Chicago Bulls fans should get ready for something they haven’t seen in a long time: entertaining basketball. Together, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah give the Bulls the opportunity to bring an exciting offense to their already championship-level defense.
Folks, this is finally a movie worth seeing.
Oh sure, the Bulls have been winning games, even without Derrick Rose, but they’ve been boring. Rose returning is a big boost, but even when he was healthy, it was all Rose or nothing. What separates the new rendition from previous versions is the passing from the paint offered by Gasol and Noah.
This should be the best big-man passing combo since Vlade Divac and Chris Webber were helping the Sacramento Kings to light it up in the early aughts. In 2000 the tandem qualified for the assist title, averaging 7.6 dimes per contest. The Bulls’ new pairing could approach that mark.
The Myth and Reality of the Bulls' Offensive Struggles
To understand how much impact Gasol will have requires blowing up a common misconception regarding the Bulls offense.
Ian Levy writes for Vice Sports:
Gasol gives the Bulls an opportunity to go even farther beyond the confines of what's proper and safe. For years, even with Rose healthy and attacking, their offense was as vanilla as it comes. It's time to move past vanilla, and let Gasol and Noah build a towering 38-flavor palace of decadent passing.
The solution to complementing Rose has never been a shooting guard who could both space the floor and share ball-handling responsibilities. It's been a big with the size to catch the ball in the middle of the floor and move it wherever it needs to go as the action revolves around him.
Levy is correct in pointing to the solution, but he also is buying into the myth of the Bulls’ basic problem. It’s not that it’s vanilla so much as it’s a “suicide” flavor, with a spoonful of all 38 flavors thrown into one disgusting milkshake.
On the surface, it looked like the Bulls were doing the same thing every play because all the plays ended up the same. The Bulls would try and cram the ball inside, and if they didn’t turn it over, they’d force up shots at the rim that wouldn’t be challenged.
After that failed, they’d try and stretch the court with their poor shooters, but that would seldom work either. So, in the end they would just resort to an endless stream of mid-range shots. As a result, per NBA.com/STATS, they had the fourth-highest percentage of their points come from the deadest area of the court.
What’s missed, though, is that they were running different plays to end up with the same bad shots, and that’s part of the reason they were so ineffective.
Hal Brown of Nylon Calculus did some fascinating research on what he calls “offensive variability,” which is how much a team varies its offense based on the different play types tracked at Synergy (subscription required). And it really sheds light on the Bulls offense.
Brown preliminarily conjectures two possibilities:
- Teams which vary their offense more, i.e. run all play types evenly, will be more effective because they are less predictable.
- Teams which vary their offense less will be more effective because they are doing the things they do well and not diluting it with plays where they aren’t efficient.
What he found is a strong correlation between lower variance and higher offensive efficiency. In other words, option No. 2 was right.
And guess which offense was the most variant in the NBA? If you said the Chicago Bulls you’re right. Contrary to popular belief, the Bulls weren’t predictable, they were just awful.
It wasn’t until Thibodeau finally landed on running through Noah at the elbow that the Bulls finally started to have a semblance of an offense.
After the All-Star break, with Noah in, the Bulls had an offensive rating of 105.0, per NBA.com/STATS. That’s still not elite, but that number equates with the 14th-best offense in the league.
Running things through Noah offered stability, and that clearly had a positive impact, but there were still limitations because of the other personnel.
All of that said, as with any such analysis, the primary question is causality. If variability and efficiency are inversely correlated, are teams less efficient because they are more variable?
Or are teams more variable on average because they are worse, e.g, because they have players who can’t fill defined roles, or because there’s nothing that the team is especially good at?
Homing in on those words, “because they have players who can’t fill defined roles” certainly seems to appear to be the case with Chicago. The primary problem it had was a lack of shooters. It was dead last in effective field-goal percentage, and only D.J. Augustin (51.4) and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (51.0) were above the league average, 50.1 percent.
At Nylon Calculus, Levy tracks expected points per shot, or XPPS, which he defines as:
An estimate of a team’s average points per shot value given their distribution of shots from different locations and the league average (from 2000-2014) per shot value of shots from each of those different locations. Essentially, this is a rough measure of the quality of a team’s shot distribution pattern.
The Bulls tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for 15th in how much they should have scored. They had decent shots, they just couldn’t make them. Based on the opportunities they had, they should have made 1.041 points per shot attempt, but they settled for just 1.036.
Even with that said, when the Bulls shot off Noah’s passes, they averaged 1.2 points. Again, this demonstrates how stability and continuity in an offense increases efficiency.
The two teams which exceeded XPPS the most were the Heat (plus-.106) and Spurs (plus-.102). Shooting well (surprise!) helps efficiency. And, oh yeah, those two teams were in the Finals. So apparently it helps with winning, too (double surprise!).
But shooting well doesn't just happen. It stems from stability and continuity.
How Pau Gasol Helps the Bulls Solve Their Problems
In other words, teams with efficient offenses have personnel that match their philosophy, do a few things really well and hit their shots because of it. And all of that helps with winning.
And this is where the Bulls' offseason moves come into play and why the Noah-Gasol show is going to be so worth watching.
First, the Bulls will have two rookies who should immediately become the best shooters on the roster: Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Mirotic made 46.1 percent of his threes for Real Madrid last year, and McDermott made 44.9 percent of his for Creighton.
Additionally, Tony Snell appears to be looking to improve next season, after sinking his treys at a 50.0 percent clip in summer league.
Finally, don’t ignore Derrick Rose's shooting. While his overall field-goal percentage was horrible last season, he was pretty solid in the catch-and-shoot. His effective field-goal percentage on those opportunities was 58.8 percent. Certainly, all his efficiency numbers should climb as he shakes loose the rust.
Bottom line: These kids can shoot. And this is pretty important because all the passing in the world doesn’t help if you don’t have anyone who can do that. We learned that lesson the last two years.
Now, let’s go back to the notion of offensive variability.
According to Synergy, the Spurs' most common play is the spot up, and their second-most used is the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll.
Based on points per play, they are first and second in those two categories, respectively.
Most of these were set up by running a “loop” for Tony Parker, where he ran through multiple screens to the rim, looped around and came back to the break.
One of two things happened, then: Either the screens freed Parker up for a shot, or the chaos caused by the Spurs' opponent trying to recover from all the picks opened up a spot-up shooter.
Hence, both play types the Spurs excel at—which account for 36.4 percent of their offense—are routinely established by the loop. Much of their other production, such as shooters coming off screens or the roll man, are ripple effects from the same play.
Variance doesn’t mean you only do one thing; it means you have one thing you do very well, and the rest of your offense spins off that. The Bulls are in dire need of that one thing.
Alluding to Levy’s earlier analogy, this is the cream in the ice cream. The 38 flavors are nice, but you need to have substance first.
And that’s where Gasol comes in. He was excellent as the roll man in the pick-and-roll last season, averaging 1.1 ppp. His favorite place to set the screen was at the elbow.
On the ball-handler end of the play is Rose, who averaged .93 ppp when he was last healthy in 2012, and that placed him among the elite in the league (top two percent).
Rose and Gasol running the pick-and-roll together is going to be lethal, but it’s also only the beginning. What that sets up is going to be what makes the Bulls so very, very watchable.
Tom Thibodeau said as much at the press conference introducing Gasol (h/t Cody Westerlund of CBSChicago.com):
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.
Now factor in Noah at the other elbow in a box set, and the Bulls have a ridiculous number of options.
The towering tandem will be setting screens for the hard-charging, foul-drawing Jimmy Butler, picking defenders and dropping the ball off for the sharpshooting McDermott or playing give-and-go with the speedy Rose. They will be the catalyst for the Bulls offense, making everything else work.
And in this sense, Levy is absolutely correct—and perhaps this is more his intent—in saying that a distributing big is the real solution to the Bulls' offensive woes.
The question which has been asked by Bulls fans since the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals is: “What happens when teams put a bigger wing on Rose and/or trap him?”
Now we have an answer. He can bail out to either Noah or Gasol, who can then drive the lane, feed the other big or have Butler or McDermott cut to the rim for the backdoor alley-oop. This offense is no longer Rose-dependent.
They can go in so many directions now. Set up a pick-and-roll through Gasol, and when the help leaves McDermott open, Gasol can see it and fire out a pass for the easy three.
And when the defenses start cheating on McDermott, go to the ball-handler half of the pick-and-roll and let “Ferrari” Rose drive down grotesquely open lanes to the rim for “I wanna go higher” dunks.
If all that is stopped, the interior passing game should be its own form of entertainment.
And then there’s the bench. The Bulls can bring in Mirotic and Snell and play four out with Gasol at the 5. Imagine what kind of lanes that can open for Rose.
Part of the reason the Spurs were so dominant in the Finals, is they had such a deep well. When one of their shooters was dry, they just kept priming the pump by going to their bench until they found something that worked. Then, that got everyone else flowing.
The Bulls are suddenly deep on offense, a luxury they haven't had under Thibodeau.
Chicago won’t be San Antonio or the Sacramento of old, but they’ll resemble both in some ways. They won’t be the best offense in the league, but they should be one of the 10 most efficient, and by the standard recently set in the Windy City, that’s a welcome change.
This flick won’t be another depressing drama; it will be an action-packed thriller. Get the popcorn ready because the Bulls are finally League Pass-worthy.