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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