Bulls

First look at Hoiberg's new-look offense come vs. Bucks

fred-hoiberg-bulls-basics-day-1-slide.png

First look at Hoiberg's new-look offense come vs. Bucks

Practice has been sloppy and turnovers have been plentiful in the opening days of training camp for the Bulls, but after a few days, players are more than tired of facing each other and want to test themselves against an opponent.

Thus the Milwaukee Bucks, the team that surprisingly gave the Bulls a challenge in the first round of the playoffs several months ago, come to town, and the initial steps of a long journey will reach another phase.

“I'm excited, I'm excited to see how everything goes,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Generally that first preseason game is pretty sloppy, and after watching a lot of these preseason games you've seen that. Probably not as much movement as you'd like in that first one, but hopefully we go out there and compete and play hard.”

It’ll be Hoiberg’s first game as a coach at the United Center, where the Bulls practiced Monday, but he’s not putting much individual stock into it. It won’t matter in the grand scheme of his coaching regime, and considering the town is hooked on the baseball team on the North Side of town, it won’t register much of a ripple on the sports scene.

[MORE BULLS: Rose celebrates 27th birthday with questions, at a crossroads]

But it doesn’t mean the Bulls won’t use the game against the much-improved Bucks as a reason to begin experimenting. Pau Gasol will sit this one out, part of the maintenance plan to keep him from being worn down early in the season.

Veteran guard Kirk Hinrich will also sit with a minor toe injury, and Taj Gibson is being brought along slowly after having ankle surgery in the offseason. And of course Derrick Rose is out, recovering from facial surgery last week after the injury he suffered on the opening day of training camp.

So E’Twaun Moore will get the start at point guard, with Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell on the wings, and Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah will round out the starting five. It’s a chance to see in some form of application how Hoiberg’s “pace and space” offense will look.

“We've put in a lot of our early stuff,” Hoiberg said. “If the primary break isn't there, just flow into a secondary break. So we haven't put a lot of those other actions in and again, our timing, we have a lot of guys running into each other because they're almost too quick trying to get into the action.”

[MORE BULLS: Derrick Rose advised to stay away from team while eye heals]

There are things Hoiberg will be able to observe even through the expected muck of preseason basketball.

He wants Noah to be more patient before flashing to the ball, letting the natural flow of the offense develop before quickly coming from the baseline to make a play. They haven’t put in many isolation plays, situations a healthy Rose and Butler will thrive in.

But the general tenor of their offense, the players seem to grasp at this early point. They’ll be given a lot of freedom to make plays and won’t be operating as robots.

“That's really what our offense is based on,” Hoiberg said. “And if an option is taken away, that triggers that next action. You've got to be on point with it. You've really got to be able to read and react and flash to the ball and get good movement out of it. Everything's predicated on spacing, and if you space the floor well, generally good things happen.”

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

The Bulls signed guard Shaquille Harrison to provide depth to a rotation that is missing it’s best perimeter defender in Kris Dunn and is lacking playmaking/ball-handling when Zach LaVine gets a rest. So far the results have been positive. Though Harrison hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of promise in terms of being a playmaker, he provides a solid option in the backcourt due to his defensive fundamentals.

Harrison racks up a lot of steals but it is more impressive due to the fact that he is not gambling for steals too often (i.e. getting out of position to try to strip a player you aren’t guarding). He picks up a decent amount of his steals by “digging”, which is a basketball term for applying pressure with a second player without making it a true double-team.

Simple “stunting” (jumping towards an offensive player to mimic pressure) or digging would help the Bulls prevent many of the easy drives to the rim they give up.

A big part of successful NBA defense is making the opposition think you are committing to one thing before executing something else. And the Bulls defense does little to keep the opposition on their toes.

The aggressiveness of Harrison in on- or off-ball defense has serious potential to be contagious to the Chicago roster, and even more so once Dunn returns. We don’t know if we will ever see Hoiberg trot out the Dunn-Harrison pairing or if that duo could do enough to spur on a change--over a big sample size-- in the overall team defense, but the basketball world has definitely started to pick up on his 110 percent effort on the struggling Bulls:


Even when Harrison does things that coaches traditionally don’t like—such as the ol’ ‘Rondo/CP3 reach around swipe’—he makes it work out:

In the above clip he was going over the screen on Celtics guard Brad Wanamaker--the correct play since Wanamaker is a solid shooter--and prevents Felicio from having to contain the guard for too long. A common thing you see from NBA guards in the pick-and-roll is the “snake dribble” that gets them into the paint. Harrison times up this move perfectly, knockling the ball loose as soon as Wanamaker transfers his dribble from his right to left hand.

Part of the reason that Harrison’s gamble in the above play was so great is that fouling can be a good thing, so even if he had fouled Wanamaker, that would’ve been a preferable outcome when compared to Felicio vs a guard or Cam Payne coming over in help defense to contest the 6-foot 8 Daniel Theis.

Harrison’s locked-in defense will certainly be needed as the Bulls head into a three-game slate that features matchups against the Bucks, Raptors and Harrison's former team, the Suns. All three teams have excellent wing scorers in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Devin Booker, and rookie Chandler Hutchison and Jabari Parker can’t be depended on to slow down those players by themselves.

Per Basketball-Reference, the 2018-19 season represents the first time that Harrison has played small forward in his NBA career (6 percent of the time). It will be interesting to see how Hoiberg deploys Harrison against two of the best three offenses in the league, his newfound versatility and consistent effort level should afford him a long-term on the Bulls.

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Through the NBA’s first three weeks there wasn’t a better player at attacking the rim than Zach LaVine. The 23-year-old looked spry, healthy and aggressive, and was drawing fouls at a rate that would have made even James Harden blush.

Well, LaVine has hit his first speed bump of the 2018-19 season. With Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all on the mend (had you heard those three players were injured?) LaVine has taken on a ridiculous burden of leading the Bulls offense; he’s currently second in the NBA in usage, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ahead of names like Giannis, LeBron, Curry, Embiid and Durant.

For three weeks that was fine. LaVine was hitting everything in sight, passing like we hadn’t seen since his rookie season when he played primarily point guard, and attacking the basket, ranking near the top of the league in trips to the free throw line.

LaVine was shooting a wild 69.6 percent on 8.0 attempts per game inside 5 feet through Oct. 29, third among guards to only Donovan Mitchell (73% on 6.2 attempts) and Devin Booker (70.8% on 6.0 attempts). To put those numbers in perspective, LaVine ranked just ahead of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the category.

It’s where LaVine was at his best, even as he continued to pore in 3-pointers at an absurd rate and, for the most part, take care of the basketball. He lived at the rim, and if he wasn’t finishing there he was drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line; through Oct. 29 he was ninth in free throw attempts per game (8.0), a slight tick above LeBron James (7.7).

But something happened after that pitiful loss to the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 29, and it’s sent LaVine into an ugly shooting slump that he hasn’t been able to get out of in the eight games since. Yes, teams are doubling LaVine and pressuring every time he plays in pick and roll.

But consider: LaVine has taken nearly the same number of contested shots per 36 minutes (11.0 vs. 10.9) and hasn’t taken all that fewer drives to the basket per 36 minutes (14.4 vs. 12.2) during his slump. It may seem like it on the surface, but LaVine’s game hasn’t changed that much as teams have keyed in on him.

Of course his 3-point percentage being as low as it is – 25.6 percent on 5.9 attempts during his slump – has had a huge effect, but the answer might be in what’s happening to LaVine on those drives to the basket lately.

He was a magnet the first seven games of the season, drawing a foul on 15.4 percent of his drives to the basket. He shot 55 percent on those drives and got to the free throw line 3.7 times per game on drives alone. 9.6 of his 28.1 points per game were coming on his attacks to the basket.

But his slump has affected the best part of his game. It certainly could be fatigue, or simply bad luck, but LaVine’s shooting numbers on drives have dipped to 44.6 percent, he’s drawing fouls on only 4.7 percent of them and is getting to the free throw line fewer than one time (0.8) off those drives. The volume of drives still have him averaging 7.0 points on them, but it’s a stark contrast. And when you combine his pedestrian – for his standards – numbers at the rim with that ugly 3-point shooting, it’s a recipe for disaster.

He’s even passing less on drives during his slump (22 percent of the time compared to 28 percent during his hot stretch), perhaps once again feeling the need to take over on offense for his shorthanded group.

Or maybe he’s just not getting calls. LaVine was issued a technical foul in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics after he felt he was fouled by Semi Ojeleye. LaVine didn’t get the call, clapped his hands at the official and was given the T.

It’s been a frustrating two weeks all-around for LaVine, but his inability to finish at the rim like he had the first three weeks of the season has led the charge. It’s who LaVine is as a player and where he’s most effective for this Bulls team, which is why his attempts have remained the same.

Perhaps he isn’t getting the same leap on those drives given the uptick in minutes, or maybe defenses are figuring out how to better defend him without fouling. Whatever the reason, LaVine will need to figure out how to better attack defenses, especially if his 3-point shot remains off. It’s either that or more losses will continue to pile up for this undermanned group.