Bulls

Dwyane Wade's strong words last season were necessary for young Bulls, who hold no hard feelings

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USA TODAY

Dwyane Wade's strong words last season were necessary for young Bulls, who hold no hard feelings

A frustrated Dwyane Wade had seen enough after a regular season loss to Atlanta in January and questioned his team’s commitment to winning, jumpstarting a few uncomfortable days on Madison Street.

Feelings were hurt after Wade and Jimmy Butler went scorched earth, followed by Rajon Rondo’s Instagram post questioning their leadership in return.

It seems like so long ago considering the direction the Bulls have gone since, but the players insist there’s no hard feelings toward Wade, as the Bulls will see Wade in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey tomorrow night in Cleveland for the first time since his buyout two weeks ago.

“We never had any conflict with Dwyane. Just after that game, they had some tough declaration, Jimmy and D-Wade,” said Nikola Mirotic, a player who one could argue was a target of Wade’s ire that night. “But that was all. It’s a part of the game. They were hot. There was disappointment about the game.”

The players were fined by the Bulls for making their feelings public, but it pulled behind a necessary curtain and revealed some warts the franchise tried to conceal—even though it was clear for all the observers to see Wade and Butler’s urgency didn’t mesh as well with an underdeveloped and inexperienced group, along with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg trying to corral differing factions.

“It forced everyone to get in a room and be honest with each other,” Hoiberg said. “Really, it got us in my opinion playing better. It happened, it got us in that room for a long session, we hashed a lot of things out, and we were better because of it.”

Hoiberg’s leadership was questioned for the second time in two seasons as head coach, especially having to coach a player in Wade who still desperately wanted to be in a contending situation.

It took a while, especially after the Bulls traded veteran Taj Gibson to Oklahoma City in what amounted to a salary dump, but they rebounded and could have advanced to the second round if not for Rondo’s wrist injury in Boston.

But then again, the Bulls made their decision to change direction after the season so perhaps the fireworks were more for entertainment than true long-term effect.

“Sometimes those things have to happen,” Hoiberg said. “I talked to a couple of coaches about it that said, at least your guys are in there talking about it. Our guys won't say anything to each other. Maybe it needed to happen, and again, I thought we were better because of it and finished the season playing our best basketball of the year.”

Wade, up until 24 hours before media day, was still a member of the Bulls and whatever feelings from that evening in January had long dissipated. After he and the Bulls reached an agreement on a buyout, he sent young players like Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis text messages of encouragement.

Portis chalked the incident up to things that happen during the course of a basketball season.

“I don’t feel like we had a problem with him,” Portis said. “We just had a little mishap during the season last year. I feel like all the teams have a little trouble during the season, but ours was boosted a little more. But we don’t have any problems with him.

“He was a great leader for us. He came in every day, came into work. When I came in at nighttime, I’d see him here at nighttime, he and Jimmy, so I feel like he was a great leader. He showed us hard work and things like that, especially in the playoffs. He even revved it up even more, and when our team gets back to playoff mode that’s something I will take from him and it will help some of the other guys.”

Three observations: Bulls come up short against Bucks — again

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USA Today

Three observations: Bulls come up short against Bucks — again

For the second time in less than a week, the Bulls played the Bucks close, but came up just short — this time falling 115-101 at the United Center. Three observations from a soul-crushing loss:

Daniel Gafford: Free man

If I dumped all the expletives I have written in my notebook about Daniel Gafford from this game, you’d never read another article under this byline.

So, while I catch my breath, here are the hits:

 

 

 

Gafford ended the game a -4 in 20 minutes, but it’s hard to overstate the impact he had on a particularly electric Bulls bench in this one. He was every bit the gumptious, brick-bodied big that Jim Boylen billed him as, and so much more. Every second without the ball in his hands on offense, his feet were moving — setting screens and leveraging rebounding position. In the air, every shot, pass or lob within five feet of him seemed to find his hands, and then — rather violently — the bottom of the net.

At one point, en route to his team-leading 16 first-half points, a fan behind me exclaimed: “Him and Giannis are going at it!” In reference to… Daniel Gafford. What a night.

Gafford ended his stellar NBA debut with 21 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks and approximately 2.716 million hearts stolen, on 10-of-12 shooting.

The three-guard lineup provides a spark

At the very beginning of the season, Boylen’s utilizing of a three-guard lineup (Kris Dunn-Coby White-Ryan Arcidiacono) was widely panned. Tonight, that group — with contributions from Thaddeus Young and a combination of Wendell Carter and Daniel Gafford at the center spot — proved their mettle. 

In the first half, that lineup catalyzed a 20-8 run that pulled the Bulls from down nine with 2:17 remaining in the first quarter to up two with 8:05 to go in the second. In the fourth quarter, a torrid stretch by Arcidiacono and White vaulted the Bulls from down 98-90 to up 99-98 in a matter of 66 seconds, sending the UC in a frenzy not seen in quite a while.

The Bucks pulled away from that point on, but this lineup showed something tonight — so much so that Boylen closed with White and Arcidiacono both on the floor along with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter. (Stunningly absent was Tomas Satoransky, who logged only 18 minutes tonight after coming out of the gate aggressive, offensively.)

Arcidiacono was on every loose ball in sight. White was a blur in transition and coming off screens and dribble handoffs. Combined, they shot 7-of-11 from long distance. Maybe Boylen is on to something.

Bulls melt down the stretch

The Bucks finished the game on a 17-2 run after that aforementioned White-Arcidiacono blitz. For most of the game, the Bulls were able to hang around despite being out-shot from three and on the wrong end of a 35-14 free throw disparity, but their energy waned late in the game. Despite miraculously out-rebounding the Bucks 50-48, out-scoring them in the paint 50-46 and competing defensively throughout, the Bulls couldn’t buy a bucket down the stretch (they failed to score a field goal in the final six minutes), and it ultimately cost them.

The blame is shared in this one. Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine combined to shoot 6-of-28 from the floor (only 0-of-4 in the fourth) and were largely outplayed by the bench unit. 

In a performance reminiscent of last Thursday’s in Milwaukee, the Bulls appeared to everything necessary to win on Monday. But they didn’t. Now, with a record of 4-10, the heat is on.

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Does the Bulls' offense need more pick-and-roll possessions?

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USA TODAY

Does the Bulls' offense need more pick-and-roll possessions?

Last season Zach LaVine was a great pick-and-roll scorer for the Bulls, finishing in the 70th percentile among pick-and-roll ballhandlers. He scored 0.90 points per possession in pick-and-rolls, with that play type accounting for 40.2% of his possessions. That has decreased to 32.8% of his possessions this season, despite his efficiency (0.94 points per possession in pick-and-rolls in 2019-20) improving. 

In traditional stats, LaVine shot 43.9% on 7.2 attempts per game out of pick-and-roll plays and that is down to 5.8 field goal attempts per game, though again, his field goal percentage on pick-and-roll shots is up to 46.1%.

So what is the reason for the drop in this play type for LaVine and could a reverse in this trend improve the Bulls struggling offense?

The first thing to tackle here is why is LaVine shooting less out of the pick-and-roll, and my best guess here would be it is a general part of the new system's goal of creating looks for everyone and keeping the ball from sticking. The Bulls, however, are only 23rd in the league in passes made, the same ranking they had last year while actually making fewer passes per game than they did a season ago.

Since the decrease in pick-and-roll plays isn't helping the Bulls pass more, is it helping their intended goal of getting up more 3-pointers? The short answer here is a very strong yes.

The Bulls are taking 35.5 3-point attempts per game (through 13 games) as compared to 25.9 attempts per game last season but even so, the Bulls offense has actually taken a step back, with a 102.9 offensive rating, compared to a 104.5 offensive rating last season. 

LaVine's usage rate has only decreased slightly from 29.8% to 29.1%, so the breakdown of plays he uses would have to be the main culprit in his slight drop in offensive efficiency. LaVine's 32.8% usage of pick-and-rolls is lower than similar players such as Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell, Andrew Wiggins (sorry Bulls fans), or even Portland youngster Anfernee Simons.

Now, of course, the Bulls play—as we have heard extensively at this point—a style of play more akin to the Houston Rockets than assistant coach Chris Fleming's former Nets squads, as the majority of their 3-point attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety and usually come off of drive and kick action rather than players running off of screens. 

The Bulls roster is not exactly comprised of a bunch of players who can easily beat their man off the dribble, so it would behoove the Bulls to allow not just LaVine, but the entire roster to work out of pick-and-roll more. LaVine himself touched on how pick-and-roll is his go-to for when he absolutely needs to make a play, especially in situations late in the shot clock. 

"I try to call a pick-and-roll most of the time when that happens and then if nothing comes from that, I'm going to take the shot or pass it. I'm definitely going to at least get a shot on the rim...  If I get it at the top of the key with eight, nine seconds left on the clock, I'm going to try to make a play."

The Bulls roll men have been underwhelming so far this season, with only Wendell Carter Jr. averaging over a point per possession (1.09 PPP, 46th percentile). Carter and Lauri Markkanen have both seen a decrease in their offensive efficiency in pick-and-rolls and the fact that the frequency of which they use pick-and-roll plays has decreased has a lot to do with it.

In 2018-19, Carter scored 1.17 PPP on pick-and-rolls and averaged 2.3 screen assists per game (5.3 screen assist points) and this season that is up to 4.5 screen assists and 10.2 screen assist points per game. No one on this year's steam outside of Carter is averaging more than 1.4 screen assists per game and that is largely a byproduct of the Bulls "five-out" offense, which encourages everyone to spot up for 3-pointers and (usually) has a lone big man to corral offensive rebounds and kick them out to the perimeter.

Last year Markkanen averaged a robust 1.20 PPP on pick-and-rolls and that figure is down to 0.98 PPP in 2019-20. He is by no means an extremely physical player but even he is helped out by the simple threat of a screen to opposing defenses. Even when he makes minimal contact on his screens—a recurring issue—the simple act of a screen and roll, or "slip" provides Markkanen, who has a suspect handle, a more clear path to attack smaller players trying to guard him. 

This is a key reason the Bulls need to implement more screen and roll into their offense. Chicago is second in the league in FGA at the rim coming into Monday night, yet dead last in field goal percentage.

They are getting to the basket plenty, but the fact that they are not converting means they need to scheme up different ways to get these many, many looks at the rim. Playing rookie Daniel Gafford more—or at all for that matter—will likely help remedy this issue as well, as he has excelled in the NBA G League in terms of putting pressure on opposing defenses as a devastating rim-runner. 

And the simplest way to get easy baskets at the rim when your team is not finishing well is to run more pick-and-roll, allowing clear avenues to the basket. The Bulls need to force opposing defenses into rotation more so that they can attack a defense that is scrambling rather than a set one and increasing their pick-and-roll frequency is one of the easiest ways for them to give defenses something different to think about.

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