The Chicago Bulls had their fair share of problems in 2021. The front office shook up the roster midway through the season. Those moves helped improve the Bulls’ defense, which ranked eighth in the league post-trade deadline. Yet the team still didn’t win games, and the 21st-ranked offense is likely to blame. There was an obvious lack of playmaking for the Bulls this season. As a result, many think the obvious solution would be adding a point guard with a history of high assist numbers.
This answer runs into some problems pretty quickly. For one, The Bulls ranked fifth in the NBA with 26.8 assists per game. In fact, the Bulls sat just 0.9 assists behind the first-place Golden State Warriors. Dwight Howard averaged 0.9 assists per game last season, and luckily for us he is a free agent this offseason! Unfortunately however, I don’t think Dwight Howard will fix the Bulls offense. Let’s look through some tape and figure out how to fix the offense.
Identifying The Problem
We are late in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss, and point god Cristiano Felicio has just recorded an assist. Let’s look at what Felicio does here. First, he has the ball above the break, he stands in place taking one pointless dribble. Next, he fires a well-timed, accurate bounce pass to a cutting Devon Dotson. Dotson takes contact and converts a tough finish at the rim. What Felicio does here wasn’t really playmaking.
Felicio made a great pass. A bounce pass was the correct choice, as a chest pass would have likely been deflected by the defender. The pass was accurate and well timed. Felicio made a good pass and was awarded an assist. Assists are a stat that shows good passing. Sometimes an assist can be a result of good playmaking, but not always. This is the flaw with trying to solve the Bulls problem via assists. If getting assists were the Bulls’ problem, there wouldn’t be a problem.
So, if assists aren’t going to solve the Bulls’ offensive problems, what will? I’m a big fan of simplifying problems as it makes them easier to solve. The Bulls problem is that they need to score more points. Players score more when they take open shots. As a result, what the Bulls need to do is create more open shots. I like to call these players that create open shots “advantage creators” because that is what they do, they are creating an advantage for the offense. I want to look at some examples of creating open shots from an advantage creator we should all be familiar with, Zach LaVine.
Zach LaVine is guarded by Kira Lewis Jr. here. First, LaVine uses a between-the-legs move. He does in an attempt to judge the defender’s hips. Let’s look at Kira Lewis Jr.’s feet and hips here.
To start, Lewis Jr. has his right foot in front and this opens his hips toward the center of the court. LaVine quickly switches the ball to his right hand, Lewis Jr. puts his left foot in front and opens his hips toward the bench. Lewis Jr. is doing this because a ball handler will usually drive to the side they have the ball on. Lewis Jr. wants to open his hips to give himself a head start when moving backwards.
Unfortunately for Lewis Jr., LaVine is an extremely good ball handler and athlete. LaVine is going to drive to his left, but he starts the drive with the ball in his right hand. Normally, your body going left and the ball being on the right side which is closer to the defender leads to an easy steal. But, notice how LaVine drops his shoulder before he takes off? He crosses the ball from his right to his left just as he takes off and he uses his upper body to shield the ball from the defender.
LaVine accelerates to his left in an instant, barreling towards the basket. This sends Lewis Jr., who expected Lavine to go right, into a panic. Lewis Jr. desperately starts moving backwards in an attempt to stop LaVine from getting to the rim. After about three steps, LaVine comes to a complete stop. He rises and sinks a mid-range jumper with about four feet of space between himself and the defender.
LaVine has just created an open shot for himself. He combined ball handling skill, athleticism, and shooting mechanics all in one play, effortlessly creating an open look for himself. LaVine created an advantage and no one else on the team had to do anything.
LaVine throws a pass to Coby White who knocks down an open three-pointer. White was wide open on this shot, so whoever got him open created the shot here. Stanley Johnson was supposed to be guarding White, but instead he chooses to shuffle into the lane. He does this because LaVine starts driving towards the basket. LaVine scores on a nice 69.6% of his drives, which is over 15% above league average.
Johnson can’t let someone who is so good at scoring on drives get to the basket. So Johnson choses to shuffle into the paint and block LaVine’s driving lane. This leaves White wide open. LaVine created an advantage that resulted in an open look for White.
This is the beautiful thing about having elite scorers on your team. The threat of a player like LaVine taking a shot forces the opposing defense to help and draws in opposing defenders. The term for this idea is called “Gravity”. The Earth’s gravity is what pulls us to the ground, similarly Zach LaVine’s gravity pulls defenders toward him.
This play is so beautiful to me I had to include it. LaVine is able to use his space creation to make a drive to the basket look easy. He created an open look for himself, but look at Troy Brown and Daniel Theis. LaVine’s gravity when going to the rim is so high that the Hawks bring FOUR defenders into the paint to try to stop him. As a result, Brown and Theis are left wide open. LaVine created not just one but three open looks in this play.
Why This is a Problem
The Bulls ran a lot of different lineups last season due to trades and injuries. The five-man group that saw the most time without LaVine on the floor consisted of Garrett Temple, Nikola Vucevic, Daniel Theis, Coby White, and Patrick Williams. These players have a considerable amount of offensive skill, but this lineup underperforms due to a lack of advantage creation. Vucevic can create advantages, but he led the NBA in catch-and-shoot points and is at his best when someone is creating chances for him.
Williams and White have plenty of potential as players who can create advantages, but they have yet to consistently capitalize on that potential in their young careers. The Oklahoma City Thunder ranked 30th in the NBA with an offensive rating as a team at 102.8. This Bulls lineup ended with a score of 94.6. In contrast, the two most common lineups that featured LaVine had ratings of 109.3 and 110.2.
The Bulls situation is similar to the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz of recent seasons. Both teams featured offensive stars in Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell. Both teams had Ricky Rubio as their point guard, but eventually upgraded the position with Phoenix getting Chris Paul and Utah acquiring Mike Conley. The Suns jumped from 12th to seventh and the Jazz improved from 14th to ninth upon making the additions.
The Bulls’ offense struggles when Zach LaVine isn’t on the court. Countless games are lost in the fourth quarter because when the game is on the line, opponents double-team LaVine. If opposing teams can stop the Bulls offense by forcing players other than LaVine to create open looks, next year won’t be much better. The Bulls are trying to make the playoffs in 2022, so it’s imperative that another advantage creator joins the roster.
The Bulls offense was hard to watch for most of the 2021 season. They are in desperate need of more players who can create open shots and provide scoring threats. The Bulls need players who can use athleticism and skill to create open shots for themselves. They also need players who are scoring threats that possess the gravity to draw help defenders and open up free shots for teammates.
Over the next few weeks, I will be providing in-depth analyses on all of the available options that could add advantage creation and playmaking to the Bulls roster. We will be looking through film, comparing stats, and figuring out how the Bulls could add these players. Stay tuned here at On Tap Sports Net and Bulls On Tap so you don’t miss out on the fun.