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Beyond the Box Score: Analyzing the Bulls' screen defense

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Beyond the Box Score: Analyzing the Bulls' screen defense

Welcome back to Beyond the Box Score, the series where we use deep analytics to better explain the Bulls' play. Today, we're taking a look at this season's changes to the Bulls' screen defense.

Last season, defending on-ball screens was the Bulls' major Achilles' heel. So when Gar Forman hired offensive-minded Fred Hoiberg to take over as head coach, he also brought along former Spurs assistant, Jim Boylen, to act as associate head coach — and to install new defensive philosophies.

[RELATED - Goodwill: Bulls roster at a crossroads, in need of real change]

When Boylen joined the team, the Bulls certainly needed most help guarding the pick and roll. According to Vantage Sports, the Bulls surrendered 0.1 points per screen last season. That figure was the second worst in the NBA. But what were the Bulls doing that was so ineffective?

Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls did not play aggressively against screens. A vast majority of the time, they would fall into what we'll call a "drop zone," when the defender covering the screen-setter, lays off of the screen. He usually steps back into the paint, keeping himself in between the ball carrier and the rim, not allowing the ball carrier to drive to the hoop. However, this space gives the ball carrier an opportunity to shoot, or make an open pass.

What the Bulls have started mixing in more often now, is what we'll call a "soft show." Here, the defender guarding the screen-setter will step up and flash in front of the ball carrier. After flashing a hand in the ball carrier's face, the defender will then run back to guard the opponent who set the screen, trying to prevent a pick and roll, or a pick and pop. This defense is a little more aggressive — and therefore a little more risky — but it also forces opponents to make quick decisions, and possibly turnovers.

 

Pts Allowed/Screen

Drop Zone %

Soft Show %

‘14 - ‘15 Season

0.1

84.2

10.7

'15 - '16 Season

0.084

78.7

15.6

As we can see, the Bulls have employed the soft show defense much more often this season, leading to a five percent uptick in soft show usage. Not surprisingly, their drop zone usage has dropped by about five percent, as well. Now, you may be thinking, "Hey, these numbers don't add up to 100!" Good eye. The remainder is when the Bulls go into an aggressive hedge defense, trying to trap the ball carrier and force a turnover. Most NBA teams do this about five percent of the time, so it's not statistically relevant for our purposes.

The other thing you should notice is the Bulls have made a nice improvement by allowing significantly fewer points per screen. Now there's still a lot left to be desired in this department, but they're clearly making progress. As we said earlier, 0.1 points allowed/screen placed the Bulls at 29th in the league last year. But this year, their 0.084 number puts them at 19, according to Vantage Sports.  

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

To see just how effective soft shows can be when defending the pick and roll, we decided to take a look at the teams who give up the fewest points per screen in the NBA: the Bucks, the Rockets and the Magic.

 

Pts Allowed/Screen

Drop Zone %

Soft Show %

Bucks

0.063

59

27

Rockets

0.073

69

24

Magic

0.074

72

20

In addition to being the best screen defenders, they're also teams that soft show much more than the other teams in the league. And as the Bulls continue their trend of soft showing more against the screen, it will be interesting to see if their overall screen defense continues to improve.  

Hoiberg, Bulls already facing touch decisions on Opening Night

Hoiberg, Bulls already facing touch decisions on Opening Night

The Bulls’ starting point guard missing the team’s season opener is less than ideal, but that is the dilemma Fred Hoiberg and company are faced with.
 
Hoiberg made the announcement during shoot around that Kris Dunn would miss the first game of his third NBA season for personal reasons, but noted that his absence is “excused.” 
 
The Bulls will turn to Cameron Payne as they get set to play the Sixers in Philadelphia Thursday night. The 24-year-old guard out of Murray State will be tasked with running the offense against one of the better defensive teams in the league.
 
Because of injuries and the numbers game at guard, Payne hasn’t had a chance to show Bulls fans much since he came over from Oklahoma City in a trade that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder.
 
“I feel like I can be way better,” Payne said when asked about the opportunity to show what he can do. “I know I didn’t make a lot of shots but it’s really not about that. It’s about getting my team involved and make sure everyone gets the ball in their spots to contribute.”
 
Payne showed flashes over the last 22 games of the 2017-18 season (14 starts), shooting 42 percent from three and averaging 4.6 assists per game in that stretch. The shooting stroke didn’t show up early in the preseason for Payne. 
 
He was better in the team’s final exhibition against Denver and has shown enough to Hoiberg to earn the starting nod. He’ll have his work cut out for him tonight.
 
“Obviously we’ve been working on different coverages based on having a full roster, but things like this happen,” Hoiberg said when asked what this does to his game prep. “It’s going to be electric in here. They’re going to come out and play extremely hard and extremely physical. That’s who they are and we have to be ready for that. It’s a little bit of shock and awe with (the Sixers). You have to weather that first storm and hopefully give ourselves a chance with great effort.”
 
After Payne, the Bulls will have Ryan Arcidiacono as the first point guard off the bench. They’ll also have the services of newcomer Tyler Ulis, who will be in uniform tonight. Hoiberg mentioned that he feels comfortable with Zach Lavine bringing the ball up as well. He also mentioned that Jabari Parker will have his hands on the ball an awful lot with the team’s second unit.
 
The season hasn’t even started yet and the Bulls are already missing several key players. After an impressive rookie season, Lauri Markkanen will start the season on the shelf with a high grade lateral elbow sprain. Denzel Valentine will also miss tonight’s game with an ankle injury. The team may have Cristiano Felicio, also dealing with an ankle injury, depending on his pregame workout goes.
 
“It’s not ideal but it is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “It happens at this level. You just have to go out and do the best job you can. It’s an opportunity for our guys to step up with two of our better players out of the lineup – really three with Denzel as a guy that can make plays in that second unit.”   

Bulls will open against Sixers without Kris Dunn

Bulls will open against Sixers without Kris Dunn

The Bulls faced a steep test opening their 2018-19 campaign against the Philadelphia 76ers.

That task won't become any easier with Kris Dunn missing the game for personal reasons, head coach Fred Hoiberg told reporters at shootaround on Thursday.

Dunn's exlusion opens up an opportunity for Cameron Payne, who will enter the starting lineup. Payne started 14 games for the Bulls last season, averaging 9.4 points and 5.6 assists in 26.5 minutes.

It also moves up Ryan Arcidiacono and Tyler Ulis, both of whom will be active, in the rotation. Expect both to see at least some playing time, especially with Denzel Valentine also out while recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in training camp.

It could mean an even bigger evening for Sixers point guard Ben Simmons. The reigning Rookie of the Year posted 19 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists in Philly's season-opening loss to the Celtics on Tuesday.