Proprietary knowledge is not a concept that exists within the NBA.
Found an interesting niche that creates a competitive advantage? That’s nice. You may receive its benefits for a brief moment. Before long, everyone will be doing the same.
The Bulls know all too well the impacts of a copycat league.
No one player was capable of denying DeMar DeRozan get to his midrange jumper, let alone stopping it. But in hindsight, the fix was obvious: Trap DeRozan, force him to give up the ball, and bet on the inability of role players to score in his stead.
One opponent found success with this method. Now, every team is reading from the same playbook.
So far, the Bulls have yet to find a suitable counter. And so the offense has stumbled, falling from fourth in offensive rating to 27th.
In order to beat the trap, a team must be willing to pass through it. Fortunately, the Bulls have one of the best passing big men in the NBA on its roster.
Nikola Vučević is the Bulls’ path to solving the trap.
Why does this responsibility fall on the Bulls center?
Beyond his innate passing ability, Vučević is involved in the majority of pick-and-roll actions as the screener. Because of this, his defender will often be the one to double the ball. When this happens, Vučević is left open. Using Vučević in the short-roll allows the center to become an obvious release valve, one who is able to connect all pockets of the court.
A groin injury prevented DeRozan from playing in the Bulls’ loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. That, though, did not stop the Pelicans from deploying a trap. In doing so, we received a glimpse in how Vučević and the Bulls found ways to generate good offense against this defensive coverage.
In place of DeRozan, Zach LaVine operated as the Bulls’ primary initiator. The Pelicans’ base defensive coverage (drop) did little to stop LaVine, who quickly poured in 16 first-quarter points. Recognizing LaVine being in a scoring rhythm, the adjustment came.
LaVine began to see more doubles. Pelicans center Jonas Valančiūnas — in addition to LaVine’s direct matchup — was meeting the Bulls All-Star at the level of screen. His intent? Force the ball from LaVine’s hands.
The Pelicans get their wish. LaVine uses the Vučević screen, sees the double coming, and wisely hits his center with a pass in the short-roll.
Vučević is open. As soon he receives the ball, the defense begins to sink into the paint. Noticing this, Vučević correctly identifies the open man in the weakside corner (Troy Brown Jr.). It’s a shame the pass to Brown was slightly outside his shooting pocket, otherwise the Bulls generate a wide-open three. Nonetheless, this is the right counter to the trap.
Faced with the same defensive coverage all evening, LaVine continued to use Vučević as a short-roll option.
In this example, LaVine wisely dishes to Vučević, who dives middle after setting the initial screen. In creating a play advantage, Vučević spots Ayo Dosunmu cutting baseline. Sadly, Pelicans guard CJ McCollum picks off the pass. The result is a turnover, but as before, the right read was made.
LaVine and Vučević would connect again midway through the fourth quarter. As they had done earlier, the Pelicans sent two defenders to the ball. Vučević receives the pass from LaVine, this time finding an open Donsumu at the 3-point line.
Yes, I’m aware the above examples end with a turnover and missed jumper. Though true, the intent is to highlight process, not result. On these possessions, the Bulls effectively beat the trap by making a quick, decisive pass.
Given his frequency within the pick-and-roll, along with his playmaking acumen, Vučević is the best candidate to beat the trap as a passing hub. Really, though, any Bull is free to do so. The only necessary component is making the correct read and, importantly, doing so before the defense has a chance to reset.
With this in mind, let these sequences from Tristan Thompson highlight what not to do.
In the above example, Thompson receives a pass from LaVine at the free-throw line. Loading up on LaVine, the Pelicans allow the Bulls a numbers advantage once the ball reaches Thompson. The next step in the chain is to find an open teammate. Instead, Thompson erroneously elects to power dribble into his own defender. By holding onto the ball, Thompson has assisted the defense by giving them time to recover back into position.
Had Thompson passed to an open Coby White the moment he received it — as LaVine and Brown are calling for him to do — the Bulls create an open three.
Unfortunately, a very similar possession unfolded during the third quarter. In the below example, LaVine and Thompson run a pick-and-roll. As they’re wont to do, the Pelicans send over a trap. LaVine hits Thompson, who decides the best course of action is to dribble and drive.
Predictably, Thompson is unable to do anything off the bounce. As a result, the Pelicans defense is afforded time to reestablish itself. To his credit, Thompson eventually finds White waiting on the wing. Using his burst, White neatly dribbles into a running layup.
Ultimately, the Bulls manufacture a bucket, but had Thompson made the right initial read — passing to the open man as soon as he was given the ball from LaVine — White shoots a wide-open three.
As noted, the Bulls displayed an ability to pass through and beat the trap. Unfortunately, their application in doing so was inconsistent. So long as the Bulls stumble when faced with a trap, opponents will continue to double-team DeRozan and LaVine.
Nine games is all that remains in the regular season. One game separates the Bulls from a guaranteed playoff berth and a date in the play-in tournament. To ensure the latter doesn’t happen, the equation in beating the trap must be solved. Fortunately, the Bulls have the personnel to do so. Question is, will they figure it out in time?