The Chicago Bulls had quite a productive offseason, even after whiffing on acquiring New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony. One of the primary virtues of adding Anthony was that it would have alleviated some of the scoring and shot creating burden on Derrick Rose, as he returns once more from a difficult knee injury. That was unfortunately not meant to be, and the Bulls, as they did when they lost out on the other marquee free agents in 2011, set about putting together a roster of good players, headlined in 2011 by Carlos Boozer and in 2014 by Pau Gasol, to fill in around their star point guard.
In Gasol, the Bulls have added one of basketball’s most skilled 7 footers, and a player who can still command a double team if he gets the ball on the block. This is a tremendous weapon for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. His philosophy on offense, he has made clear over and over, is to play inside-out and to move the ball from side-to-side to find an open shot. He will tell you this, anytime he is asked. It may sound like rote coach-speak when he says it, but it is actually what he wants to do, stated as concisely as possible. Last year, early in the season, before Derrick Rose’s injury, Thibodeau described to ESPNChicago.com what he wanted the Bulls to accomplish in half-court offense:
“If [the opponent’s defense] get[s] set we want to move them side to side. But we want the ball in to the paint. When you have a player like Derrick [Rose] who can force the defense to collapse, now you’re going to get some high scoring or very efficient shooting out of that. Everyone has the responsibility to hit the open man, keep the ball moving.”
There are basically three main ways to get the ball into the paint. There is the dribble drive, there are post-ups, and offensive rebounds off of missed shots. The primary method used in the modern NBA is the drive. Derrick Rose is typically one of the league’s most prolific and effective drivers. Of course, when the Bulls lost Rose for the season, they were forced to improvise and come up with alternative means of generating offense and especially to generate touches in the paint. This resulted in the Bulls having the third worst offense in the league, as they were only able to toss in a meager 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Only the tanking Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers were worse.
Without a real driving threat and without a big man who could effectively post up, the Bulls had no way to get the ball inside against opposing defenses, except flinging a shot up and hoping to grab the offensive rebound (they were actually pretty good at this, as their snagging of 27.2% of available offensive rebounds was good for 9th in the league last season). Carlos Boozer was supposed to be the Bulls post-up threat, but he was just not that effective last season and truth be told, always seemed fonder of the pick and pop jumper than the post-up. Taj Gibson was decently effective in his post-up opportunities, but he was also not much for passing once he received the ball in the post, as demonstrated by his meager 7.5% assist percentage. As a result of a sheer lack of options, then, the Bulls shifted their offense away from post-ups and drives and towards touches for Joakim Noah at the elbows. (Noah had the 5th most elbow touches in the league, per game, with 9.3). The strategy, though it resulted in a very bad offense, was probably the best of the available options. Noah created the most points via assist of any center, and it was not particularly close. For every 48 minutes he played, Noah created 16.8 points via assist. For a frame of reference of just how good that is, Noah was in the range of good point guards like Jose Calderon (17.1) and Jeremy Lin (16.6), as a 7 foot center.
With Derrick Rose back and looking healthy with Team USA, the Bulls have regained their most dangerous weapon and their best bet for getting the ball into the paint frequently. One tiny worry is that, save for end of the bench guard Aaron Brooks, the Bulls did not sign anyone else who has shown the ability to drive at an above average rate or effectiveness. Instead, it’s very likely that the Bulls will rely on Rose’s drives and the post-up skills of Gasol and Gibson to consistently get the ball inside to get high quality interior shots or to draw double teams which should open up their suddenly full complement of shooters: Mike Dunleavy Jr., Doug McDermott, Tony Snell (who appeared to have rediscovered his shooting stroke in Las Vegas Summer League), and Nikola Mirotic.
Chicago will continue to be able to use Noah at the high post, elbow area to facilitate offense and give Rose a rest from time to time, but rather than being the first, and often only, option, Noah will likely become the fourth option, a role for which his varied talents make him over-qualified. Gasol, too, has shown the ability to work well from the elbows, as he received nearly as many touches per game there (8.8) as Noah did last year. Part of that was Mike D’Antoni’s offense, in which Gasol was misused rather badly, but still, Pau can make it work from that area, even if he’s still best suited backing down an opposing big man in the paint. It is bewildering that Gasol received almost twice as many elbow touches per game as he received “close touches,” defined by SportVU as “touches that originate within 12 feet of the basket, excluding drives.” Gasol only received 5.0 close touches per game. As a frame of reference, Taj Gibson received 6.2 close touches per game, while playing roughly 3 fewer minutes per game than Pau, despite Pau being the much more accomplished and polished post player.
Gasol’s ability to excel in both the high post and the low post gives the Bulls myriad options, as they should be able to utilize high-low big-to-big passing if Gasol is paired with Noah or Gibson, with Gasol flipping roles depending upon with whom he is partnered. In addition, the passing that Gasol brings from both the elbow and the low block, along with Noah’s terrific court vision presents a potential nightmare for opposing defenses if they are forced to worry about Derrick Rose moving with purpose off the ball. This, in turn, should free up those shooters mentioned earlier, as their defenders are forced to keep an eye on Rose.
One set popular with the San Antonio Spurs, along with several other teams, which the newly formed Bulls could easily run is called “the loop.” Here’s what it looks like:
Now, imagine a healthy Derrick Rose in the Tony Parker role there, and instead of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, imagine Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. Sub in a couple of the Bulls core shooters into the other two slots. If you’re an opposing coach, how exactly do you stop that? You probably have to hope Rose either makes a mistake or one of the Bulls just misses.
The Bulls offense will further be unlocked by the opportunity to better use the popular HORNS set, in which two bigs occupy the elbows, a point guard initiates the set from the top of the key, and shooters start in the corners and patrol the perimeter or baseline looking for an opportunity for an open shot. In 2011, Thibodeau utilized many flex offensive principles, which were familiar to then-new Bulls Kyle Korver and Carlos Boozer from their time with flex offense guru Jerry West in Utah. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to see the Bulls run this fun little HORNS set from the flex playbook with Noah and Gasol at the elbows and Rose initiating the action.
These sets are just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities that the return of Derrick Rose, the addition of the extremely versatile Pau Gasol, and the Bulls added shooters have opened up for Chicago and Coach Tom Thibodeau. As a result, you can probably count on the Bulls being much better on offense in the upcoming 2014-15 season.
Statistics for this piece via NBA.com/Stats
Kevin is a man obsessed with basketball from a state where it’s often too cold to play it much (Maine). That’s okay, he’s better at watching than doing anyway. You can find him on Twitter: @NBACouchside or at his website NBACouchside.com.
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