Over 67 games this year, the Bulls have proven they are a good, if not elite defense.
It’s their offense that has straggled behind.
In the eight games since the All-Star Break in mid-February, the Bulls have continued on that trend as the fifth-best defense. But something seems to have flipped with the offense as they are now the eighth-best offense in the NBA.
“We have the offensive capabilities to be in the top 10 for sure, just got to show it,” Zach LaVine said. “I think the consistency of us playing the way we have over the last couple weeks, averaging in the top-10, has to be sustainable for us in this last stretch.”
LaVine has been a part of this offensive turnaround in a big way, averaging 31.4 points on 58 – 50 – 90 shooting splits. He is on an absolute tear that is lifting the Bulls out of the basement.
Donovan has rejected the idea that the team is running more offense for or through LaVine, but the numbers and eye test say otherwise. LaVine’s usage has gone from 28.1 to 31.3 after All-Star and overtaken DeRozan’s, which has dropped from 28.5 to 27.2.
“It’s not so much that [LaVine’s] usage rate has gone up, it’s the fact that he has been really aggressive,” Donovan said. “And then from being aggressive, he can make the read. If I got a shot, shoot it. If I can get downhill, get downhill. If they shut me off, spray it out. When he does that, it really helps our team. And it’s helped him be very effective.
“That’s what’s driven up his usage rate, but it’s not like we’re running a lot more plays for Zach. I think he’s recognizing those opportunities in half court, in transition, when the ball gets swung to him, to take advantage of those things.”
Where in the past, the Bulls have had to over-rely on difficult shot making (not only in the form of DeMar DeRozan jump shots). There hasn’t been enough motion, movement or defense-tilting ball movement to generate easier half-court baskets, and that has proven to overburden the Bulls’ primary offensive initiators.
“We’ve had to rely on making shots to carry our offensive numbers,” Donovan said. “If we can play quicker, more decisive, where the ball is moving and we create maybe some more advantages where we can drive, can get downhill, can get to the free throw line, can create second chances, that will help us.”
As good as DeRozan has been, he doesn’t apply as much rim pressure as LaVine. So in titrating the offensive distribution, the Bulls can get to the rim more, force help and create closeout situations to attack.
“When we get a closeout, we have an advantage, we’ve got to keep the advantage,” Donovan said. “And the biggest thing is, every possession, you’re trying to get the defense behind the basketball. Where they’re having to catch up. But once the ball stops and the defense catches up, that’s where you see stagnation. And it stops. And we’ve got to be able to keep that going.”
Ultimately, it comes down to the simple equation that quicker decisions equal easier shots. It’s a positive feedback loop where LaVine is able to create an advantage by leveraging his three-level scoring. He forces the defense to commit, which creates the next advantage for a teammate, who keeps the advantage creation going.
From there, they need to make the right reads. And that has been a work in progress.
“Let’s say the ball gets passed from the left corner to the left slot,” Donovan continued. “There are times we’ll try to drive the ball back to the left. Well, the help just was there. We’ve got to go the other way. We’re having to make split-second decisions. And I think probably for the first time, these guys are not only having to look at their man, it’s not even about [their man]. It’s about what’s going on on the back side, what’s going on on the other areas of the floor. And for guys to get better at that, they’ve got to go through that stuff.”
Patrick Beverley and Alex Caruso moving into the starting rotation has certainly helped. Their veteran savvy helps them understand how to manipulate defenses when attacking closeouts and their handiness helps the Bulls generate a few more transition points (which go a long way in greasing the wheels).
It has only been eight games, but since the break the Bulls have the best point differential in the NBA. They’re fifth in defense and eighth in offense over that time and have a 5-3 record.
For whatever reason, the Bulls have struggled with their ability to make quick decisions and keep the advantage alive. But things are starting to click and with the Play In Tournament in focus, it’s helping the Bulls play some of their best basketball.
Let’s see how real this stretch is over the final 15 games.