What are the Bulls running?

Breaking down the schematics on both ends and what worked

A lot of people feel like you can’t take much from preseason games. That’s true to a certain extent, but you can tell what type of scheme a team is planning on employing during the regular season.

With that in mind, here are some takeaways that I saw from the Bulls’ first preseason game that I think will give some insight into what will happen during the regular season.

Thoughts on the offense

It’s early of course, but fears about the Bulls having too many ball-dominant players looked unfounded. We saw a ton of the player and ball movement that Billy Donovan and Arturas Karnisovas had been promising since they came to Chicago, and it was extremely successful. 

Lonzo Ball had indicated during the team’s media day that he expected a return to a more traditional point guard role. He did bring the ball up plenty and start the transition attack, but there really wasn’t a ton of what I would call traditional point guard play from him in the first preseason game. There was a fairly equal distribution of playmaking from the Bulls starting unit once they got into their halfcourt offense.

From a nuts and bolts perspective, the Bulls used a lot of Pistol actions to start their early offense. Coach Daniel, formerly a YouTuber that is now with the Mavericks, has a great breakdown of what that entails. For the layman, all you need to know is that it’s a good way to get two of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, or Ball playing off each other early in the shot clock with Vucevic. 

The Bulls also went to a lot of Flex action and brought back their Delay sets from last year in order to involve all three of Vucevic, LaVine, and DeRozan. 

You don’t necessarily need to know the fancy terminology for all of these plays. They are extremely common across the league and there’s not anything special that the Bulls are doing. The important takeaway is that the Bulls diverted from a heliocentric offense where one player controls all of the action. Instead, they focused on sharing the ball, cutting, and screening for each other. 

Another benefit of bringing in so many high feel players that understand spacing is that a lot of their best possessions looked unscripted. Alex Caruso’s cut here is a great example of how a player can understand where the open space on the floor is and the emphasis on cutting creates found money for the offense. 

LaVine in particular was incredible off the ball, proving that he is probably even better in this role than the run-everything-through-him offense that he played in last year. Eight of his made field goals came off a combined five dribbles. It turns out that if you set him up for tons of wide open catch-and-shoot 3’s and lob dunks, he’s still a really good offensive player!

As an aside, there is a lot of consternation that LaVine won’t be able to maintain his nuclear numbers from last year. I’m going the other way and predicting they will look even more impressive because he will have way easier shots. 

The Bulls also let DeRozan eat on the bench units, as expected. The offense went mostly through him. While he didn’t shoot the ball well, he did have four assists in only 25 minutes and set the bench guys up for even more open 3’s that they just missed. 

Alongside that Big Four of LaVine, Ball, DeRozan, and Vucevic, Donovan made a surprise move of starting Javonte Green. That was looking brilliant early on, and it kind of makes sense from a fit perspective too. 

Green isn’t much of an offensive threat, but he’s a super athlete that can cut for easy baskets, sit in the dunker’s spot for dump off layups, and crash the offensive glass. He did all of that in the preseason opener and looked intriguing as a low usage option that can help shore up the defense.

Even if Green doesn’t win the job, players like Derrick Jones Jr, Troy Brown, and Stanley Johnson serve basically the same role of being Donovan’s Lu Dort/Andre Roberson from his Thunder days. Donovan has turned non-shooting athletic wings into key pieces on many of his teams. 

Thoughts on the defense

Green was fantastic in the Bulls’ defensive scheme, recording four blocks and two steals. The Bulls’ defense as a whole was way better than the national pundits expected, although it is really hard to parse out how much of that was due to horrendous play from the Cavs. 

Still, you can only play who is in front of you and the Bulls were able to do that extremely well, forcing the Cavs into a putrid 86.4 offensive rating (for a little context, the worst offensive rating last season was 102.8 by the Thunder).

I really liked the Bulls’ defensive scheme from the starting unit. Off the ball, they generally switched most screens with all of their players aside from Vucevic. That strategy makes sense, as they have pretty good size 1-4. The Spurs employed a similar strategy with DeRozan last season and mitigated one of his biggest weaknesses, screen navigation. 

On ball screens, the Bulls put Vucevic in a shallow drop and showed with Green. The drop is a more conservative form of pick-and-roll defense that covers for Vucevic’s lack of mobility. Showing is more aggressive, and takes advantage of Green’s athleticism and ability to recover to his man while coming out to meet the ballhandler. 

The result of having four athletic and decently-sized defenders playing alongside Vucevic was that the Bulls got their hands on a ton of passes and did not fall victim to off-ball screening actions. They forced the Cavs into an astounding 20 turnovers, which also fueled a terrific transition attack. Green was fantastic guarding pretty much every player on the floor, even switching onto their centers at times. 

Donovan said that he wanted the team to play a little smaller at power forward, and that approach looked like it was extremely beneficial for the defense. The Cavs didn’t really have any bigs who could punish that approach, so we will have to wait and see how it works against other teams. 

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