Last year was one of the first times we saw Fred Hoiberg implement a different offensive style with his Chicago Bulls team. Moving away from a ball-dominant guard and instead where spacing the floor and pushing the pace are encouraged.
The change in style was noticeable, as the Bulls were 11th in 3-point frequency with 37% of their shots coming from downtown. Chicago was also 6th in the NBA in three-pointers attempted at 31.1 per game. But while a better looking style, the results weren’t good at all. The Bulls ranked 21st in the league when it came to shooting the three at 35.5% and were second to last in the NBA when it came to overall eFG% at 49.7. It was clear Chicago was getting the shots you want nowadays (around the three-point line), but they weren’t connecting enough. The percentages weren’t helped by the horrendous shot selection shown by Bulls players throughout the season.
One way the Bulls can get the ball to their top guys for better shots is working more screens into their offense, specifically off-ball screens. They keep everyone in the offense involved, and more importantly it forces the defense to read and react quickly to the play going on. With players like Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, increasing off-ball actions can help them get open for easier shots.
Last season, the Bulls were 23rd in the league when it came to the frequency of their possessions which included an off-ball screen at 4.2%. They weren’t any good when it came to scoring off them, recording a points per possession rating (PPP) of 0.89, which ranked 27th in the league. However, it doesn’t mean if Chicago keeps trying off-ball screens they will continue to fail, especially with some of the offensive weapons they have on their team.
A lot of Chicago’s offensive action with Markkanen has him being the roll man off a PNR. It makes a ton of sense given how much of a matchup problem he is for opposing defenses. If a defender sags back, he can easily splash a three in their face. If they rush up to cut off the jumper, he can put the ball on the deck and drive towards the rim. He gets even more tricky to guard when Hoiberg runs plays where Lauri is the guy receiving the screen.
Here, the Bulls run a play similar to “screen the screener” to get Markkanen an open look. It’s a type of play they used sparingly at times and it often generated a good shot for the big man. This time is no different. Markkanen is the initial screener, setting a pick on the left side of Jerian Grant, allowing the point guard to dribble to near the left baseline. Right after, Robin Lopez runs in the path of Grant’s defender Russell Westbrook and forces him to go under the screen. Oklahoma City reacts to the “pick” set by Lopez by having Steven Adams step up to the perimeter to keep Grant at bay. This allows time for Westbrook to recover back to Grant. At the same time, Lopez is working on the opposite side of the court. After getting in Westbrook’s way, Lopez stops and turns towards the basket. Then Markkanen comes to the top of the three-point line, curling around Lopez to get there. Carmelo Anthony, who is defending Markkanen, was sitting way too deep in the paint and gets met by the screen of Lopez when he tries to recover. With his defender nowhere in sight, it’s an easy three-pointer for Markkanen.
(3:15 - 3:22)
Similar to the earlier play, Chicago has a man come from the weak side to get a quality three-point look thanks to an off-ball screen. This is time, however, the guy is LaVine and it comes against his former team in the Minnesota Timberwolves.
A lot of Chicago’s sets last season began with a dribble weave/handoff, a staple in Hoiberg’s offense. Although it’s reasonable to expect more of the same, it would also be nice to see the Bulls incorporate more off-ball screens as the initial action. It will offer a nice change of pace and keep opposing teams guessing. The use of screens will also create mismatches, which opens the door for some of the younger players on the Bulls to flash their playmaking skills.
This is a big year for Hoiberg. He has to improve this Bulls offense. And just because Chicago has added Parker, WCJ, and a more-healthy LaVine to Markkanen doesn’t automatically mean they will be good offense, it’s going to take some coaching for them to get there. His system has opened up spacing, the offense has looked more modern, and they are starting to take the right shots. It can be helped further by utilizing more off-ball screens.