Assistant coaches aren't always the embodiment of the teams they coach for. After all, a blend of philosophies, opinions and beliefs is critical to any coaching staff. But if Jim Boylen's two offseason hires are any indication, the Bulls could be in the early stages of a philosophical shift on offense.
Boylen has hired Brooklyn Nets assistant Chris Fleming and former Houston Rockets assistant Roy Rogers in the past month, adding two significant pieces to Boylen's staff in his first offseason as Bulls head coach. It's no surprise given the success that both Brooklyn and Houston had this season, but those two offenses appear to be ahead of the curve in terms of analytical approaches to the game. Here's why.
It's a small sample size given he was only the head coach for 58 games, but Boylen's Bulls offense wasn't exactly a model of efficiency.
The Bulls were 28th in offensive rating, 23rd in pace, 30th in 3-point attempts and 23rd in free throw attempts under Boylen. Granted, the weak talent pool, myriad injuries and shallow bench - and, really, a combination of the three - had plenty to do with those ugly numbers.
But pulling assistants from Brooklyn and Houston is a good start in trying to improve some of those numbers, if only from a philosophy standpoint.
It was no secret the Houston Rockets were going to lead the league in 3-point attempts. Moreyball was in full effect in H-Town as the Rockets hoisted 45.4 triples per game, breaking their record of 42.3 triple attempts from the previous season. That 2018 mark broke Houston's own 2017 mark of 40.3 3-point attempts per game. Yep, the Rockets hold the three highest marks for 3-point attempts per game in a single season. But we knew that.
The Brooklyn Nets haven't been far behind. Brooklyn averaged 18.4 3-point attempts in 2016, the year before they hired Kenny Atkinson and began their turnaround. Under Atkinson, the Nets have averaged 31.6 (4th in NBA), 35.7 (2nd in NBA) and 36.2 (5th in NBA) 3-point attempts. In that same span, the Nets went from 26th (33.8%) to 20th (35.6%) to 14th (35.3%) in 3-point field goal percentage. Their 55.6% true shooting percentage was their best in franchise history.
It's impossible to analyze the Rockets offense in some capacity because of how isolation-heavy they were with James Harden. Harden had 1,280 isolation possessions by himself in 2018-19, more than any other team had. The Thunder's 854 isolation possessions as a team were still almost 400 fewer than Harden's, and Harden had more iso attempts than the Jazz, Magic and Hawks COMBINED. Because of that, the Rockets were 29th in passes per game and 28th in assist percentage.
But the Nets were a boon. They've ranked 8th, 3rd and 8th in passes per game the last three seasons. The Bulls were 23rd in passes per game and 29th in assist percentage after Jim Boylen took over. The Nets were 18th in assist percentage but are just a year removed from ranking sixth in that category in 2018. It's a sure bet that the ball will be moving more next season.
The midrange is the least efficient shot in basketball. That doesn't mean it's bad to shoot them, just that it should be a last option on offense. The Bulls attempted 792 midrange shots in 58 games under Jim Boylen, more than the Nets (672, third fewest) and Rockets (396, fewest) attempted all season.
In fact, the Bulls were 14th in the NBA in midrange attempts under Boylen but 24th in field goal percentage (37.9%) on those shots. Of the bottom 13 teams in midrange field goal percentage, only the Jazz and Thunder were playoff teams. Houston was third in field goal percentage (44.1%) and Brooklyn 13th (40.2%). They didn't take them often, but the Nets and Rockets found the right spacing on those rare attempts and made a decent chunk of them.
Free throw attempts
The Bulls would have been a more efficient free-throw shooting team had Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter remained healthy. Still, Boylen's downhill offense didn't lead to as many free throws as it probably should have (the midrange attempts could have been a culprit). That wasn't a problem for Brooklyn or Houston, who ranked 4th and 7th in free throw attempts per game last season. In 2018, Houston was 3rd and Brooklyn 11th, while in 2017 Houston was 1st and Brooklyn was 7th.
Both offenses are predicated on playing inside-out, either finishing at the rim (or drawing contact) or kicking out to open 3-point shooters. Free throw attempts can be personnel-dependent (Harden set free throw records) but the Nets were second in the NBA with 24.5 drives per game (behind the Bulls) and Houston was 14th at 19.9 per game. Those tendencies will remain in tact but both Fleming and Rogers should have designs to implement to make the Bulls offense more efficient.