I’ll be completely honest, before the season started I would have bet money on Fred Hoiberg being fired by the end of the 2016-17 NBA calendar year. His pace-and-space offense was completely ineffective in 2015-16, and with a team that has even worse three-point shooters, it seemed even more unlikely to work. The roster did not fit together, and worse yet, it was the complete opposite of what Hoiberg wanted… Or so logic told us.
The former superstar coach from Iowa State struggled on all fronts during the 2015-16 season. The veterans were not playing for Hoiberg, he lost the confidence of his best player (Jimmy Butler), and scrapped his famous offense to accommodate the talent provided for him.
Yet, what if the problem was not with Hoiberg, nor was it with his offense not fitting the talent, but that the 2015-16 team was Tom Thibodeau’s? What if the 2015-16 Chicago Bulls were designed (and desired) to play slow, physical, and defensive basketball and not a pace-and-space system?
These questions can be answered by looking at the Bulls’ tendencies last season. They ran transition offense on only 11.7% of plays, or twenty-third worst in the league, and they ranked dead last in transition points per possession; posted-up on 8.2% of possessions, or eighth most in the association; were the twenty-seventh worst team at scoring off of cuts, averaging only 1.1 points per possession; and shot the 19th fewest catch-and-shoot three-point attempts in the NBA. What these stats suggest is that the 2015-16 Bulls were not built to, nor willing to play Hoiberg’s system to full effect.
Let’s look at the roster makeup for each of the past three seasons to understand why. Below is a list of the Chicago Bulls’ rosters each of the last three seasoned ordered by minutes played:
|2014-15 Chicago Bulls||2015-16 Chicago Bulls||2016-17 Chicago Bulls|
|Jimmy Butler||Jimmy Butler**||Jimmy Butler**|
|Pau Gasol||Derrick Rose**||Dwyane Wade|
|Joakim Noah||Pau Gasol**||Rajon Rondo|
|Derrick Rose||Taj Gibson**||Taj Gibson**|
|Mike Dunleavy||Nikola Mirotic**||Robin Lopez|
|Taj Gibson||Doug McDermott**||Doug McDermott**|
|Kirk Hinrich||Mike Dunleavy**||Nikola Mirotic**|
|Aaron Brooks||Joakim Noah**||Isaiah Canaan|
|Nikola Mirotic||E’Twaun Moore**||Michael Carter-Williams|
|Tony Snell||Tony Snell**||Jerian Grant|
|E’Twaun Moore||Justin Holiday||Bobby Portis*|
|Doug McDermott||Bobby Portis||Denzel Valentine|
|Nazr Mohammed||Aaron Brooks**||Cristiano Felicio*|
|Cameron Bairstow||Kirk Hinrich**||Paul Zipser|
|Cristiano Felicio||RJ Hunter|
* = Was on the Chicago Bulls the previous season
** = Was on the Chicago Bulls under Tom Thibodeau
The roster turnover is startling. During the 2015-16 season, the Chicago Bulls used thirteen players that were on the roster under Thibodeau. Moreover, the top-eleven players in minutes all played on Thibodeau’s Bulls. This season, however, only four players were on Thibodeau’s Bulls. Furthermore, out of those four, only two were in the top-eight players in terms of minutes per game under Thibodeau. Put simply, Chicago has changed the roster to a degree whereby Hoiberg’s system can now be effective.
The main area where this change can be seen is by looking at transition scoring opportunities. This season, the Bulls are the fifth best team at transition scoring, and use this method of offense at a league-average pace.
This is primarily caused by the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a dominant transition player. This season, Butler is the second-best transition scorer in the NBA, averaging 1.46 points per possession.
This improvement encourages Chicago to run the ball. The dilemma is that the Bulls do not force enough turnovers – 24th most in the NBA – to take full advantage of this opportunity. Nonetheless, they are good enough defensively that we should expect this ranking to increase, meaning the Bulls will improve even more offensively. Let’s examine just how deadly the Jimmy Butler transition is:
This play begins with a messy offensive possession caused by Jimmy Butler getting his hands on the ball. Eventually, the Bulls recover the steal and get the ball to Butler in transition and before the Jazz can set their defense. Butler attacks his defender one-on-one scoring a nasty reverse layup. This play shows how Butler’s defense impacts his ability to create mismatches in transition.
On this play, Wade reads Sergio Rodriguez’s pass and starts the transition attack. He sees that, a) his shot would be contested, b) Taj Gibson’s shot would be contested, and c) Jimmy Butler will have enough momentum to either make a layup or get fouled while taking his shot. Below is a video of the opposite happening, where Butler makes the defensive play, and finds Wade for the transition bucket.
Thus, due to abilities of new teammates such as Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler will have more open looks in transition; and, as can be seen in the video above, if the defense focuses too much on Butler he will find one of his open teammates.
With this noted, the Bulls have not improved on every front. They take the second fewest catch-and-shoot threes in the NBA, are the fourth-least efficient cutting team in the NBA, and still post-up more than league average. Consequently, while the Bulls have improved the transition portion of their offense, they are still archaic in many facets of the game. The primary way Chicago is winning games, similar to under Thibs, is via their defense.
Hoiberg’s 2016-17 Bulls have been far-and-away the best team at defending the pick-and-roll. They allow .68 points per possession on pick-and-rolls where the ball handler shoots or passes for an assist (best in the NBA), allow .97 points per possession on pick-and-rolls where the roll man shoots or passes for an assist (14th best in the NBA), and allow .89 points per possessions on spot-up shots (fourth best in the NBA).
The reason for this defensive prowess is Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler have formed an elite unit. Per NBAWowy, with both Wade and Butler on-court the Bulls allow 1.03 points per possession. Each player is an expert at using their intelligence and length to prevent opponents from getting easy driving lanes, and moreover, open baskets.
In this video, Butler is guarding CJ McCollum and Wade is defending Maurice Harkless. McCollum calls for the screen, but Butler maintains positioning forcing CJ to pass the ball into Harkless, Wade anticipates this move and intercepts the pass resulting in an easy transition bucket. This play is representative of how Butler and Wade can intuitively use their basketball intelligence, and further, their athleticism to be an elite defensive pair on the perimeter. Due to this combination, moreover, the Bulls have two players that have anchored their defense this season.
Overall, Fred Hoiberg has found a way to install the basics of his transition, pace-and-space offense, which is something that was not the case last season. This has resulted in a much better Chicago offense in 2016-17 than in 2015-16. While other aspects of Hoiberg’s philosophy are constrained by the Bulls’ talent pool, the team has maintained a defensive intensity seen last from Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago teams.
Is this sustainable? That is a fantastic question. The lack of spacing is surely something to question, as is the lack of ball handlers outside of Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. However, none of these things impact how the Bulls have become an effective team in transition, i.e. by using Jimmy Butler and – to a less extent – Dwyane Wade to score easy baskets. Thus, offensively, the Bulls should be able to sustain this level of play. Furthermore, on defense, one should expect the Bulls to use their length to create more turnovers than they have averaged so-far this season.
So to answer the question, yes, Chicago’s current performance is absolutely sustainable. The Bulls next five games (Lakers, Cavaliers, @Mavericks, Portland, and @Pistons) should provide a good barometer for how competitive this team can be against top talent in the NBA.