, we talk about stretching the court out to the three-point line, but I’d like to expand that notion to include utilizing all of the court, the middle, the perimeter and the parts in-between.
The Bulls were pretty bad last year at shooting the three. They hit just .348 overall, and with 508 total makes on the season, they were 26th in the NBA. McDermott hit .459 from deep in his college career. Mirotic shot .461 last season with Real Madrid. And shooting is the most easily transferrable skill there is.
In addition, Snell, whose shot always showed good form, has been developing an affinity for finding the net during the summer league. Mike Dunleavy Jr. can get streaky, but he’s been .402 from deep over the last four seasons.
And with all those other shooters, Jimmy Butler can probably rediscover the form he had in 2012-13 when he shot .381. He’s not as bad as last year’s struggles suggest, when he shot just .283. He’s just better off as a fourth or fifth option.
With all of those shooters, that takes care of the perimeter. But the mid-range game, while it’s something you don’t want to overuse, is also something you don’t want to ignore. Think of the court like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
When you’re spreading the jelly on the bread, do you want all the jelly on the edges and the center? Or do you want it spread all the way across the bread? Now that sounds like an utterly irrelevant analogy, but bear with me.
What happens if you do spread the jelly in the bizarre fashion? When you bite into the sandwich all the jelly will come spilling out of the side. Don’t think of the “jelly” as the offense, think of it as the defense. If you don’t make the defense cover the mid-range area, it’s going to “spill out” every time you take a three-point shot.
This is where McDermott’s talents really start coming into play and why he will be such a help. He shows good range all over the court. Here’s his shot chart from last season, tweeted by Bleacher Report’s D.J. Foster.
McDermott's shot chart last year. Pick-and-pops, pin-downs -- whatever -- get him open and get him the ball. pic.twitter.com/ut2PQ4JzCM— D.J. Foster (@fosterdj) June 27, 2014
What about the inside game? They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m going to save 2,000 words. Look at the Bulls scoring in the paint last year.
Now look at Gasol in the same area.
Notice anything different? I think that’s covered.
And Thibodeau appreciates what Gasol can bring, per Cody Westerlund of CBS Chicago.
He’s excellent in the pick-and-roll. He’ll read how the defense is playing the pick-and-roll. He knows the areas to go to, and he has the ability to make great decisions from there – shot, high-low, a quick swing. And he does it instinctively. And then he’s also very effective in the elbow area. So I think there’s a lot of different ways we can use him.
Thibodeau now has options all over the court, three-point, mid-range, in the paint and in the restricted area; he has players who can score from everywhere. His challenge, now, is to just let them play.
His offenses trend toward the predictable. He tries to force the ball inside, almost belligerently, with the end result being a bad pass resulting in a turnover or a forced shot being blocked (hence the #seered shot chart in the paint.)
Thiobdeau needs to learn to take advantage of what the defense gives him. He doesn’t just need to use his whole roster, he needs to use them at the right time. If he does that, the Bulls offense should be top-10 this year, and if they’re top-10 in offense, they’ll win a lot of games.
With all of that about pacing, spacing, trusting his roster, utilizing them at the optimal times and all that goes with it, there’s one more thing Thibodeau needs to learn: pacing.
He needs to learn when to not use them just as much. Thibodeau tends to lean too hard on his premier defenders. For example, after Luol Deng was traded on Jan. 7, Butler averaged 41.2 minutes, 2.2 more than anyone in the league.
Sometimes, it’s OK if the other team scores 80 points in a game. Sometimes, it’s even permissible to lose.
Normally, I try to avoid cliches, but occasionally they exist for a reason. Thibodeau needs to learn to lose the battle to win the war. He needs to learn pacing and letting his players rest.
Every postseason the Bulls scrap out every last victory, and then up running out of gas. He needs to learn to give up a game or two in the regular season to gain the extra series or two in the playoffs. Having the deep roster should help him to do that.
(The final paragraph is to be read in your best Walt Frazier voice.)
Thibodeau needs to be racing to be embracing the roster this season. If the Bulls can take care of spacing, their offense will be defacing and effacing every defense in the league. Finally, if they take care of pacing, they’ll be displacing the Miami Heat as the Eastern Conference champions. Then, maybe they’ll be facing the prospect of placing another banner in the rafters.