Playoff Capsule: Chicago Bulls

Caleb Nordgren is a proud Chicagoan, a journalism student at Michigan State University, the editor of Pippen Ain’t Easy, a reporter for The State News and an avid Twitterer. He should probably get a life, one of these days. – Ed.

The 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are a strange team. I don’t really get them. Sometimes they play down to their competition, sometimes they play up to it, sometimes they do what I expect them too, but most times they don’t. Even a prophet would have trouble forecasting this team.

Strategically, however, they’re a lot more coherent.


The Bulls basic offensive concept boils down to this: Movement, movement, try pick and roll, screw it let’s go iso, oh god the shot clock’s winding down, jack up a shot, hope for an offensive rebound.

Now, obviously, that’s kind of the worst-case scenario. But it happens quite a bit with the Bulls. In a more perfect world, the Bulls offense looks something like this:

The ball starts on the perimeter, looking into the post. It swings from side to side until they can make the entry, at which point Carlos Boozer holds to let the cutters go through. If nobody comes free, Boozer will probably just go iso. When healthy, the Bulls are blessed with two excellent passing big men in Boozer and Joakim Noah. Much of the offense on a given night will come from one of the two facilitating from the high post or the low block.

Another frequent tenet of the Bulls offense is the pick and roll, although if we’re going to be honest, the personnel is less than ideal for it. Derrick Rose would help, obviously, but god only knows — no, seriously — when he’ll be back. As it is, it’s up to people like Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli to run it, and, well…let’s just say it could go better.

You’ll see a lot of screen slipping with the Bulls. Boozer in particular is fond of that technique, and it’s helpful against trapping defenses, like the Miami Heat, for instance.

It’s probably not worth talking much more about PnR. The Bulls do it much like most other teams, albeit less successfully.

One thing the Bulls do as much as if not more than any other team is double-single or “floppy” sets. Tom Thibodeau came from Boston, as you probably know, and he imported a number of sets that the Celtics used with Ray Allen and the Bulls used with first Kyle Korver, then Rip Hamilton, and now whoever happens to be healthy enough to play the two. The basic concept there is pretty simple, but occasionally the Bulls run something pretty cool out of it.

They don’t run that as often as I’d like, but it pops up every now and again. I broke it down piece by piece in January, but essentially it’s a misdirection play. They get you focused on the same double-single action they’ve run 20 times already, and then casually sneak the opposite wing in the back door. It’s pretty cool.

Also, Jimmy Butler’s face as he hangs from the rim is one of my favorite things ever.


I’m not going to spend much time here, because anyone dedicated enough to be reading this is already at least somewhat familiar with Tom Thibodeau’s defense, and also because Grantland’s Zach Lowe broke it down much better than I suspect I could back in February.

The Bulls defense, when healthy, is very, very good. The numbers don’t look great overall this year, but when Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson miss as much time as they have — and when they do it simultaneously — and with Luol Deng missing the occasional game and playing hurt the rest of the time, that will happen. If Noah/Taj/Deng can stay mostly healthy for the playoffs, that will help immensely.

Pet plays

We covered the double-single backdoor lob play earlier, and that’s the main set that comes to mind when I think about specific plays the Bulls run. But Thibs has a couple of sideline out of bounds plays that he’ll break out in close games when the situation calls for it.

I haven’t seen this one all that recently — chalk that up at least mostly to Rose’s absence, and you’ll see why in a minute — but this is a SLOB play that literally won the Bulls a game in January 2012.

I love this play because it specifically exploits the notion that the Bulls tend to just hand the ball to Derrick Rose and let him do his thing. Rose comes up like he’s going to get a brush screen from Deng, who just inbounded the ball to Noah. But he’s actually setting a kind of pseudo-screen for Deng to cut backdoor. In the video above, you can see Joe Johnson doubling Rose, then hesitating a second too long as Deng runs by him.

Now, if Atlanta had managed to defend Deng properly, there are still other options. The Bulls have actually managed both to get Deng open and to free Rose to come take a handoff from Noah and run a de facto pick and roll. And if Noah doesn’t like that and/or Atlanta overplays the handoff, Noah will hold onto the ball and look to drive it himself. It would be almost impossible to defend all three options correctly at the same time.

Another SLOB play we’ve seen much more recently is this one:

broke this down when it happened in March, and the effectiveness in that particular instance owes at least in part to Andre Miller doing … whatever the heck it was he was doing there, but it’s a solid design. If Miller had managed to defend that even somewhat correctly, and had the Bulls not needed a three in that particular instance, Nate Robinson could have run pick and roll with Noah, while Marco Belinelli, Deng and Boozer space the floor. But generally this yields a relatively open three.

In short, while Tom Thibodeau is obviously not known as an offensive genius, he knows what he’s doing. If he had more competent offensive players, the team would obviously suck less at that end. But his defense is the calling card, and that’s what will determine how far the Bulls go this year.

Well, that and Derrick Rose. But still.


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