Better offense starts with better passing, and that's where the Bulls must focus

Better offense starts with better passing, and that's where the Bulls must focus

The Bulls' offense was a nightmare across the board in 2018-19. Certainly injuries played a part - we won't list them; you know them all - and a coaching change in December paired with a (relatively) major midseason trade made life difficult.

Pick a stat, any stat. The Bulls were bad in it under Jim Boylen.

Effective field goal percentage? 50.8%, fourth worst in the NBA.

Offensive rebound percentage? 25.3%, fifth worst in the NBA.

Assist ratio? 16.3%, fourth worst in the NBA.

Offensive rating? 106.0, third worst in the NBA.

Free throw rate? 23.5%, fifth worst in the NBA.

Sensing a theme here? It was bad everywhere. Granted, having to play Wayne Selden and Shaq Harrison a combined 43 minutes per game, and having Cristiano Felicio appear in more games than Lauri Markkanen isn't going to do an offense any favors.

The Bulls offense will improve if for no other reason than the roster can't be as snake-bitten as it was a year ago. It's a safe bet that Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter and Markkanen will play more than a combined 159 games.

But if you're looking specifically for one area the Bulls need to improve upon, it's their passing.

Let's start with the simple numbers (all of the numbers will be what they did under Jim Boylen beginning Dec. 3, unless otherwise noted).

The Bulls averaged 98.64 possessions, giving them the eighth slowest pace in basketball. They averaged 22.0 assists per game, fourth fewest in the NBA, and 14.1 turnovers per game, 12th most in the NBA.

Now let's dig a little deeper. The Bulls averaged 280.0 passes per game, the fourth fewest in the NBA (they averaged 295.3 under Hoiberg, which ranked 18th in the NBA; two years ago they averaged 302.0 passes per game, 15th most in the NBA). This is obviously a pace-dependent statistic - the slower you play, the fewer possessions you have; the fewer possessions you have, the fewer opportunities you have to make passes. But consider that the seven teams that played slower than the Bulls last season averaged 301.2 passes per game, and all were above the 280.0 mark. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies were 28th in pace and first in passes per game! Going slow doesn't necessarily mean passing less.

Fewer passes meant less ball movement. Less ball movement meant more time for defenses to adjust. One of this author's favorite statistics is the secondary assist, otherwise known as the hockey assist. It's a testament to ball movement and a statistic that the eventual NBA champion has led the league in each of the last three seasons and four of the last six; the 2015 Spurs and 2016 Warriors led the league in their respective years but didn't win the title.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the Bulls were dead last in secondary assists last season. They averaged 1.5 per game, and the Thunder were 29th in the league at 2.1 per game. Zach LaVine led the way with 0.6 secondary assists per game. After him? Bobby Portis (0.3), Jabari Parker (0.3), Lauri Markkanen (0.3) and Cameron Payne (0.2). The Bulls weren't passing enough, and when they did they weren't doing it in consecutive fashion to catch defenses out of position. There's a reason the Bulls were 29th in open 3-point attempts and 27th in wide open 3-point attempts. Defenses recovered.

But players can't get assists if the shot isn't made, right? How can we fault someone if they're kicking out to Shaq Harrison for 3, or passing to a cutting Kris Dunn? The NBA's got us covered there, too.

The Bulls were last in potential assists per game (37.5). And like the passes, this isn't all about pace. The seven slower teams than the Bulls averaged 44.6 potential assists per game, and two actually ranked in the top-10 of the category (Orlando was 3rd, Denver was 9th).

Lastly, the Bulls assisted on just 54% of their made field goals. That ranked 29th in the NBA, a slight tick behind the James Harden-led, ISO-heavy Houston Rockets (53.7%). In the 24 games under Hoiberg last season, the Bulls assisted on 57.5% of their field goals, 17th best in the NBA. In 2017-18, the Bulls were actually eighth in this category, assisting on 60.7% of their made baskets.

The one saving grace in the passing department was that the Bulls managed to take care of the ball. Seriously. They committed turnovers on 13.7% of their possessions, which ranked a respectable 18th in the NBA. It's a credit to Boylen attempting to get the Bulls back to the basics, not forcing too much action and, as always, slowing the pace. Then again, fewer passes mean fewer opportunities for the ball to land in the opponents' hands.

Passing creates opportunities. The Bulls need to do more of it to get their offense going. Adding Tomas Satoransky will quietly make a big impact. After he took over the starting point-guard duties on Dec. 1, the Wizards ranked sixth in assist percentage (63.7%), third in assists (27.3) and potential assists (49.0) and third in assist points created (67.5; the Bulls were 28th in that category under Boylen).

Thaddeus Young isn't LeBron James, but even he is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 2.5 assists and had an assist rate of 12.0% (second best of his career). In 2016-17, Young was second on the Pacers in passes per game (38.6), ahead of Paul George (36.5) and Myles Turner (33.6). In 2015-16, Young was second on the Brooklyn Nets in passing (47.1 passes per game). He's a player who keeps the ball moving, and that will only help the Bulls out in the long run.

The Bulls offense has a long way to go. We wrote back in June that the additions of assistants Roy Rogers and Chris Fleming signaled a potential philosophy shift. The Nets ranked 8th, 3rd and 8th in passes per game the last three seasons, and Fleming will certainly bring new schemes to the table to get the rock moving when the Bulls have it in their hands. Past that, it's on Boylen to continue gravitating toward new schemes that push tempo and encourage 3-pointers. The Bulls have got lots to do, and it begins with how they improve as passers.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Special guest 5-time NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway


Bulls Talk Podcast: Special guest 5-time NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Jason Goff is joined by Chicago native and former NBA star Tim Hardaway

1:10       On how a Chicago kid went to play college basketball in Texas

6:15       On growing up a Bulls fan

9:20       What did Chicago basketball make Tim?

16:30    On starting his NBA career in Golden State

22:30    On the 90’s dynasty era Bulls and what he appreciated about them

25:25    Which players did he enjoy playing against the most

26:50    On today’s game and the point guard position

29:15    On the influence of analytics on today’s NBA

34:15    On balancing what a player’s skills are vs what the system wants

38:00    On Zach LaVine and his ceiling as a player

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Talk Podcast


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What to watch for: Bulls look to extend two-game win streak with Warriors in town

What to watch for: Bulls look to extend two-game win streak with Warriors in town

The Bulls get a shot at revenge against the lowly Warriors Friday night in Chicago. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

Warriors’ last five (1-4)

  • Dec. 4 — L at Hornets: 106-91

  • Dec. 2 — L at Atlanta: 104-79

  • Dec. 1 — L at Magic: 100-96

  • Nov. 29 — L at Heat: 122-105

  • Nov. 27 — W vs. Bulls: 104-90

One storyline for each team

After defeating the Bulls 104-90 in San Francisco on Nov. 27, the Warriors embarked on a five-game road trip that has featured visits to Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando, Miami, and now Chicago. Their first four stops ended in losses of varying severity to competition of varying quality (though mostly subpar). Tonight, they cap that swing with their fifth game in eight nights against the Bulls. D’Angelo Russell is back — he returned in their last game against the Hornets and dropped 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting — but that’s about all Golden State has going for them right now.

This goes without saying, but the Bulls need to pounce on this game — an eminently winnable one — especially with a road-and-home back-to-back against the Heat and Raptors looming early next week. In each of the two games of their current win streak (against the Kings and Grizzlies) they’ve gotten out to commanding first-half leads, then allowed their opponent to claw their way back late in the game. Their offensive execution down the stretch of the last two has been sublime (thanks, Zach LaVine), but substantive progress would mean a comfortable win, at home, tonight — especially having already lost to this Warriors team this season.

In the event that this game isn't comfortable (which feels more likely), look out for another Zach LaVine takeover. He's averaging an NBA-leading 10.3 points per game in fourth quarters since Nov. 23 (Charlotte game), shooting 54.3% from the field (5.8 attempts) and 68.8% from three (2.7 attempts). Him catching fire isn't something you want to miss.

Player to watch: D’Angelo Russell

Russell presents a challenge unlike any the Bulls faced when they played this team a little over a week ago. He's a crafty ball-handler, and can pull and drain from long-range from any spot, at any time and under any amount of durress. When he plays, the ball is in his hands a staggering amount — per Cleaning the Glass, his 34.8% usage rate is in the 98th percentile of ball-handlers in the league.

The Bulls have the personnel to hone in and give him fits, between Tomas Satoransky and Kris Dunn — if their length and activity can get Russell out of rhythm, the rest of the Warriors mistfit-laden roster will have to beat them. Granted, Golden State has done it before, and in convincing fashion for that matter. But the Bulls hope two straight encouraging performances in a row are an indication of things to come. This is also a great game to monitor how the Bulls defend Russell's pick-and-roll; he's currently averaging 3.3 turnovers per game.

Final point: Russell's misadventures on the defensive side of the ball are well-documented, so look for LaVine and Satoransky to attempt to feast on that end, as well. The Bulls mustered only 90 points against the Warriors 27th-rated defense on Nov. 27, but LaVine and Satoransky were lone bright spots, accounting for 45 combined points and seven threes.

Matchup to watch: The paint

One of the smudges on the Bulls' 106-99 win over the Grizzlies on Wendesday was the performance of Jonas Valanciunas, who totaled 32 points and 13 rebounds in his first game back from illness. He was absolutely bruising, and the Grizzlies racked up 52 points in the paint (compared to the Bulls' 32). That number is well above the Bulls' season average of 49.9 points allowed in the paint per game, which ranks 23rd in the NBA.

That figure might surprise some, given that the team anchors its defense with a versatile and heady center in Wendell Carter Jr. and a jumpy shot-blocking backup in Daniel Gafford. Jim Boylen has pointed to isolated blocks from Gafford and Carter, as well as 'our guys competed'-isms when asked about their struggles in that department. The Warriors have a roster stilted towards bigs and interior forwards, and notched 52 points in the paint in their last matchup with the Bulls, behind solid performances from Eric Paschall, Omari Spellman and Marquese Chriss. Thad Young missing tonight's game with a personal issue won't help here.

Further, these aren't your mother's Warriors. They're not a prolific shooting team and don't have the same plethora of perimeter shot-creators they once did. They're going to try to out-muscle the Bulls tonight, as they did on Nov. 27, and it's worth monitoring how much resistance the hosts put up.

Injury/miscellaneous updates

Bad news on the Otto Porter Jr. front today: The Bulls starting small forward and most solid wing defender suffered another setback, as a repeat MRI revealed a continued bone edema (i.e. swelling) in his left foot. He’ll be re-evaluated in another two weeks. Chandler Hutchison is still working out and running — and getting better each day, according to Boylen — but there remains no precise timetable on his return.

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