Halfcourt basketball is still important.
In an era dominated by transition offense, 3-point shooting and deploying as many athletes as possible, there’s still something to be said for efficient basketball when the game slows down.
Consider that the fastest-paced team in the NBA last season – the Atlanta Hawks – played nearly 83 percent of their possessions in the halfcourt. No team had more transition possessions per game than the Milwaukee Bucks – 24.5 – and yet that accounted for just 21.5% of their total possessions.
The Bulls are serious about running next season. They ranked 24th in transition frequency and 23rd in pace under Jim Boylen last season despite having the NBA’s third youngest team. But they drafted the ultra-quick Coby White and acquired Tomas Satoransky, who last year ran the point for the ninth fastest team in basketball and played in transition more frequently than all but six teams.
But sandwiched in between the Bulls’ overhaul of the point guard position was the signing of Thaddeus Young. And what that three-year, $41 million signing did was bring balance. The Bulls want to run, but it won’t mean much if they’re unable to compete in the halfcourt.
Here’s why Young will help.
The Bulls were 28th in the NBA in field goal percentage inside 5 feet, making just 58% of their attempts. That included a 66.3% clip from Robin Lopez, which remarkably put him in the same territory as Karl-Anthony Towns (66.8%), Kawhi Leonard (66.4%), Joel Embiid (66.0%). But if you take away Lopez’s numbers – he signed with the Bucks this offseason – the Bulls’ number dropped more than a whole percentage point to 56.9%, which would have edged out only the Knicks for 29th place.
How relevant is the statistic? Well, the Warriors (66.7%) and Bucks (64.8%) led the NBA in the category and the bottom four teams were the Cavs, Bulls, Hornets and Knicks, who had a combined win percentage of .295.
How does Young help?
The 31-year-old made a transition of sorts this past season with the Pacers. Perhaps it was Myles Turner’s improved 3-point shooting – he made 38.8% of his 196 attempts – or something schematic from head coach Nate McMillan, but in 2018-19 Young played closer to the basket than ever before.
Per Basketball Reference, 46.4% of Young’s field goal attempts came within 3 feet of the rim last season, the highest rate since his 2010-11 season in Philadelphia (46.8%). It was a considerable jump from his career rate of 41.7%, too.
But Young’s efficiency didn’t dip with the increase in shots at the rim. In fact, Young shot 67.9% from inside 3 feet which was also the second-best mark of his career (73.5% in 2011; Young was really good in 2011). His career field goal percentage from inside 3 feet before last season was 64.9%.
Young also ditched his midrange shot in his final season with the Pacers. Shots between 10 feet and the 3-point line accounted for just 7.6% of his total field goal attempts. That was easily the lowest mark of his career – a good sign – by a wide margin (11.1% of his attempts were midrange shots in Year 1 with the Pacers). Prior to last season, a whopping 21.6% of Young’s attempts were of the midrange variety.
3-point attempts accounted for 17.4% of Young’s total attempts, which was actually lower than his 2018 mark of 20.9% – though Turner’s 3-point prowess likely accounted for that slight dip.
What does it mean for the Bulls? It’s far too early to analyze how Boylen may deploy Young. He’s obviously going to begin games on the bench but should play significant minutes late in games alongside Wendell Carter Jr. and potentially Lauri Markkanen. The inside-out spacing he provided Turner should be the Bulls’ goal and is likely one of the reasons they went after him so heavily, inking him to his three-year deal in the first minute of free agency on June 30.
Young’s prowess around the rim might also indicate that Luke Kornet will play ahead of Daniel Gafford on the second unit. Gafford is essentially a rim runner at this incredibly early stage in his career, and it’s tough to envision a fluid offense with Young and Gafford on the floor together. That second unit is already going to have serious spacing issues because of the lack of 3-point shooting.
Just 25.6% of Myles Turner’s field goal attempts came inside 3 feet. The Pacers moved him all around on offense, something Kornet can do more easily than Gafford at this point in the latter’s career. That’s splitting hairs at this point in the summer. Young’s most important minutes will come next to Carter or Markkanen.
The Bulls want to run and, if Boylen allows it, they will. But they’ve also addressed a critical area in the halfcourt, finding a player in Young who excels around the rim.
Young won’t have much effect on the Bulls’ transition – he didn’t even log enough transition possessions last season to be in NBA’s database, and his individual 98.14 pace was dead last on the Pacers a year ago – but when the Bulls slow it down and enter halfcourt sets, they’ve got a reliable big man who should help one of the Bulls’ biggest weaknesses from a year ago.