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A closer look at how the Bulls won a game with only 17 three-point attempts

Will Gottlieb Avatar
October 31, 2023

The Chicago Bulls gutted out their second close win of the season, reaching the .500 mark with a 112-105 victory against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night. It’s a good sign some of their poor luck in clutch from last season appears to be coming back into the Bulls fortunes.

Remarkably, the Bulls won the game attempting only 17 three-pointers, their lowest figure both this season and last. Except for one other game in March of 2022, it would be their lowest three-point volume of any of the past three seasons.

For a team that wanted to improve upon their last ranked three-point attempt per game figure from last season, setting a new low is probably bad process if the goal is better results.

“Identity and for us it starts with the spacing component of it,” Billy Donovan said recently. “And there’s times we’ve just got to be mindful and not be a burden. Create an opportunity where the guy with the ball can make the next best read.”

Last year, the NBA average of three-point attempts per game was about 33.3, so the 17 attempted on Monday night represents a hair above half. The Bulls don’t need to be shooting 42 threes the way they did in the season opener, but with their offseason additions and internal development, they have the shooting talent to emerge somewhere in the 32-36 range.

“We’ve talked about taking more threes, I don’t necessarily have a number,” Donovan said, “but we’re looking to shoot the ball. I think it’s sometimes you have to move on to decision making. We’ve got to get better at and I think some of that is spacing.”

Amping up the three-point volume just for the sake of taking more threes is not necessarily the goal. No, three-point attempts should be a byproduct of paint touches, which Donovan has repeatedly named the measuring stick for success when it comes to upgrading the offense.

Getting paint touches allows for shots at the rim, fouls, offensive rebounds and spray out threes. If the Bulls can improve in those areas, they’re on the right track.

But which comes first, the spacing or the shooting? There needs to be space in order to find those driving lanes, so the Bulls do need to take more threes when they are available.

Even their best shooters pass up open looks to dribble into more difficult ones:

This doesn’t mean DeRozan needs to be taking double-digit threes. Vucevic and LaVine should up the ante, but it really means everyone around them needs to provide more spacing for them to be able to work their magic in the mid-range.

It is possible to improve spacing without necessarily having to shoot more threes, that’s where attacking closeouts, decision making, getting off the ball quickly can still put the defense on a tilt. But often times, shooting when open is the best way to do that:

They can’t just avoid shooting because they’re not good at it. They have to be better. The less scared of the Bulls three-point shooters opposing teams are, the less likely they are to guard the Bulls shooters. Instead, they’ll load up the paint, force the Bulls into contested mid-range shots and pray to the basketball gods they don’t bite on one of DeRozan’s pump fakes.

As good as DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic are in the mid-range, that is not a recipe for winning games.

“We know if it’s going to be DeMar and Zach and Vooch, as well as they shot the ball, it’s still the 24th-best offense,” Donovan said recently. He has repackaged similar phrasing around this sentiment on many occasions over training camp and the start of the season. They’ve had their DeRozan bailout fourth quarter. They’ve had their LaVine 50-point game.

Monday’s win against the Pacers was a good win. They grabbed 10 offensive rebounds. Took 31 free throws. Only turned it over 13 times. They got a monster line from Vucevic (24 points, 17 rebounds) and a rare game in which each of the big three scored 20 plus. They executed behind some great tactical work from Donovan down the stretch.

But what happens if the Pacers shoot better than 12-of-46 on threes? Or DeRozan and LaVine don’t combine for 19 free throw attempts? Or Vucevic isn’t able to grab five offensive boards that help generate 18 second chance points?

The Bulls plan of diversifying their offensive resources is going to be a work in progress and all of those things will contribute. But if the plan for the year was to improve the offense, I’m not sure we’ve seen the process behind it come to fruition. This is not a situation where ‘if the Bulls don’t shoot threes, they are going to lose’. They’re plenty talented to get this result every other night.

But those heroics will only take the Bulls so far.

How far, you ask? Guess where their offense is ranked after four games.

24th. Same as last year.

And the record is .500.

The Bulls need to increase their three-point shooting to improve their spacing. Even if the ball isn’t falling, they need to stay committed to that process of controlling the elements of the game they can control.

Otherwise, the same long-term results will follow.

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