Bulls

How Bulls are playing with ‘pace,’ but not dictating tempo

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Billy Donovan wants the Bulls to play faster.

That may sound strange coming from the head coach of the NBA’s second-ranked team in "Pace" -- a statistic that estimates a team’s possessions played per game. The Bulls average 104.76 possessions per game, 4.3 more than last season’s 16th-ranked group.

But in that number, Donovan doesn’t see high-octane, game-breaking play leading to the Bulls’ recent surge to 13th in offensive rating. He sees a reminder of the fault lines that have riddled his group.

“I think it’s good we’re playing fast,” he said. “But I look at it the other way too. The pace is one thing, but I think you also got to look at: How much are you scoring in transition? We haven’t scored very well in transition.”

Indeed, the Bulls are generating just 12.3 transition possessions* per game, 29th in the NBA. Their 10.7% transition frequency (which measures the percentage of a team’s possessions that occur in a certain play type) is dead last. The New York Knicks, who currently place 30th in pace (averaging 96.54 possessions per game), are 30th and 29th in each category, respectively.

And though the Bulls don’t rank quite as low in transition efficiency -- generating 1.15 points per transition possession, 11th in the NBA, on 60.9% effective field goal percentage, 18th -- it adds up to just 14.2 transition points per game. 29th out of 30.

 

When we do get out on the break, and we are out on the break, we’ve got to be a lot more efficient,” Donovan said Friday before the team’s eventual 127-125 overtime loss to the Thunder, in which they logged 105.06 possessions, according to NBA.com. “Some of it’s been turnovers. Some of it’s we’ve missed some shots.”

How much of an anomaly is it to rank well in pace but not consistently get out in transition? Five of the eight teams currently topping 102 possessions per night are also in the top third of the league in both transition possessions per game and transition frequency… Meaning three teams aren’t:

2020-21 NBA Pace Leaders’ Transition Tendencies

Team

PACE

Transition Poss/g

Transition Freq

Transition PPP

Wizards

106.00 (1st)

20.4 (5th)

17.6% (5th)

1.06 (25th)

Bulls

104.76 (2nd)

12.3 (29th)

10.7% (30th)

1.15 (11th)

Warriors

104.67 (3rd)

 

19.6 (8th)

17.1% (10th)

1.09 (21st)

76ers

103.59 (4th)

20.1  (6th)

17.6% (6th)

1.12 (14th)

Nets

102.98 (5th)

19.6 (9th)

17.3% (8th)

1.06 (23rd)

Heat

102.68 (6th)

15.7 (23rd)

14.1% (23rd)

1.15 (9th)

Timberwolves

102.17 (7th)

14.4 (26th)

12.5% (27th)

1.12 (15th)

Bucks

102.00 (8th)

25.3 (1st)

22.2% (1st)

1.12 (17th)

* Minimum: 102 possessions per game

 

The question then becomes: What could cause such disparity between pace and transition frequency? Especially one as seismic as the one facing the Bulls?

Speaking of his team, specifically, Donovan said myriad factors go into what is often cited as a standalone, self-evident figure. Two stood out.

“Certainly turnovers impact the pace of play,” he said. 

And, later: “Because our defense is down by the bottom of the league, it's certainly a lot more difficult to run on makes than it is misses.”

To Donovan’s point, the Bulls rank at the bottom of the NBA in turnovers per game (18.3, 30th) and turnover rate (17.3%, 30th). And adversaries are running off those cough-ups. According to Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time possessions, Bulls opponents are generating transition possessions* off of a whopping 70.8% of their steals, dead last in the league. By NBA.com’s holistic count, the Bulls rank 29th in opponent steals per game (9.6). It's a perilous recipe, and no surprise, then, that the team is ceding 21.4 points off turnovers per game, also 29th. 

Even if the Bulls aren’t benefiting from those extra possessions, they factor into the game total, which bleeds into the pace factor. Take the team’s matchup with the Clippers on Jan. 10, which Donovan specifically cited. In that contest, the Bulls committed 23 turnovers to the Clippers’ 10, and attempted 77 field goals to the Clippers’ 92. The Bulls and Clippers each logged 102 possessions in the game, according to NBA.com, a figure which would translate to the league’s eighth-highest pace. But the Bulls didn’t dictate that tempo. The Clippers, who rank 28th in the league in pace, scored 31 points off turnovers, and outwitted the Bulls 12-8 in fast break scoring.

As for the defensive end of the floor? Donovan alluded to it: The Bulls have been porous. That’s evidenced by their 29th-ranked defensive rating (allowing 115.3 points per 100 possessions) and 24th-ranked opponent field goal percentage (47.8%). Bulls opponents are making 43.1 field goals per game (27th), shooting 38.6% from 3 (26th) and turning it over 14.5 times per night (t-17th). 

That makes it difficult to run, and even when the Bulls are forcing misses or turnovers, they’re not exploiting them. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls create transition possessions off 52.4% of their steals (29th), and 26.7% of their live defensive rebounds (18th).

 

You gotta make people miss shots. It's as simple as that, honestly,” said Garrett Temple after Friday morning shootaround. “To make people miss, then you get chances to get out in transition. For us to shoot over 61 percent from the field and lose (against the Clippers), that says a lot about what our defense is doing.

After that, I think something that's, you know, outlet passes when a guard gets it. Whatever guard gets it, for him to look up, you gotta have wings or runners running the lane. But all that starts with being able to rebound a missed shot. So we gotta defend, make people miss and then we'll go from there.”

Interestingly, opposing teams aren’t exactly trampling the Bulls in transition themselves, even if there have been some lackluster lapses. The Bulls are allowing 18 transition possessions per game (14th) and 1.03 points per transition possession (5th), adding up to 18.8 transition points per game (19th). Their defensive issues have more glaringly come in the half court -- allowing 103.9 points per play, 30th in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass -- and, more specifically, guarding pick-and-roll.

Still, think back to the aforementioned teams averaging more than 102 possessions. Of the other two teams whose transition frequency fall outside the top 10, Donovan and Temple’s perspective applies:

  • While the Heat rank 16th defensive rating 11th in opponent field goal percentage, their turnover rate (17.1%, 29th) is just a hair less sloppy than the Bulls’ 17.3% mark. 

The Heat are also the only team in the league that ranks below the Bulls in points allowed off turnovers per game (21.9). They cede 21 transition possessions per game (30th), and their opponents, per Cleaning the Glass, generate transition possessions off of 32.1% of live rebounds (26th).

  • The Timberwolves sport a respectable turnover rate (14.3%, 13th), but allow opponents 21 transition possessions per game (28th). Minnesota ranks 28th in defensive rating and 27th in opponent field goal percentage. And their opponents are dictating tempo, running off of 69.4% of steals (29th) and 36.3% of live rebounds (30th). The Timbewolves’ 25th-rated offense produces a lot of defensive rebounding opportunities.

Patterns -- propensity for turnovers and poor defense -- permeate those teams that sport a large disparity between quote-unquote 'pace' and transition frequency. Turnovers allow opponents to sprint out. Leaky defense prevents teams like the Bulls from counter-punching.

Donovan wants his group to take the speed of the game into their own hands.

 

“That’s an area we’ve got to get better at,” Donovan said, later specifically citing the team’s shooting in transition. “Certainly the turnovers have been a challenge. I think defensively we’ve got to get much, much better. Rebounding, we’ve been kind of middle of the road, but I think we’ve been inconsistent there. (The Bulls rank sixth in defensive rebounding rate, but have been hurt by offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities in key moments.)

“We need to play fast. We need to get up and down. We need to be a team that can generate and manufacture shots in transition.”

Until roster overhaul necessitated a shifting of styles in the 2019-20 season, every Donovan-coached Thunder team finished inside the top eight in transition frequency, possessions per game and points per game. Those teams also, on a related note, consistently found offense early in the shot clock.

Percentage of field goal attempts taken, by shot clock interval

 

24-22 sec

22-18 sec

18-15 sec

15-7 sec

7-4 sec

4-0 sec

’20-21 CHI

1.9% (30th)

11.6% (26th)

18.6% (12th)

53.3% (1st)

7.8% (23rd)

6.8% (23rd)

’18-19 OKC

2.8% (20th)

 

20.4% (2nd)

22.8% (1st)

42.6% (30th)

6.1% (30th)

5.3% (30th)

’17-18 OKC

6.0% (5th)

18.4% (4th)

18.4% (11th)

41.3% (28th)

8.5% (24th)

7.3% (25th)

’16-17 OKC

5.5% (10th)

16.6% (4th)

17.4% (10th)

44.4% (22nd)

8.9% (23rd)

7.2% (29th)

’15-16 OKC

5.8% (3rd)

14.3% (6th)

15.5% (11th)

42.5% (19th)

8.9% (25th)

13% (21st)

’14-15 OKC

6.3% (2nd)

16% (4th)

 

16.2% (5th)

44.7% (18th)

9.4% (28th)

7.3% (28th)

“I'm not that wrapped up in the pace part as I am how much are we getting out in transition,” Donovan repeated. “How quickly are we getting shots in the first seven seconds of the shot clock? You’re getting those shots on (opponents’) missed shots, more often than not, or if you're turning the ball over, or if there's a long rebound. Then you can get out. But if you're taking the ball out of bounds and you're playing against good teams, it's hard to get a good shot in the first seven seconds.”

The logic for pushing pace as an offense is simple: Transition where the easiest shot opportunities lie. Playing up-tempo as often as possible gives you the highest likelihood of finding quick, quality attempts against unsettled defenses.

“It's much easier to play 3-on-2 in half court than it is 5-on-5 in half court. That's just the way the game is,” Temple said. “The spacing is for 10 people in a half court setting, so if you only have five or six people in a half court setting and you're running fast against a defense that doesn't know what you're gonna do, it's much easier to score that way. It gives you easier opportunities when you're on the break and I think that's why people love playing in transition. That's why the analytical guys love it. PPP is always higher, things of that nature.”

Though Donovan has already displayed marked adaptability with the Bulls, playing fast is clearly a tenet to his broader coaching philosophy. Such a style echoes Artūras Karnišovas’ stated values of “high pace” and “ball movement” (among others), which he laid out in his introductory press conference after being hired as the Bulls’ executive vice president.

Now, it’s up to the players to pick up the pace. Just be wary of the mirage.

*Editor's note: Here's how Cleaning the Glass defines transition: "Anything that occurs as the teams are switching sides of the court and all 5 defenders are not back and set in a normal guarding position... CTG defines transition as starting at the beginning of a possession and only ending once the defense is set (put-backs included, no time limit)."

 

While NBA.com doesn't offer a glossary to that extent, this Nylon Calculus report echoes: "Transition possessions are about the defense not being set, and don’t have anything to do with the time left on the shot clock."

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