Late last week while I was reading Lee Jenkins' wonderful Sports Illustrated profile on the Atlanta Hawks and Jeff Teague, a little detail jumped out to me: nobody on Atlanta is allowed to hold the ball on offense for more than two seconds. The two-second rule didn't necessarily catch me by surprise because Atlanta -- as I'm sure most NBA fans are aware of by now -- runs their offense with a heavy San Antonio Spurs influence. What did pique my interest, though, was that a principle like the two-second rule represents an inherent belief in moving the basketball.
On a philosophical level, great passing -- in my estimation -- is what makes the game of basketball so beautiful. It's an unspoken synergy that requires pristine timing and trust. It's part instinctual, part premeditated. Truly a marvel when done right. So, after reading Jenkins' piece I wondered: how often do the Bulls pass? And as luck would have it, the Charlotte game on Friday night provided perhaps the best possible sample for us to run a case study.
What I did was I charted every single Bulls' offensive possession in the game, but more particularly, counted the number of passes the Bulls made before attempting a shot in their half court offense. Take my findings as a rough estimate, though. I tracked every pass that was made once the ball was advanced past the half court line, but passes within a possession aren't always black and white. For example, fast break opportunities can muff things up. So just be mindful that what I'm presenting to you isn't formulaic in its nature. Think of it as approximated analysis.
Like I said, this Charlotte game was a really interesting one to track passes due to such extreme examples -- 60 points in the first half, 31 points in the second -- for us to observe. Here's the break down:
First quarter (35 points): 70 passes on 19 offensive possessions. 3.68 passes per possession.
Second quarter (20 points): 57 passes on 25 offensive possessions. 2.28 passes per possession.
Third quarter (10 points): 63 passes on 23 offensive possessions. 2.74 passes per possession.
Fourth quarter (21 points): 50 passes on 24 offensive possessions. 2.08 passes per possession.
Let's untangle a couple of factors.
First, you'll notice that the Bulls only produced seven more passes in the first quarter than they did in the third. Obviously, seven extra passes doesn't explain the difference between scoring 35 and 10 points. For the most part, the Bulls were just crazy efficient in the first quarter and capitalized on a plethora of open looks. However, there was one notable difference in the Bulls offense in the second half (check item No. 4, here). So let's look at some other findings:
In the first half, the Bulls were 6/10 on possessions containing five or more passes made.
In the second half, the Bulls were 0/6 on possessions containing five or more passes made.
Now, while the conversion rate catches the eye, what this tells me is that the Bulls were not moving the ball as fluently as the game progressed. Although, it must be mentioned that the Bulls were playing from behind the entire fourth quarter, which meant they needed to take quicker shots therefore resulting in their last nine possessions of the game containing two or fewer passes. But let's keep going further:
In the first quarter, the Bulls had four possessions containing two or fewer passes.
In the second quarter, the Bulls had 20 possessions containing two or fewer passes.
A possession yielding two or fewer passes will be known henceforth as a ‘Hinrich' because even when Kirk was a very good player, he always had a problem with over-dribbling. Don't dispute me on this. I know what his career numbers look like, and over-dribbling is fine if Steve Nash is the one doing it.
All in all, I found this stuff pretty interesting. Early on in the game, the Bulls were running a free-flowing offense with little-to-no post up action, but then after halftime that changed almost completely (it also didn't help the Bulls started committing a bunch of turnovers). Having empirical evidence to somewhat support how a game "feels" is nice. Tracking passes is something I'll try to do every now and again, and it's something I wish I tracked when Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler were healthy. Also, I have no idea how this one game stacks up comparatively to the rest of the league because pass tracking data like this isn't publicly available -- at least to my knowledge, it isn't.