How to fit the Bulls' pieces on offense
Looking at similarly-constructed rosters for ideas on how to make this work
The Bulls finished last season with the league’s 21st-ranked offense, and it was clear that they needed upgrades on that side of the ball. They definitely have more scoring punch in their starting lineup on paper -- Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonzo Ball have taken the places of Wendell Carter Jr, Lauri Markkanen, and Coby White. But there have been questions on how exactly those pieces will fit together to make each other better.
DeRozan is the biggest question mark. He is a fantastic playmaker, but he is not easy to play off-ball despite his protestations to the contrary. He’s not an aggressive cutter, and he doesn’t shoot 3’s to space the floor for teammates. But there are plenty of ways that Billy Donovan can get these guys to play off each other.
The concept of heliocentrism has dominated NBA analyses on roster construction recently, and thinking about the Bulls through that lens does create doubts that they can be successful playing that style. Heliocentrism, for the uninitiated, is the idea that offenses are built around a playmaking engine, such as Luka Doncic or James Harden.
The Bulls do have some great isolation playmakers on their team. LaVine and DeRozan are among the best in the league. But they can probably do better than giving those guys the ball and letting them cook. They have a lot of playmaking and passing up and down their starting lineup, and they will probably be at their best by sharing the ball more.
As my old podcast co-host Will Gottlieb recently stated, there’s no rule that teams have to play a heliocentric style. There have been a ton of successful teams that have bucked that trend, and there is probably way too much copycating of that style across the league right now. In order to reach their full potential, the Bulls are going to have to play a style that best fits their personnel rather than the one that is the most popular right now.
The Bulls’ balance in their starting lineup reminds me a bit of the Spurs teams of the 2010’s, the great Hawks teams under the Mike Budenholzer era, or another Donovan-coached team with plus offensive talent, the 2017-18 Thunder that featured Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George.
Rather than going to a heliocentric offense, those teams focused on ball and player movement. They also had commonalities in their playbooks. One in particular stands out that I think the Bulls could borrow - the Hawk set.
The Hawk set would fit the Bulls well because it forces defenses to simultaneously focus on scoring threats from three players. Donovan used it a ton with Westbrook (like DeRozan, not much of a 3-point shooting threat), Anthony, and George en route to creating the no. 7 offense in the league. If you have great pick-and-roll partners (DeRozan and Vucevic) paired with a dangerous off-the-move 3-point shooter who is also a threat to drive (LaVine), the set can be extremely hard to guard.
Rather than reinventing the wheel and explaining the Hawk set, I highly recommend watching the video below, which details everything you need to know about it. Imagine LaVine in George’s role and DeRozan in Westbrook’s role:
Donovan loved using the Hawk set with his three stars, so much so that he once went to it nine times in the last 10 possessions of a close game. If you didn’t watch the YouTube video, watch the cliffs notes below brilliantly illustrated by Ben Falk:
Spotting the Thunder ripping teams apart with Hawk became a fun trend if you were part of 2018 NBA twitter.
The Hawk set isn’t a relic of the past. The Spurs also used it with DeRozan as the ballhandler as part of their go-to offense in close games last season.
Having DeRozan run those sets with LaVine, Ball, and Vucevic will make it much more deadly than it was for the Spurs last year, because the Bulls have much bigger offensive threats that will put defenses in tougher help positions. DeRozan should have more openings to drive, LaVine will be able to catch the ball in great spots for 3 or going downhill to drive, and Vucevic is a pop/roll threat that is a near-automatic bucket if he’s allowed to go 1-on-1.
The Bulls lost a lot of close games down the stretch last year because they depended almost exclusively on a gassed LaVine to create offense out of thin air with defenses loading up on him. Using the Hawk set is one way to shift that burden off LaVine and get some more wins in those clutch situations.
I would not be surprised to see Donovan bring back his pet play from his Thunder days as a staple of the Bulls’ late-game offense. It would theoretically allow all of the team’s stars to combine their skills to form a terrific weapon that is greater than the sum of their parts.
The Hawk set is just one of many different options that the Bulls have to diversify their offense with motion sets. They will probably also use Delay sets, which the DeRozan Spurs and Lavine/Vucevic Bulls both used last year. I would guess that they probably aren't going to look like a lot of the star-driven teams that rely heavily on one guy controlling most of the action. But that variety in play and ability to combine multiple threats is what makes this offense intriguing.
"Just as the five of you work together, so do your Zords. When you need help, you need only to turn to the power of the Dinozords. Each will come together to form the mighty Megazord!"
-Billy Donovan, probably
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