After turning on the jet engines and getting back to their first half of 2021-22 selves, the Bulls finished with the third best preseason net rating in the league. Granted, they faced the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Nuggets with Nikola Jokic and the Pelicans without Brandon Ingram. But the Bulls looked far from their second half of 2021-22 selves and that should provide some optimism for the upcoming regular season.
In fact, the Bulls preseason numbers are eerily similar to their first half numbers from last year.
Obviously it would be foolish to expect these bloated stats to sustain, but Stephen Noh of Sporting News looked into the predictive value of preseason games and found that there is some merit in preseason success translating to the regular season. If you need anecdotal evidence, just look to last year’s preseason in which the Bulls went 4-0 with a 19.8 net rating.
It’s nice to know there is value in those results, but I’m much more concerned with the evaluating the process behind their success to understand whether it is sustainable.
And it starts with floor spacing.
The Bulls know they need to spread out the defense, but do not seem interested in taking any more threes than last year.
“It’s hard to play in a crowd,” Billy Donovan said. “We’ve got to give each other space. The more that we can move the ball and create good space, the more they’ll have good opportunities to attack.”
The Bulls have spent the preseason preaching pace and randomness in order to build a more sustainable offense. The idea is to circumvent their lack of shooting with transition play and randomness.
Donovan has found success with his five-man bench lineup that plays especially fast. The Bulls were third in the NBA in their percent of plays in transition and led the league in effective field goal percentage, in large part due to getting those easy baskets on the break.
Trouble is, lineups with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan are generally slower and an overreliance on them is what led to the offense stagnating last year. The Bulls were in transition on 13.1 percent of their plays with DeRozan on the floor, but 15.2 percent of the time when he was on the bench. If the Bulls bench unit will be the lineup that runs the most, the Bulls offense with DeRozan on the court might still play slowly.
“We all know who the main guys are going to be on the court at the end of games,” LaVine. “I think it’s just leading up to that point, can you steal a couple points here, gets some runs, get some extra energy from guys.”
The key will be blending that speed with DeRozan’s methodical approach. They’ll always be able to rely on getting a good look with a shot clock winding down, but this hybrid approach will help them generate easier looks in early shot clock situations.
“He plays with a tempo and pace to his game and I don’t want to change that,” Donovan said of DeRozan. “But he needs space like any other player needs space, and part of the way to get space is you’ve got to move. He understands not only are players going to do that for him, but he’s got to do that for other players as well.”
“He gets those kinds of things in terms of the big picture of where you’re trying to get to as a team.”
So if the Bulls preseason success is derived from their transition attack, but that transition attack came mostly from the second unit, how does the first unit benefit from that pace or implement it in their own group?
“As the starting group, we need to bring our own energy as well. We all are great individually, and at times last year we saw how good that can be. But just playing as one unit, instead of looking like OK he gets a shot, now he gets a shot this time. Bringing it all as one unit and trying to get energy that way instead of looking to one or two guys to run the offense.”
The Bulls are clearly going about this with the right mentality and I’m not doubting the ability for lineups with DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic to improve their fastbreak game. Transition isn’t even the only piece that makes up the randomness puzzle.
That said, this will be a work in progress. Whether or not they can accomplish this level of pace throughout the season. Hopefully the additions of Javonte Green and Ayo Dosunmu to the starting lineup spark an early effort for fastbreak offense. But I’m curious to see how this rapid pace translates to the regular season.
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