It’s almost impossible to analyze statistics from last year’s Bulls team. Their core – Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter – played fewer than 300 minutes together in just 16 games – and 21 different players suited up for them, a handful of who may never play in the NBA again.
It’s difficult to decipher statistics when Ryan Arcidiacano, Robin Lopez and Shaq Harrison played more games than anyone, and Cristiano Felicio and Antonio Blakeney appeared in two more games combined than Markkanen and LaVine.
But the Bulls’ pace last season is quantifiable. That number is largely coaching-dependent, and actually there’s credence to younger, more inexperienced players wanting to get out in transition more than experienced players. So the fact that the Bulls ranked 23rd in pace after Jim Boylen took over for Fred Hoiberg was clearly an area that needed to be addressed.
The Bulls did just that on Thursday night, selecting North Carolina’s Coby White with the seventh pick. The lightning-quick point guard has the speed and skill set to be a boon for a team looking to push pace, something John Paxson said the Bulls will do next season.
It’s 2019 and pace is on the rise. All 30 teams are looking to play at a faster pace, get their athletes in open space and attack defenses. But Paxson’s comments were more than just executive-speak. There’s a real belief that there’s a philosophy shift coming to Chicago and that Year 3 of the Bulls’ rebuild could look far different than Years 1 and 2.
It actually began before the draft, too. Jim Boylen, fresh off a contract extension from the Bulls, hired Brooklyn assistant and former Rockets assistant Roy Rogers to his staff. Both Houston and Brooklyn have been among the league’s most analytical-friendly teams the past few seasons in terms of pace and passing (Brooklyn), efficiency (Houston) and 3-point attempts (both).
“I think one of the more understated things that we’ve done is Jim (Boylen) has changed a couple key components of his staff,” Paxson said Thursday after the draft. “We have Chris Fleming now, who has a very bright offensive mind and believes in quicker pace, some of the action out of that, that I think will be really good for our team.”
If the Bulls truly are set on pushing pace, White was the perfect pick. He led a North Carolina offense that was sixth in the NCAA in tempo – and first among power 5 schools – and while he’s still a raw prospect, his speed and ability to spot up on the perimeter bring a different skill set to the Bulls’ transition game that too often was clunky, clustered and non-existent.
The Bulls were 25th in transition frequency last season, and that included the 24 games under Hoiberg when the Bulls were 17th in pace. The Bulls were actually seventh in field goal percentage but just 19th in effective field goal percentage, which weighs 3-pointers more heavily.
What that means is the Bulls were effective attacking the rim on the run but didn’t have many spot-up perimeter shooters to kick out to before defenses got set. That’s where White comes in. Yes, he’s a speed demon with a strong dribble. He’ll be able to go coast-to-coast for easy layups at times. But his value can be even more efficient without the ball. He was one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the country last year, and he’ll be able to beat defenses down the floor in transition without the ball, and guys like LaVine and Kris Dunn should be able to find him for perimeter shots.
“One of the things we like about Coby a lot is that he can play off the ball, and we talked a lot about the multiple ball handlers, that type of thing, and he’s a guy that can run, is fast, can spot up and shoot it,” Paxson said. “We’re trying to build a team to play effectively in today’s modern game. That means versatility in a lot of different areas.”
The onus, like anything schematically in the NBA, will fall on the head coach. Boylen was insistent on the Bulls slowing pace last season. Adding Fleming to the staff, placing White in the offense and Paxson wanting to run doesn’t change the fact that Boylen is a more traditional head coach in that sense. But Paxson said Thursday that Boylen “wants to play faster.”
“But you need a commitment to running. And I don’t think we’ve always had guys committed to running, and that will be something from training camp and hopefully this summer, those types of things are, I know Jim wants to emphasize them and play,” he said. “It’s simple when you think about it. If you get the ball up quicker, you have more options, you can move the ball from side to side, teams have to guard a little longer, those types of things.”