What we learned from the Bulls' demolition of the Pelicans

How they're scoring at an insane level on offense and keeping pressure defensively

After going ahead against the Cleveland Cavaliers by 48 points in their first preseason game, it was a bit of a disappointment for the Bulls to be up only 46 against the Pelicans on Friday.

Not bad for a team that many national analysts were predicting to finish outside of the playoffs at season’s end.

Yes, the Pelicans were missing key players in Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. And the Cavaliers are projected to be one of the worst teams in the league. But what more can these Bulls do to show that they’re going to be a legitimate playoff team?

Here’s what caught my eye on Friday.

1. Egalitarian offense

Forget about the talk of Lonzo Ball being a traditional point guard. The Bulls are going to share playmaking duties across the board. Look at the first four plays of the game for proof: (video link for those interested)

  • Post up for Nikola Vucevic

  • Ball running a pick-and-roll with Vucevic to set up a Vucevic elbow jumper

  • Zach LaVine running a pick-and-roll with Vucevic playmaking out of the short roll

  • DeMar DeRozan hitting a jumper out of the short roll with Vucevic

The basic tenets of the Bulls offense seems to be for whoever gets the rebound to get the ball up the court as quickly as possible to look for something easy in transition. If nothing’s there, then whoever brought the ball up will usually fall into a two-man game with Vucevic. 

Vucevic explained that philosophy post-game, as transcribed by Cody Westerlund in his excellent game recap

“A lot of the offense will be a two-man game with me and different guys. I think my ability to get to be able to roll, to short-roll, make plays out of it or pop, it just gives us different looks that we can use. And we have a lot of great guys in pick-and-roll with Lonzo, DeMar, Alex, Zach and then when Coby (White) comes back as well. It just gives us so many different looks that we can use, and we try to take advantage of it.” 

Part of this is due to the random nature with which Donovan wants to play (look to Westerlund’s recap again for the full quote). Donovan wants his team to play fast first and foremost, ceding much of the play-calling to his players on live-ball possessions. That quasi-improvisational style is extremely difficult to scout for and makes sense with the high-feel vets that the Bulls now have. 

2. Hawk cuts and multiple cuts galore

The Bulls are cutting a ton, which is creating easy offense for players. They started the game running a Hawk cut to establish post position for Vucevic and ran another one that should have resulted in an easy layup for LaVine.

They’re also using a massive amount of 45 cuts, which is a cut at a 45 degree angle to the basket, on the weak side of the floor. 

The Bulls were already a really good cutting team last year. They were the best team in the league at scoring out of cuts in terms of efficiency and seventh in terms of frequency. Cuts in general are one of the most efficient forms of offense and every team wants to cut more. Props to Donovan for finding a way for his guys to actually do it. 

Ball, DeRozan, and Coby White will be interesting case studies in how far Donovan can push the envelope with his cutting. All three were among the 12 most reticent cutters in the league out of the 332 players tracked in the NBA’s stats database. Ball had a beauty of a cut against the Pelicans and was cutting a ton in general. I’ll be watching to see if Donovan can unlock that part of their games. 

3. Vucevic playing higher

The Bulls’ drop defense caught a lot of flak last season, but drop is a pretty fundamental strategy across the league. Both teams who made the NBA Finals relied on it as their base defense. 

Maybe some of that criticism will go away this year with Vucevic. Donovan looks to be playing him a little higher up, closer to the level of the screen. We already saw in the first game that the Bulls were employing more aggressive defensive tendencies across the board, switching off-ball screens and showing with some of their more mobile players.

Keeping Vucevic a step or two closer to the ballhandler in a more shallow drop before he starts his backpedal towards the rim on drives is another example of Donovan’s commitment to being aggressive and taking advantage of the athleticism behind him.

4. Steal machines

The Bulls are averaging 13.5 steals per game this preseason, which will not hold. The Grizzlies and 76ers tied for the league lead last year at 9.1. But how much of that can carry over into the regular season, and how are they this good at generating steals when they were bottom three last year? 

Some of the uptick is schematic. A lot of it is personnel-based. Ball has been a monster in the passing lanes, as I showed in my twitter thread on his defense on Friday morning. 

Javonte Green has also been a terror defensively. He’s been ripping the ball out of opponents’ hands and blowing up basic actions. He has easily been the player that has most improved his stock this preseason. 

Alex Caruso has been another high-steal guy and might lead the preseason in attempted charges drawn. 

The Bulls have looked great in large part due to their penchant for generating turnovers and turning them into fast break offense the other way. It’s not sustainable to the degree that they’re doing it, but this looks like it might be a top 10 steals team after being one of the worst last year. 

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