We are now 17 games through the 2016 NBA Season and the Chicago Bulls have the league's 27th rated offense.
It's time to start being concerned - There is evidence that offensive ratings historically become pretty stabilized after around game 15. If things don't change soon, we may have to resign ourselves to the fact that this is a mediocre offensive team that wins ugly games by leaning heavily on its defense.
The perplexing thing about watching this team though is that there are stretches where the Bulls' offense looks legitimately great. You can see that Hoiberg's philosophies are sound, but the biggest reason why Hoiball hasn't worked consistently so far is because the team isn't following Hoiberg's mantra: Go Fast.
The Guards Aren't Running
Fred Hoiberg's whole offensive philosophy is predicated on pushing the ball. Hoiberg spends hours dissecting primary and secondary transition sets in his coaching videos, and the central tenet is that he tries to apply constant pressure to defenses by attacking while they are on their heels.
In one video where he diagrams transition plays, Hoiberg shows exactly what he wants his point guards to do to jump start the offense. Hoiberg tells the camera:
"5 rebounds the ball, outlets to 1. What we like to do here is get the outlet deep with your butt to the sideline above the free throw line extended."
Hoiberg diagrams where he wants his point guard (1) on the whiteboard below:
Note how high up the guard is, above the free throw line to receive the outlet pass.
When other teams miss, Hoiberg needs his guards to catch outlet passes with their momentum heading down the court, crossing the half court line early in the shot clock and attacking before the defense has a chance to get back. When the Bulls have done this, their offense has been good. When they haven't, they've struggled.
|Time on Clock||Freq. Shots||EFG%|
The Bulls are taking a bulk of their shots with 15 seconds or less on the shot clock. The efficiency of their shots drops dramatically after they pass that :15 mark. In order to get shots in that early section of the clock, it is absolutely essential that the guard gets the ball down the court moving downhill on the outlet and RUNS.
Through the first 3 quarters of Saturday's game against the Hornets, the Bulls were showing how much damage they could do by playing this way. The guards were actually running, and the offense looked good.
For instance, look at the quality of shot the Bulls get when Rose chooses to push the ball here off a miss:
Rose gets the ball across half court at the :21 second mark. As a result, Nic Batum, Jimmy Butler's man, is way out of the play. Kemba Walker is forced to switch onto Butler but he's scrambling out of position. When Butler catches, Walker doesn't quite know what to do, Hawes is late on rim protection because he isn't set yet either, and Butler gets a layup.
All of this happens because the Bulls push the ball.
It's not just the guards that can push the ball either. When Joakim Noah grabs a rebound and hustles with the ball, the Bulls usually get better looks too. Noah brought the ball up himself last night on one possession, crossing half court at the :22 second mark. Noah got Kirk Hinrich an uncontested jump shot because Hinrich's man was pedaling backwards to stop Noah and couldn't change direction over a pick. Hinrich drilled the shot.
Time and time again, when the Bulls got the ball over half court quickly, they got great looks
The Bulls can do some serious damage when they push off turnovers as well.
E'Twaun Moore started sprinting as soon as he saw the potential for a turnover on this play. By beating his man down the court, he was able to get a layup. Even though he missed, it was a great look and Jimmy Butler was able to get the offensive rebound and shooting foul anyway by hustling down too.
It seems so simple. Get the guards to run and the offense works.
For whatever reason though, the Bulls haven't been able to do it consistently. Despite upping their pace significantly from last year, a huge chunk of their shots are still coming middle-to-late in the clock. And when the offense slows down, the results are ugly.
This was extremely evident in the 4th quarter of the most recent Bulls-Hornets game, when the offense began to sputter. The pace dropped from 100.5 to 91.4 and the offense correspondingly fell from an offensive rating of 100.4 to 85.2. The Bulls ended up being outscored by 9 in the quarter and losing the game.
Here's a play with 2 minutes left in the game. The Hornets missed, and the Bulls should have been sprinting down the court on this rebound as they were earlier in the game:
Catching an airball like this is almost as good as getting a steal. It gives you a great opportunity to immediately start sprinting down. Instead, the Bulls walked the ball up court, wasted some time, and ended up getting a Gasol long 2 that he missed.
Another example from the 4th quarter: Under 4 minutes left, the Bulls down 3, and they walk the ball up the court off a miss rather than sprinting on an outlet pass:
On the rest of this possession, they wasted some time passing aimlessly around the perimeter, got it to Gasol in the post with the clock winding down, and he missed a hook shot. This is especially bad because the Bulls were losing. They needed to play faster at this point to increase the number of possessions and give themselves the best shot at coming back from a deficit.
Fatigue should not be a factor here - only two players on the Bulls average more than 30 mpg (Butler at 37 and Rose at 33 - both below last season's averages). Hoiberg plays an 11-man rotation precisely so that the guys will be fresh and able to run. For this game in particular, the Bulls also had multiple days of rest since their last contest.
Time and time again, when the Bulls fail to run off of rebounds, the offense really struggles to get good looks. High paced offenses like the seven seconds or less Suns thrive on getting the guards outlet passes with momentum and crossing half court early. The Bulls must do this consistently to succeed.
Nothing in Transition
Another crippling factor to the Bulls' lack of early offense success is that they don't generate turnovers and don't get fast break points. The Bulls are dead last in percentage of turnovers they force their opponents into. Not surprisingly, they're also bottom third in percentages of transition baskets (and that's a big improvement from where they started the season, hovering near last place).
This may just be the personnel the Bulls are stuck with. They were 29th in turnovers forced last year as well.
A huge reason why Hoiberg's offenses were successful in college is because of transition baskets. However, the Bulls can't quite seem to utilize this key area and the offense has suffered mightily as a result.
Gasol Doesn't Fit With Fast Tempo
For his career, Pau Gasol is a great midrange shooter. That's not an efficient enough shot though to sustain Pau's offense - he needs to get touches near the basket.
Unfortunately, this hasn't happened at all. Gasol's shooting more long 2's than he ever has before and his post touches and shots at the rim are both way down from last year. It's not for lack of effort, though.
The Bulls start a large majority of their games with a set play to get Gasol the ball on the block. Either one or two guards will come down to set cross screens for Gasol to cut thru the lane and get the ball where he likes it.
The Bulls waited until the 2nd possession of Saturday's game to run this staple play. The problem with this and every other play designed to get Gasol the ball deep in the post is that it takes WAYYYY too long before Gasol gets the ball.
Rose and the rest of the team is pretty much standing still for a full 7 seconds waiting for Pau to get ready. Pau catches the ball with :11 left on the clock and when the first action doesn't work, they end up passing the ball around aimlessly and eventually turn it over with the clock about to expire anyway.
The Bulls went to Gasol on the 2nd play of the 2nd half too with the same type of play - the guards came down to set a double cross screen to set up a Gasol post up on the right block. Again, the Bulls wasted most of the clock just on the set up - Gasol caught the ball with :10 on the clock. He held the ball and slowly backed down, eventually missing a hook shot with under 4 seconds on the clock.
Those are wasted possessions. Hoiberg isn't at ISU any more where 35 second clocks will cover up a failed first action. If the Bulls waste 60% of a possession getting the ball entered into the post, then that play is very likely to generate a tough shot.
I've advocated trading Gasol because he's never going to fit in this offense. Gasol knows it too. He plans to opt out of the last year of his contract to test out free agency after this season and he's already started complaining about his lack of post touches to the media.
Gasol still has a lot left in the tank and can be great. If you're using him in a high paced offense though, it's not going to work. It's on its face absurd to ask a 35 year old center who has never been fast to start sprinting up the court every play. Trading him would be the best for both parties. He's on a reasonable contract that other teams would love to add and the Bulls will lose him for nothing if they don't make a move now.
The Bulls' offense can be fixed. I was optimistic as of last week. But there has been little improvement over the past week of games. The team remains inconsistent in pushing the ball and the offense is inefficient as a result.
Fred Hoiberg was brought in specifically because of his communication skills. He needs to use them to get the team to run. The front office painted Thibodeau as some sort of maniacal dictator that couldn't help but scream his voice hoarse in a room full of sleeping babies. If the problem really was that Thibodeau couldn't talk to his players and bosses and Hoiberg was brought in to fix that, then it's time for him to deliver. If it's a personnel problem, then the front office needs to give him the tools to succeed. Either way, something needs to change for this offense to get itself out of the basement.