Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
Throughout the 2015-16 NBA season yours truly, ZenMasterMike, will be documenting the progress made by three franchises who, while at important crossroads, turned over their head coaching duties to great coaches from the college game.
Of the the three franchises I will be writing about the Boston Celtics were first to hire a rookie NBA coach, when they inked wunderkind Brad Stevens to a six year deal in 2013. Both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls followed suit two years later, OKC by nabbing long-time Florida coach Billy Donovan and the Bulls finally finished their long courtship of Iowa State legend Fred Hoiberg, pulling him away from his beloved alma mater.
These three franchises are in similar spots overall. The Thunder and Bulls specifically, as they are both franchises that have been title contenders for awhile and hope that a new coach can get them over the hump. The Celtics are in rebuilding mode after the end of the Doc Rivers era, but behind their creative coach they were able to make the playoffs last year in the pitiful Eastern Conference.
As of the time of this writing we are 11 games into the Bulls regular season and that is exactly where I will start with a look at the changes of the team I’m closest to.
“The Mayor” Enters Chicago
The Chicago Bulls went to the opposite end of the coaching spectrum this offseason, choosing the player friendly Fred Hoiberg. Hoiberg is lauded for the effectiveness of his up-tempo, three-point friendly, pick-and-roll heavy offense.
The objective of Hoiberg’s offense is simple: play with pace. If you listen to a Hoiberg interview you will probably hear the word “pace” five to ten times. Hoiberg does not want the Bulls to fast-break recklessly though, that is a common misconception, he wants the Bulls to definitely run when the opportunity presents itself, but he when he refers to pace he’s simply saying that he wants the Bulls to set up their offense early in the shot-clock rather than waiting 10 seconds just to run an isolation play.
Early returns are encouraging. The Bulls are just outside the top ten in PACE (measure of possessions used per game). They don’t score as much as they would like to right now, but they are making a high percentage (37 percent, 5th in the NBA) of their 3-point attempts without taking a heinous amount.
While the overall offense looks nice, there are more specific wrinkles that have me excited about this year’s Bulls.
Three Man Weaving w/Rose-Mirotic-Butler
Very early in games this year Hoiberg has had Derrick Rose, Nikola Mirotic, and Jimmy Butler run a quick three-man passing action at the top of the key.
So far this hasn’t been used as an elaborate play of any sort, but it is a simple action that gets the defense moving from side to side before the actual play is initiated. These are the type of ideas that made the Bulls turn to Hoiberg to begin with.
A main staple of the Hoiberg offense is the drag screen. This refers to a classic early offense element where after a defensive rebound or an inbounds pass a big runs down the floor with the point guard and sets him a screen as soon as possible. In case there was any doubt that Rose would excel at this aspect, here is a minute long video of players scoring off of drag screens (majority of them being a young D-Rose).
The drag screen is key to Hoiberg’s offensive attack, something I discussed in a previous post on his offense. In last night’s game against the Indiana Pacers Rose used a drag screen to perfection against Monta Ellis. In this play there are a lot of things happening fast. Rose takes the outlet pass from Mirotic and heads down the court quickly, and Pacers center Ian Mahinmi tries to yell out for CJ Miles (#0 on Indian) to matchup with Pau Gasol.
Miles matches up with Gasol but meanwhile Ellis frozen by a quick crossover dribble and stutter step from Rose, which is terrible for the Pacers since Ellis is already backpedaling against an accelerating Rose. The drag screen is very subtle as Gasol does just enough to make Ellis fight through Miles and himself. Rose takes this bit of daylight and scores with a nice off the glass finish.
Jimmy “The Human Swiss Army Knife” Butler
Under Tom Thibodeau Jimmy Butler became a defensive ace, and much later on, an effective scorer. But with a more offensive-minded coach the expectation is for Butler to become even better on that end. So far the results are mixed, he is performing just as well as last year right now (19 points per game compared to 20 last year), but he has improved in specific areas.
Butler’s shot IQ is as high as it has ever been, and he intelligently looks for his offense. He also has dramatically improved his field goal percentage on shots between three to ten feet, and shots 16 (or more) feet away from the rim. This spike in close and mid-range production can also be attributed to swinging the ball on offense.
Take a look at Butler driving to the rim against Toronto. This play contains four passes that get the defense shifting. When Butler finally receives the ball wide-open at the three-point line he gets two defenders running out toward him and blows right past them for the score.
So far the Hoiberg era Bulls have made sure to maximize the scoring potential of Rose and Butler, which bodes well for our title chances in the short term. But what is most impressive about Butler’s start under Hoiberg is that he is currently posting a career high defensive rating while taking on such a big offensive responsibility.
Joakim Noah Reborn?
One of the bigger storylines coming out of Chicago this year is the use of Joakim Noah in a bench role. They were many basketball pundits who saw the move as detrimental to the Bulls defense and morale, but so far it has been just the opposite.
Noah has helped revitalize the second unit on this team. Noah, like Butler, is currently averaging the best defensive rating of his career, he is raw statistics appear sub-par to the untrained eye. But Noah’s statistics are to be taken with a grain of salt because he only plays about 20 minutes a game.
His per 36 minute statistics translate to 15 rebounds and seven assists per game. Noah will probably start more and more against certain opponents, and if he keeps his current play up he could reclaim a spot with the starting unit soon.
Sidebar: MO’ SHOTS MO’ MCBUCKETS
With so many shots to go around in this new offense (10 players averaging at least five shots a game) is it too much to ask to get Doug McDermott more involved?
The second-year player is basically getting a do-over on his rookie season after getting little to no minutes under the veterans-first Thibodeau rotations of yesteryear. Under Hoiberg McDermott is getting 20 minutes a game.
In those 20 minutes McDermott is outclassing everyone else on the Bulls with a 67% effective field goal percentage (factoring in the importance of three-pointers), his 57% shooting on three-pointers is absurd and he currently leads the league with that figure.
Simply put, McBuckets has been on fire to start this season. If given a slight bump in his minutes –or even a starting spot — we could see McDermott shift back into that confident scoring role that made him a college basketball legend.
This Bulls team looks great to start off this season, they play with offensive continuity, using screens and lots of ball-movement to avoid stagnation on offense. They have increased the tempo and already moved up more than ten spots in pace rating which was 23rd in the league under Thibs.
While the nice offense was expected, the defensive excellence was not. This team currently has the best field goal percentage in the league (holding opponents to 40% shooting) and the credit should be given to the players, Hoiberg, and especially new associate head Jim Boylen.
The Bulls have played great pick and roll defense, and in general have about six guys with defensive ratings below 100 (which is very impressive). If the Chicago Bulls can continue to blend this great defense with a coach who refuses to let the offense fizzle they will have a chance at nabbing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Stay tuned for the next post in my series on college coaches transitioning in the NBA when I take a look at the Boston Celtics under Brad Stevens. This team is currently shocking the league with their current run.
As of the time of this writing (November 16th) the Celtics are on a three-game winning streak with victories over the Atlanta Hawks, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Houston Rockets. They play extremely aggressive defense and they share the ball on offense. Look for this entry sometime around the Bulls-Celtics matchup on December 9th.
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