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Chris Fleming, The Bulls Offense, and The Power of Habit

The Bulls new offensive architect has his work cut out for him

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Phoenix Suns
Chris Fleming has the plan, but now he has to teach it.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls have stormed out of the gates this season, looked at one another, fist pumped to the sky, and taken a hard right directly into a privy trench. Not that any of us didn’t foresee this possibility, but it is a little hilarious to see so much unearned angst flying through the ether after a series of world class barf-and-slip-in-it performances by our young ladder-climbers. Remember: we were promised entertainment, not wins. Check the fine print at the bottom of your ticket.

So when Zach LaVine is still playing defense like he’s being controlled by a malfunctioning Xbox controller, I laugh. I hope you do too. Or the fact that the Bulls are dead last in the league in defensive rebounding and make rotations like somebody put molly in the Gatorade? I say smile at life and let it smile back. But if it’s your wont to set expectations and ponder why they remain unmet, I get it and don’t blame you.

It’s in that light that I find the Bulls offense so interesting, and only a handful of games into the season it’s possible to see what it can be, where it came from and what it looks like when its constituent parts inexplicably shitcan its core principles. But it all starts with lead assistant and offensive coordinator Chris Fleming, and a path less taken.

The preseason profiles have been written, but to recap: Fleming, a Jersey native, came to the NBA from Germany where he played before finding his way into coaching (how exotic!). Twenty years of Bundesliga basketball - including four championships and 2011 coach of the year honors - ended abruptly for him when his former team, the Artland Dragons, bounced his Brose Baskets from the playoffs, culminating in his firing. Let’s take a quick detour to show you the Artland Dragons logo:

Holy shit.

And then the Brose Bamberg logo:

What in the entire hell. No mascot, no mention of the city of Bamberg, might have been designed by the team owner’s idiot nephew in MS Paint… really an all-timer. What do you shout when you root for this team? Go loosely recognizable basketball logos!

I digress. Out of the Bundesliga, Fleming became the coach of the German national team before an opportunity arose to join the Denver Nuggets coaching staff, which led him to three years on Kenny Atkinson’s staff with the Brooklyn Nets egalitarian system. Credit him to the degree you see fit, but in his first year in Brooklyn, the Nets jumped from 27th to 7th in free throw attempt rate (FTr) and 28th to 4th in three point attempt rate (3PAr). And it is here we pick up on Fleming’s basketball philosophy and his impact on the 2019-20 Chicago Bulls.

It remains to be seen just how much of Fleming’s individual principles represent the totality of the Bulls approach, but a 2015 Denver Stiffs profile (which inspired this post by Nets Daily) helps set the framework of understanding how the Bulls intend to operate on the offensive end.

Fleming’s core principles are listed thusly:

1) Make the ball see you (move and present a target or you won’t get the ball).

Simple enough, but foundational. This is a system predicated on passing and movement; standing still is death. Importantly, it isn’t about constant movement—as you’ll see in the next principle, the Bulls should have four out on the perimeter at all times—it’s about action in rhythm with the ball. At times the Bulls have done this to great effect. Watch Arcidiacono’s subtle cut to open a window for Coby White and understand the ripple effect of well-timed action.

At critical times, however, these new principles have crumbled under pressure leading to old habits and game-defining breakdowns. Easiest to identify is the clogged toilet possession:

So many things went wrong here. LaVine pulls the ball far enough out to overextend both passing lanes. But he wants a running start downhill to the hoop. Fine. Otto Porter false steps towards the baseline instead of curling back to the wing and presenting a target, allowing his defender to funnel and swipe in the paint. LaVine drives right into the teeth of the triple team and ignores a wide open Thaddeus Young in the corner. Andre Drummond has two feet in the paint before the drive even begins.

When times get tough, LaVine defaults to getting a shot up, no matter how ill-advised. It’s classic hero ball. In the critical final possessions of games, the lack of a true closer rears its ugly head.

Harder to hate but equally fatal are the possessions where the Bulls try to move off the ball but mistime their actions and do the defense’s job for them. This feels like a product of new teammates in a new system and should improve over time.

Doesn’t make it any less palatable though.

2) Fill 4 perimeter spots at all times (there will be times where guys are involved in dribble penetration, etc). Once you pass the ball as a perimeter guy and you have to go back outside. Corner, foul-line extended, high elbow gives you six possible places for those four guys to be - and only those spots.

Spacing is critical to make this system hum. When everyone is in place, there are clear driving lanes and passing outlets.

When it breaks down, yikes.

Everyone did cocaine in the timeout preceding this possession and you can’t convince me otherwise. It’s a cookie cutter game-losing possession saved by a miracle LaVine three, which would be fine except it emboldens a dozen future shots from him that will kill the Bulls’ chances to win.

The middle drive from the corner 3 spot is the best drive, because you can see the whole floor and all your passing options (Best court vision). There’s nothing behind you.

My favorite part of the Fleming system thus far. For the ball to reach the corner, there must be an initial drive or pass that pulls the defense towards the baseline. The threat of the corner three means there is a built-in driving advantage immediately upon receiving the pass, to say nothing of the initial action’s effect. Watch LaVine charge out of the corner and how scrambled the defense is already:

The defender ducks under? Rise up in rhythm:

What if it’s a big in the short corner? Rush out, set the screen and dive to the rim. This might have been my favorite sequence of the young season. Wendell Carter Jr. is really damn good.

Pick n Roll rules: Jump into and sprint out of screens. They have to be SET, though. Speed in and speed out. Higher ball screens can have less contact time, and lower screens need to be held longer. One dribble pick and rolls from the guard. Drop the pocket pass to the rolling big QUICKLY if it’s there.

Now we come to the biggest early issue with the Bulls offense. The way bigs are asked to work has effectively bamboozled Lauri Markkanen. Which is a little bit of a problem.

Look what happens when a big dives and immediately receives the ball off of PnR action:

That’s a great read from Thad and a shot that is open all day in this offense. To this point, Lauri has popped far more often than he’s rolled and it’s absolutely killing the offense.

Dunn—whose struggles finishing at the rim are Mueller Report-level documented—is left on an island as Lauri turns down the roll lane. Your nickname is the Finnisher, man. GO.

He’s also turning down massive driving lanes off of closeouts, which is even less explicable:

Likely as frustrated as we are, the Bulls give Lauri the aforementioned head start on a corner drive. Lauri comes off the screen, has a path to the rim, and dumps the advantage to the wing before a second defender commits. Welcome to Bummertown, population: Bulls fans.

If he were shooting better than 25% from 3 on the young season it wouldn’t be as glaring of an issue, but paint touches are critical to this system and Lauri is supposed to be a main fulcrum. To me, this is why Young is getting closing minutes over Lauri. If Markkanen can’t figure out how to roll to the hoop and make the appropriate read, he’s a minus on the floor. This is not a complicated system. Simple reads and defined looks create quick ball movement. Somehow, Lauri looks totally out of his depth.

This is the part where we pump the brakes and talk about habits. Ever made a New Year’s resolution? It’s all fun and games until day three without a cigarette, or waking up an hour earlier than usual to get to the gym on a rainy morning, or turning down dessert at 2-for-1 fried cheesecake night at Applebee’s. The Bulls are incorporating new parts into a totally new system and it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see it break down when things get tight just a few games into the season.

Zach’s fallback habit when things go wrong is to get a shot up, even if it’s a behind-the-back fallaway floater from three. Sato, as we are learning, turns into the most passive human being since George McFly. And Lauri, never having had the chance to establish early habits as a player, has turned into a walking ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Habits are powerful things and take rep after rep after rep to break down and re-establish.

As Fleming (and Boylen, I guess we should point out) work to incorporate the new offense, that’s what I’ll be looking for. It’s one thing to have pet sets for preferred players to get ideal shots. It’s another entirely to ask players to eschew base instincts in times of stress, especially deeply ingrained ones. While the defense is an abject trainwreck with few signs of improvement, it’s fair to believe the early struggles on offense are more about growing pains than something fatalistic.