With three preseason games under our belts, Bulls fans can start to see how this season will play out. Bulls basketball is taking shape, roles are being defined and players are stepping into those roles. It’s exciting to see the young roster learning to play with each other, learning to trust one another and the system Fred Hoiberg and the coaching staff have implemented. The offense is especially fun to watch because I’ve never seen any scheme like it run by a Bulls team. It is predicated on movement. In order for Hoiball to work, both the players and the ball must be in near constant motion. Players crisscrossing around the top of the three point arc, dribble hand-offs, passes around the horn, dribble penetration with kick-out passes; the Bulls offense lives and dies behind the three point line.
Last season the Bulls were not a three point shooting team. They were 2nd to last in the number of three point field goals attempted per game. During the 2016-17 season, they averaged 7.6 three pointers made on just over 22 three pointers attempted (34%). This was a result of the isolation, one on one, offense they would run for Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade. By comparison, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the best three point shooting team in the Eastern Conference, shot 38.4% from three point land, making 13 out of the nearly 34 three pointers they would attempt every game. With the super stars gone this season, it’s a perfect time for the Bulls to change their approach on offense.
This preseason, three point shots have become the bread and butter of the Bulls offense. The young Bulls roster has been given the green light and they have responded. They have been shelling the basket with three point attempts in each of the three preseason games they’ve played. They have attempted 98 three pointers in 3 games, and have made 40 of them, meaning they have shot just below 41% from the three point line. While this is an admittedly small sample size, the trend is clear: The Bulls are shooting and making more three pointers than last season. Relying on three point shooting for a substantial portion of your offense is a high risk, high reward gambit, and a dangerous one to make for a team like the Bulls that struggles with consistency.
In the first preseason game against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Bulls shot the ball very well. They were 16 of 35 (45.7%) on three pointers, and they beat the Pelicans 113-109. In a similar way, the third preseason game against the Milwaukee Bucks featured good three point shooting, 17 of 34 (50%), and a double digit victory 114-101. The second game of the preseason, the game against the Dallas Mavericks, did not go well for the Bulls. They were bludgeoned by the Mavs, 118-71. It was more than a beating, it was an embarrassment.
What happened? Quite simply, the Bulls did not hit there three point shots. The Bulls were 7 of 29 (24.1%) on their three pointers. They struggled with the flow of the offense. Players took selfish shots, jacking up three pointers before the rest of the team had a chance to set up on the offensive end. Instead of passing the ball to uncovered teammates, or driving into the lane to force the defense to collapse thus opening up perimeter shooters, players took contested shots. Worst of all, even when a Bulls player took a good three point shot, they just weren’t going in. As the game slowly slipped away, the young players pressed harder, forcing shots, making mistakes, turning the ball over, burying themselves in an avalanche of ugly basketball. It was tough to watch and it might indicate what we can expect from this inexperienced team during the regular season.
If the Bulls can stay consistent, shooting a high percentage from three point land, then they will be able to keep games close, and might unexpectedly beat some of the better teams in the league. That’s the power of the three pointer, and it’s why teams like the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are never really out of a game. A couple of defensive stops and a couple of three point field goals can erase a double digit deficit and change the momentum of a game. It’s exciting to see this “modern” offensive approach being exercised by the Bulls.
The Mid Range
As the Bulls shoot more and more three pointers, they are taking less and less mid range, two point, shots. This is probably for the best. The analytics of basketball have shown that the mid rang jump shot is the least efficient method of scoring. Analytics favor high percentage two pointers around the rim (i.e. dunks and layups), or the more valuable three pointer. If your going to take a shot you only have a 36% making, you would much prefer that shot to be worth 3 points instead of 2. That being said, the Bulls do have some players that can consistently hit mid range jumpers.
Justin Holiday has displayed an amazing ability to curl off of a screen, accept a pass while simultaneously jumping and twisting his body into alignment with the basket, elevating over his defender, hitting the shot and returning to earth with all the fluidity and grace of a cat or gazelle. Jolly Giant Robin Lopez has been nailing shots from just beyond the free throw line with impunity since last season. And not to be out done by his fellow center, Slightly Less Jolly Giant Cristiano Felicio is now facing up opponents and drilling long 2’s. Likewise, Paul Zipser and Niko Mirotic are not afraid to make defenders look foolish, letting them blow by on wild close outs, stepping up past the three point line, and calmly hitting the two point shot.
One aspect of the mid range game that the Bulls need to improve on is play from their point guards. Neither Jerian Grant nor Kris Dunn have shown the ability to consistently hit running floaters, a shot Derrick Rose thrived on. Both Grant and Dunn have struggled to make plays around the free throw line. They become tentative, unsure whether to attack the rim, shoot the ball, or pass it to a teammate. This is something both players will have to work on going forward.
There is still some post play involved in the Bulls offense. Robin Lopez is a crucial component to keeping defenses honest and not selling out on perimeter defense. Lopez likes to post up and use the hook shot, or a running hook shot through the lane. Bobby Portis has been trying to take smaller defenders into the paint with disappointingly inconsistent back to the basket play. David Nwaba has shown a knack for making smart, slashing cuts into the lane, taking the ball straight to the hoop. When feeling inspired, Kris Dunn will aggressively take defenders off the dribble with his quickness, accelerating into the lane and to the basket where he finishes, usually with twisting acrobatics. Both Lopez and Felicio are good at scoring “put back dunks,” and tipping missed shots back in. Lopez uses good positioning under the basket to accomplish this, and Felicio tries to soar in from parts unknown, buggy whipping down dunks after a shot caroms off the rim.
Bulls fans should look forward to the new direction the team is taking on offense. A heavy reliance on three pointers signals a shift in philosophy. It is exciting, high risk basketball, unlike any offense we’ve seen in recent Bulls history. I anticipate the excitement will grow further when Zach Lavine and Lauri Markkanen are both healthy enough to play; they will both thrive in Fred Hoiberg’s system. Good, consistent three point shooting can propel any team to success. In the end, it seems this Bulls season will test the old basketball maxim: You live by the three, you die by the three.
One sad note, “My Guy” Kris Dunn dislocated a finger while trying to block a dunk halfway through the fourth quarter of the Milwaukee game. The Bulls are optimistic that he will be back in a few weeks, but it was a nasty dislocation and could take a month or more to recover from. On a happy note, Lauri Markkanen is expected to play in the fourth preseason game, today, Sunday, October 7th, against the Pelicans at 6pm. It will be the rookies debut with the full Bulls squad, having previously only played with some of them in the Las Vegas Summer League.