NBA training camps can be a hotbed for big-picture themes and philosophical adjustments.
For this year’s Chicago Bulls, the mission statement for offensive improvement comes down to one word.
“I think it’s just going to be a little more random,” Zach LaVine said when asked to describe the team’s new offensive principles after Saturday’s practice. “Be in different spots other than pretty much last year where teams knew exactly where we were and could set the defense every play.”
By definition, the concept of randomness is a difficult one from which to elicit specifics. So perhaps it is better thought of as an antonym to that which described the Bulls’ offense during the stretch run of the 2021-22 season.
Stagnant. Predictable. One-dimensional. Take your pick.
Such an ecosystem did not develop out of thin air. Injuries to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso hurt the Bulls’ ability to force turnovers and juice their offensive attack in transition — both fundamental aspects of their early-season identity. LaVine going down to knee trouble of his own in mid-January shifted the onus of the team’s perimeter shot-creation in the halfcourt to DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan, to his credit, ran with the opportunity. He drilled buzzer beaters, achieved a scoring streak untouched by even Wilt Chamberlain, and shot up prognosticators’ mid-season MVP leaderboards. All while keeping the Bulls afloat during the dog days of the season.
But what head coach Billy Donovan has long cautioned is that DeRozan’s greatness — enthralling as it was — papered over offensive flaws that need to be addressed for his team to take a next step. Mainly in the ball and player movement departments.
“From the bench as a coach, you’ve got a group of guys that are trying to go into that game and try to win — and you’re trying to put them in a situation to win. And no question there were times where DeMar got it rolling and we kept going to it,” Donovan said. “And I’m not saying that that was the wrong thing. But my thing is if you’re gonna look at the big picture, is that going to be sustainable and successful for us against those really, really elite teams, both in the East and the West? I think it would be really, really hard to live like that.”
Last season, it was. The Bulls finished 2-21 against the top four teams in each conference and, according to Cleaning the Glass, had the league’s 25th-ranked point differential (-11.6) against teams with top-10 point differentials. (That mark was arguably more attributable to their 29th-ranked defense against top-10 opponents — a conversation for another day — but the Bulls were 17th in offense as well.)
Donovan also pointed to the Bulls’ poor record in close games against the NBA’s elite, and it’s true; the Bulls finished last season 25-16 in “clutch” games, defined by NBA.com as contests within a five-point margin with five minutes or less to play in the fourth quarter. But they were just 1-8 in “clutch” games against the top four teams in each conference — 24-8 against everyone else.
“I’ve said this before and people don’t want to maybe acknowledge it, and I’ve talked to our team about this. You take two of DeMar’s shots (away) — the one in Washington and the one against Indiana — we’re in the play-in tournament,” Donovan said. “That’s how close and how fragile it is.”
So, what needs to change?
Every time asked, Donovan has publicly implored his team to strive for a few pillars. He wants the Bulls to fastbreak as much as possible, and in the halfcourt, play with tempo. He wants the floor spaced five-out to begin possessions so as to free up driving and cutting lanes. And he wants his players to make quick decisions with the basketball and move freely without it, flowing from action to action instead of bogging down after, say, an initial pick-and-roll.
The Bulls finished last season ranked 13th in offense, averaging 112.7 points per 100 possessions. But in 23 post-All-Star break games, they slotted 25th (110.7 points per 100), and ended the campaign near the bottom of the league in a few procedural categories that Donovan hopes to change: 27th in assist rate, 24th in drives per game and 27th in front court touches per game — all areas Donovan often points to as ways to generate quality shot attempts at the rim and from 3-point range.
Last season, per Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls ranked 15th in rate of their shots taken at the rim, 30th in rate of their shots taken from 3, and second in rate of shots taken from midrange (which can be largely self-created).
“It’s really hard to generate good offense without getting pieces of the paint,” Donovan said. “And we’ve gotta try to find opportunities, randomly, to get there.”
Donovan’s messaging has taken hold after the team’s first week of training camp — or the first phase of installation.
“Free-flowing. Quick reads. For isolation, one on one players, we’re going to get a couple of those shots up. That’s part of our game. But quick reads. Fast decisions,” LaVine said when asked to describe the Bulls’ offense. “The ball should be popping side to side. Being able to use different players in different spots. We’re not just going to be stuck on the sideline doing a pick and roll or rolling it into the post. The ball at the top of the key with me in isolation and everyone staring.
“Will there be things like that every once in a while? Yeah, it’s basketball. And I think we have a lot more random plays where it’s cutting, moving, ball flipping sides and things like that.”
Communication will be key as well. Donovan mentioned that he appreciated LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević coming to him with feedback after the dust settled on last season’s finish.
“Being accountable and receiving constructive criticism. I think that’s what we have to do a little bit better job with, from top to bottom, coaching staff included,” LaVine said. “I think we’ve gotten better with that, and being able to hear and see adjustments and try to take it all in stride and be able to adjust it and put it into game form.”
Those concepts will likely take time to mesh on the court, even for a group that has stressed continuity since last year’s trade deadline. And it will require buy-in and trust from the top of the roster to the bottom.
The goal is to be more unpredictable and less reliant on difficult shotmaking — or, in Donovan’s words, more sustainable.
“We pretty much have the same personnel from last year. We know what our strengths are, we know what we’re good at, so we’re not trying to get too far away from that as well,” LaVine said. “But I think the tweaks are gonna help us throughout the season not try to have so many heroic games, day in and day out.”
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