I've never been good at letting go. To this day, it still bothers me how reluctant the team was in running on-ball screens, specifically pick-and-pop action for a big man.
It's not a groundbreaking statement to suggest that the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau ran an unimaginative, old-school offense. We know what he likes to have within his offensive sets. A post presence is a must. The ball needs to his on the block. Inside-out play is required, both to appease his views on offense, but also to slow the tempo of the game to reduce the amount of total possessions, thus also making it mandatory for his defense. He also wants a streaming guard off isolation and/or pick-and-roll action. We saw Rose and Butler often taking it in turns in being 'the man' out high, pounding the rock and trying to create.
To say that the Bulls didn't use pick-and-roll within their offense would be a mistake. They did, but rarely was it used to free up a taller player to utilize a modern, 4 out - 1 in offense. When it was used, the role of the big was simply to set a screen and dive to the hoop, searching for the offensive rebound and put-back, or to be used as a decoy by dribbling towards a perimeter player, giving off a quick and short pass, generally to either Derrick Rose or Jimmy Butler.
As per NBA.com, the Bulls would rank 11th in points scored in possessions ending with the offensive ball handler finishing a play that commenced out of pick-and-roll action. They would also finish 2nd in points scored when a dribble hand off occurred. With the emergence of Jimmy Butler, the Bulls now boasted a star-studded back court. With two back-court players demanding field goal attempts, it's no surprise that the coach would attempt to free his perimeter players as much as possible.
Another avenue of scoring for the Bulls was through the post, namely Pau Gasol. When you go out and sign a gifted big man who possess exquisite skills and a delicate touch around the painted area, for an old-school basketball savant like Thibodeau, who likely fantasized about coaching Kevin McHale, he was always going to have Pau hit the block. Predictably, the Bulls would rank 10th in the league in point scored from post-up plays, as well as being 10th in eFG%.
Throughout the regular season, Chicago would get good results from these avenues of scoring. Unfortunately, the more they relied on it, the more predictable and easy to defend it would become, as witnessed in the post-season. The Milwaukee Bucks smothered Pau Gasol, sending double coverage to the post on many occasions, likely because of the 46 point demolish job he had done to them earlier in the season. They adjusted. The Cleveland Cavaliers, facing the Bulls, who would miss Gasol in games 4 and 5 with a hamstring strain, knew exactly what they were going to do - dominate the ball on the perimeter.
Gasol would have a terrific first season with his new team. Derrick Rose would finally play more than half of a season, the first time he had done so in two full years. The Bulls needed these guys to lead the team offensively if they were going to do anything of significance. That becomes a problem when neither scored efficiently in the playoffs, only averaging a 53.9% and 48.4% true shooting percentage respectively.
Fans are forever praying that the old Derrick Rose resurfaces, as am I. Expecting Gasol to remain as good as he was last season is unlikely. A decline will happen. The man just turned 35 and has amassed 34,911 regular season minutes in his career to date, not to mention all the post-season runs and national games for Spain he has played in. How could it not occur? The real question is how far will he fall off?
If these guys remain as two of the top three players in field goal attempts for Chicago, what can be improved to support these good yet potentially diminishing talents?
More help in scoring the ball isn't optional, it's mandatory. Jimmy Butler will need to continue to grow, but relying on three players to shoulder the majority of the offensive load, particularly when question marks remain on two of these players, it must be a goal to produce an evolving and dynamic offensive structure that has several options, with less predictability.
One way to achieve this is to continue to use pick-and-roll, though with a variations that enables the screen-setter to be more involved as a scoring option, and not just as a big road block for the opposing defense to move around. Fortunately, Hoiberg will have several options at his disposal to make this a reality.
Last season, very rarely would you see Chicago use their screen-setter as an offensive option. Finishing 27th in the league for points coming from the screener after receiving the ball on a possession-ending event, it was clear to the defense that they didn't have to worry about the open pick option, particularly when it was often Joakim Noah setting the pick and wandering aimlessly past high post.
(Speaking of screens, remember when Scott Skiles used to have Chris Duhon and Ben Wallace run pick and rolls? And do you remember he'd even do it when there were more or less no shooters on the floor? Remember the turnovers? Remember opposing coaches smirking? I'm going to stop reminiscing now...)
Jared Dudley had some interesting comments on a recent edition of the The Lowe Post on how the Bucks viewed Noah on offense;
He was just a little bit of a liability offensively, and we took a little bit of an advantage of that.
To illustrate the lack of points from a roll-man, in 2014-15, the freakish Anthony Davis scored 423 of his 1,656 (25.5%) total points as the roll-man in New Orleans. It was a big part of his game as he continues to develop his outside shot. Meanwhile, Chicago as a team only managed to score 451 points from their roll-man!
The Bulls, much to my displeasure, don't have Anthony Davis. They do have old man Pau, who still remains an elite jump shooter. Let's use him as such. Turning Gasol into more of a jump shooting big ala Chris Bosh in Miami, can assist in preserving his career by relieving him of the task of consistently posting and banging on the block. It also spreads the offense, especially if paired with Gibson or Noah, and creates more real estate for the driving Butler and Rose. It makes sense. No more Joakim Noah past 16 feet, please.
Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect of more pick-and-pop action is that between Derrick Rose and the emerging Nikola Mirotic. Ok, be honest with yourself right now, who hasn't dreamed about MVP Rose being paired with Dirk Nowitzki or Chris Bosh?
No, I'm not suggesting Mirotic is anywhere near the peak of these two players, but as a specific role within an offense, it could be very similar. With Derrick commanding the attention of his defender as well as the opposing forward, it forces the defense to make a decision - "Do I stay on Rose and double, or do I get back to the guy with the beard?" - Were teams pondering this thought if Noah or Gibson were setting screens? Only if they were stupid.
Niko struggled with the consistency in his shot in 2014-15, only shooting 31.3% on all jump shots, and just 31.6% from three. So, before we all get a little carried away and believe that from day one of the new season that this two-man game can occur on a frequent basis, those numbers need to improve. As he enters his sophomore season with more experience, more composure, and hopefully, a more consistent role, which sees him playing strictly as a power forward, his shooting percentages should get better. No more Mirotic at small forward, please.
This doesn't have to be done strictly in a traditional sense with a guard and big, either. Employing this strategy with the teams 1-2, 1-3 or 2-3 offers a nice variation, and again, gives the defense something new and different to think about.
Doug McDermott has an important season ahead. Only playing 321 minutes after missing time with a knee injury and being in Thibodeau's doghouse when he was healthy, the former Creighton star has an alibi as to why it didn't work out for him in year one. Still a relative unknown as an NBA player, the connection with Hoiberg and how he will extract the potential for Doug has been discussed ad nauseam. No more excuses exist. He needs to produce. Can the pick-and-pop help establish him as a role player for the Bulls in 2016?
Getting McBuckets involved as the screen-setter with Rose and Butler, two things can occur; it guarantees that the roll-man will be capable of knocking down the jumper, or that the defense stays at home on the pick, giving the ball handler has an easier path to the hoop. This type of play could potentially be used against poor wing defenders and those combinations lacking in defensive communication. It's unclear at this point if McDermott will ever be more than a spot up shooter and a situational scorer, therefore easing him into a rotation and building his confidence through points produced from the attention drawn from his superior teammates, is a start.
As for Rose himself, the idea going forward should be to treat him as if he has lost a step in quickness and lateral movement. It remains to be seen if that is permanent, though at times last season, it was apparent. Using this mindset, doing anything to make his life easier on offense will help him, but also others. Enabling high pick-and-roll, particularly with shooters setting the pick, gives the team new scoring avenues rarely exploited under Thibodeau. The lanes will widen, and as Kelly Scaletta writes on Today's Fastbreak, it can make Rose a better, more efficient player:
When we think of “spacing” we shouldn’t just think of three-point shooting. A shot inside the restricted area is still more valuable than a three-point shot. Last year, a shot at the rim was worth 1.256 points. A three was worth 1.161.
And Rose is going to get a lot more easy looks there than he did in last year’s two-bigs, pass-the-ball-inside, even-if-you-can’t offense that Tom Thibodeau ran last year.
The by-product of having screens set out high and past the three-point line with an intention of creating spacing and more outside shots is that inadvertently, you may also be recreating the old, penetrating and attacking, Derrick Rose. Sounds good, right?
With Gasol and Noah spending large portions of the game together, often within 16 feet of the basket, Rose would not only have to navigate past his own defender, but also likely through those covering the Bulls' power forward and center as well. Coming back from another knee surgery, was he ever going to find a rhythm and establish an efficient brand of basketball if he couldn't consistently get to the rack?
In order to get him going towards the rim, we should expect to see the 'Hook' set, a high pick option often used for Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane. This play will likely be carried over from the NCAA to the NBA, and will feature prominently when Rose requires a bucket.
Notice that in many of these variations the big setting the pick is often popping out to the three-point line? This not only offers the offense an additional shooting option from outside, it also creates a wealth of spacing for Rose, and even Butler, to do what they do best - attacking the rim.
If that happens frequently, Fred Hoiberg has a fan in me.
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