Can one credibly make the argument that the Bulls have the potential to be a fun, dynamic offense next season?
Based on what we saw under head coach Jim Boylen last season, that might be a tough sell. But while the Bulls were by far the worst offense in the league in December, 2 months later they shot a lot better to boost their offensive rating to second overall.
The drastic differences in these results makes success at least a possibility. Holistically, this roster can do it: Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are to two different yet equally efficient scoring threats, while Otto Porter nicely compliments both as the necessary third option. Adding recent draftee Coby White to the mix will give the point guard position a burst in transition and catch-and-shoot option that’s been missing for years.
Though the above is nothing more than theoretical, it’s enough optimism to make a certain Nebraska coach swoon. Unfortunately, it’s also a lineup which features too many finishers and too few initiators.
That is why Wendell Carter is the most important player on the team, and why he should be built up to be the central passing hub within the offense.
Carter is the best and most natural playmaker on the roster
Carter showcased his burgeoning skills in the initial months of his career, but proclaiming his importance is more a product of the overlap and inefficiencies of LaVine and Markkanen. While both are talented, versatile scorers from all levels on the floor, both lack the necessary passing and playmaking skills of a prototypical lead option — as context, notorious chucker Antonio Blakeney (8.2 percent) posted a higher assist percentage last season than Markkanen (7.2 percent), while LaVine (22.6 percent) effectively assisted the same amount of made attempts as Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol (21.2 percent).
LaVine and Gasol having a similar assist percentage may be a coincidence, but instructive in that Wendell Carter possesses the same instinctive passing ability as Gasol. One option to seriously consider is featuring Carter within the offense in the same way Gasol has been throughout his career with the Memphis Grizzlies and, more recently, winning a championship with the Raptors.
Here, in only the sixth game of his career, Carter made it known his passing ability in the short roll is special.
Finding an open shooter in the corner may not seem like much, but it’s not everyday a 19-year-old rookie center has the intelligence to set a screen, act as a release option for when LaVine is double teamed, then have the poise and skill to turn and fire a pinpoint pass into the corner for an open, efficient look.
Having a roll man who can find and create corner threes is invaluable. Watch Gasol in a similar play to that above, only this time in game three of the NBA Finals:
Those passes from Carter and Gasol may not seem highlight worthy, but they should be. Having an additional avenue to create is invaluable for teams, and having a center who can do so is rare.
Take, for example, this bounce pass from Carter to Chandler Hutchison as he cut along the baseline. Carter is riffing here. He scans for options, finds an opening, then executes a play so few big men in the league see let alone finish.
Carter threading a pass through a set defense is impressive, but looking for and hinting at his fellow rookie to dive toward the rim is an example of the natural instincts the center has within his game.
In a similar possession, Gasol did the same in the Eastern Conference Finals:
Allowing the center to act as a fulcrum within the offense ultimately means the four other players can cut and space the floor. The Bulls have shooting from point guard through to power forward, so Carter being the Bulls’ Gasol is an advantage.
A “multi-ballhandler system” with limited playmakers?
Fielding questions post last week’s draft, among other things, Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson reminded us of the offensive ideals head coach Jim Boylen plans to instill.
Jim wants to play faster. Jim has a philosophy [that] the multiple-ballhandler system is something that lends itself to playing faster because you can grab the ball off the board, hopefully, and guys can push it themselves.
(To be a grab-and-go team, notably, you must force stops, something the 25th ranked Bulls defense rarely did. But let’s assume that somehow changes.)
The Bulls pushing tempo off misses and allowing any of their players to create in transition is something they definitely should do. But not all possessions start this way. More often than not, particularly late in games, a free-flowing game will be forced into halfcourt schemes. Last season, this often devolved into basic pick-and-roll and isolation action for LaVine or, worse yet, post touches for Robin Lopez.
In these moments, where defenses are set and the shot clock acts as a sixth defender, the Bulls will need more offensive creativity than simply throwing the ball to one of LaVine or Markkanen and hoping their raw talent can produce a bucket. That’s where Carter comes in, specifically as a passing hub from the elbow.
One of the more underrated aspects of last season was the budding partnership that formed between Carter and LaVine. As a combination, they found a rhythm in pick-and-roll, as showcased in the short roll, but also in the above clip where LaVine found an open lane to the basket by moving and playing off his center. Sets like this are a smart way to use LaVine’s quickness to create an easy score, but also helps to ease the burden on LaVine to create the bulk of his offense off the dribble.
Another way to do this is using Carter more in dribble handoffs. In game one of the 2018-19 season, the Bulls did that, sending the rookie toward Arcidiacono to create an open three.
Handoff action isn’t complicated. The Bulls need more of it, and they have the perfect center to do it. It worked perfectly in creating a clean look for Arcidiacono. Now imagine Carter dribbling, screening, and feeding a shot to LaVine, Markkanen or Porter.
The Bulls themselves limited what Carter could be throughout his rookie season. They would keep him on the block and away from the 3-point line, then only sparingly running the offense through him. That can’t happen in year two. And while he may not be Marc Gasol, using Carter’s passing in a similar manner is too valuable an option to be ignored.