The malaise of preseason basketball is done and I’m officially worried about the Bulls’ ability to create an efficient offense. Well, that’s not true. Ever since the Bulls front office put together their new-look squad, it’s been a lasting thought, one which resurfaced again after the Bulls fell to Atlanta Hawks.
If this has worried you before, coming up against a well coached squad who play low risk positional defense and force flaws to be exposed only heightens insecurities. And that’s exactly what occurred against the Hawks in the Bulls’ final preseason game.
It’s easy to overlook the Atlanta Hawks, particularly on defense. Last season, with Al Horford manning the middle, the Hawks ranked 2nd in defensive rating, allowing only 98.8 points per 100 possessions. Despite Horford’s defection to the Boston Celtics, early signs indicate the defense should still hold up with Dwight Howard coming aboard. Through seven preseason games, the Hawks lead the league in defensive rating, holding opponents to 91.2 points per 100 possessions.
Using their defensive prowess to halt the Bulls, the Hawks’ strategy to slow the Bulls on offense was to pack the lanes and force jump shots in pick-and-roll situations. As elementary as that sounds, it’s all that was needed. On countless occasions, the paint filled with bodies, allowing ample space on the perimeter. No dump-off pass could be made to the roll-man, nor did the ball-handler have enough space to produce an efficient take to the rim.
It happened all game. The Bulls’ only counter was to continuously run the same sets over hoping for change, though it never came. The Hawks forced the Bulls into this action all night, and it was easy.
Using pick-and-roll often, Robin Lopez’s large frame would repeatedly be used as the screen-setter to free Jimmy Butler from his defender. Trouble was, he’d find himself running into a defensive wall on most possessions.
Howard, positioned in the middle of paint, easily killed off many attacks towards the rim, allowing Butler’s man enough time to recover. Butler, who was pressured all night by two Hawks the moment he stepped inside the arc, would often find himself battling against a third defender. In the case below, Dennis Schröder was able to help off his man and join his teammates in corralling the live dribble.
As good as Atlanta’s defensive execution and planning was at stopping Butler’s penetration, they were assisted by Chicago’s poor roster design.
Rajon Rondo, a noted poor shooter, cannot be on the same side as the driving ball-handler. It’s asking for help defense to fly in and stop dribble-drives. Playing both Lopez and Taj Gibson — neither of whom are shooters — who can only score the majority of their points at rim, will also make life difficult for Butler when he tries to get at the rim.
Sticking Rondo on the weak side of the ball-handler to remove the threat of a help defender isn’t much of solution, either. Though it places him on the other side of the floor, it still invites his defender to sag off even further, as Schröder was able to do in another Butler-Lopez pick-and-roll set.
Butler is again met by Howard, knowing full well that Lopez isn’t getting the ball with Schröder joining him inside the paint. Replacing Rondo in the strong side corner with Bobby Portis helps remove bodies out of the lane, but realistically, Paul Millsap isn’t worried about a Portis corner 3-pointer.
By putting Butler into pick-and-roll sets with the starting unit, quality defenses won’t be tested by the Bulls offense. Nor will it have any trouble locking up the offense so long as Rondo is left open from the 3-point line.
Much has been made about Rondo and his rebirth as a credible outside shooter. It is easy to see why. A quick look at his 3-point percentage from last season (36.5 percent) shows a league-average shooter, which is something Rondo has never been prior — as his career 28.9 percent 3-point percentage would indicate.
An improved 3-point percentage should be noted, but it shouldn’t be relied upon as fact when it’s far more likely to be an outlier than the new normal. What’s more important in assessing Rondo’s ability as shooter is the types of shots allowed by the defense and the frequency at which they come.
Last season with the Kings, 80 percent of Rondo’s 3-point attempts were considered either open or wide open, with over 69 percent coming without a dribble, as per NBA.com. These figures suggest Rondo is only comfortable in taking open catch-and-shoot shots.
It also tells us he’s being left open for a reason; teams don’t fear Rondo as a shooter, even if his 3-point percentage is bang on league-average. Sure, his 170 attempts from behind the line marked a career high, but no defense is worrying about closing out hard to any shooter who makes less than one triple per game on paltry 2.4 attempts per game.
Until he’s guarded like a credible shooter, he cannot be considered one. The Atlanta Hawks clearly didn’t think much of Rondo’s improved shooting percentages, nor did they fear sagging off him to suppress more viable offensive options.
Kyle Korver is more than happy to allow Rondo an open look from deep, giving him six feet of clearance to get up a shot.
Schröder, too, has no qualms in allowing an easy 3-point attempt, instead choosing to take away any potential screen or post opportunity Gibson may have had planned.
It was a sound defensive strategy by the Hawks, albeit it simple. But sometimes, simple is best. Against the Bulls, a team who has built a roster better suited for 2006 than the present day, advanced defensive schemes aren’t required; stay off and in front of your man, play him for the drive and clog the lanes with help defense, forcing inefficient heaves at the hoop. That’s what Atlanta did, and that’s what works best.
Expect more teams to follow suit and use a similar tactic. It will become common practice against the Bulls as we progress through the upcoming season, and by constructing a roster full of noted names with little to no semblance of functional fit, it’s one they’ve forced upon themselves.