The Chicago Bulls’ New Offense: Reasons for Optimism Despite a Rough Start

This offseason it came out that the Chicago Bulls were installing a new offensive system, which was to be based off of “read and react” principles.  The goal is, according to Coach Tom Thibodeau:

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.

Via: Nick Friedell, ESPNChicago.com

Getting the ball into the paint for shots close to the basket remains the most efficient way to score in the NBA, with the exception of getting to the foul line, so it’s no surprise that Thibodeau wants to emphasize getting those shots for his team.

The Bulls so far have done fantastically well at getting shots in the paint. They are second in the league, behind only the Houston Rockets, in percentage of shots taken within 5 feet of the basket, with 111 of their 250 field goal attempts coming in close. The Bulls are converting those shots at an above average rate, too, coming in 8th in the league in FG% on shots in that range, at 62.2%. As a result, the Bulls are third in the league in Points in the Paint per pace adjusted 36 minutes at 38.0, behind only the Sixers and the Pistons. All of this seems great, so why are the Bulls 24th in offensive efficiency at an abysmal 95.6 points per 100 possessions?

Turnovers

The Bulls are tied for 6th highest in the league in Team Turnover Percentage (TmTOV%) at 19.1%. A lot of that comes back to Derrick Rose playing out of control and forcing things, a topic which was well covered by Ricky O’Donnell over at BlogaBull. Rose has 17 turnovers in just 3 games for an average of nearly 6 a game. That’s obviously too many, but the Bulls have been averaging roughly 13 turnovers per game from non-Rose players, too. That’s a tremendously high number. So what’s driving all these turnovers? I went back and watched every turnover the Bulls committed over the first 3 games and what stood out was just how many of the Bulls turnovers were a product of lazy passes or miscommunications between a passing Bull and the teammate to whom his pass was directed. There were so many times when guys attempted to throw an entry pass just to initiate the Bulls base offensive set and instead just threw the ball away. It seemed like a total lack of focus, for three games running, on valuing possession of the ball. I mean just watch this montage I made of bad Bulls entry passes from the first three games:

Chicago is clearly making getting the ball into the paint a point of emphasis and trying to get it in to Carlos Boozer for paint catches. The problem has been that they seem to be struggling with the touch on those entry passes, as you can see from all of these needless turnovers. There have been a lot of other turnovers that derive from a lack of focus, like this turnover from Kirk Hinrich as he bounces a lazy pass to Mike Dunleavy Jr., which Carmelo Anthony easily sniffs out and steals:

Or this one against the Knicks, which was a team wide failure, starting with Derrick Rose’s not initiating the offense until 14 seconds remained on the shot clock, and then, the rest of the team seeming quite confused about what they were each supposed to do, resulting in a Jimmy Butler long 2 point jumper which was blocked by Tyson Chandler, forcing Jimmy to scramble to get the ball and then chuck up an air ball at the buzzer.

These kinds of mental errors and miscommunications are somewhat surprising from a Tom Thibodeau coached team, but when you consider: (1) they’ve installed a new offensive system, (2) their core guys all missed time during the preseason to deal with injuries, and (3) their starting unit had never played a minute together as a whole prior to opening night against the Heat, the miscues become much more understandable. I’d expect Tom Thibodeau will hammer out the kinks in short order, especially given that he’s had a lot of time between the Sixer game and tonight’s tilt with the Pacers to get in practice time.

Despite all the bad passes and dumb turnovers, though, the Bulls have still been getting the ball inside well and converting well on the shots they have gotten inside. So what else, besides the turnovers and resulting empty possessions, is causing the Bulls to be so bad on offense? Well, there’s this:

Jumpshots

The Bulls are shooting an absolutely abysmal 24.8% on all jumpshot attempts and an even worse 23.2% as a team from behind the three point arc. As a result of this terrible shooting from anywhere outside the immediate basket area (5 feet and in), the Bulls are 25th in the league in effective field goal percentage, which is just astonishing given how high a percentage of their overall shot attempts have been near the basket and the fact that they are converting those high percentage looks at a top 10 rate. This kind of jump shooting futility is certainly very unlikely to sustain. The Bulls might not have a lot of great shooters, but they do have guys who are better shooters than this awfulness. For reference, the Bulls, as a team, shot 31.5% on all jumpshots last year and 34.3% on three point shots, and all of that was without Derrick Rose creating open shots by drawing the defense’s attention. Going forward, we should expect the Bulls to shoot better on jump shots than their current terrible mark, which, if they continue their effectiveness at getting paint shots and converting them at a high level, should buoy their effective field goal percentage and their overall offensive efficiency to much more respectable levels. The turnovers and bad shooting still don’t tell the whole picture though. There’s one more piece of the puzzle that has held the Bulls back.

No Whistles

As I alluded to above, there is no more efficient way to score in the NBA than to get to the foul line. For a team that’s been getting a lot of shots in the paint, the Bulls have an absurdly low free throw attempt rate (free throws attempted per shot attempt), clocking in at 26th in the league. Derrick Rose, in particular, seems to have reverted back to his rookie days of getting loads of contact, but getting no calls. A team getting the ball inside at such a prolific rate and still getting so few FTAs per shot attempt seems like a circumstance that is simply very unlikely to continue. The Bulls were also unlucky in that they played their first three games against teams that were all pretty good at avoiding fouls last year. Miami ranked 22nd in fouls called against, New York was 15th, and Philadelphia was 25th. As a group, these three clubs seem to have done a great job at either not fouling or not being called for fouls, depending on your level of cynicism about NBA refereeing. Either way, the larger point is that the Bulls played a tough stretch in terms of getting calls on the offensive end, so like the other numbers, expect this one to improve going forward.

The Bulls have been below average to bad in these key areas of scoring efficiently as a team. They’ve still rebounded the ball well, which helped prevent them from being the worst offense in the league thus far. They’ve gotten good shots, for the most part. Looking at things from a process based perspective, rather than a results based one, there’s much to be excited about. The Bulls will shoot better. As they get more familiar with their new offense and their responsibilities within it, they will almost certainly clean up the unfocussed, lazy passes and miscommunication issues which have caused the turnovers which have been a big part of their early season struggles. Finally, they will probably (hopefully?) start getting more of the benefit of the doubt from the referees, especially if they continue living in the painted area.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com/Stats.

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