Tom Thibodeau is gone, taking with him his unbridled passion and perfectionism, his relentless focus on defense, his somewhat staid offense, the extended game-time minutes his players endured, and his insistence that his lengthy practices and shootarounds were conducted with playoff intensity. He worked his teams so hard, in fact, that many players and coaches around the league believed that Thibodeau actually shortened his players’ active careers and made them unusually susceptible to injuries.
Enter Fred Hoiberg, an easygoing fellow who’s much more player friendly. Hoiberg’s much-heralded offense has also been advertised as being more concerned with spacing, individual creativity and more quick-hitting than his predecessor’s grind-it-out tactics. Moreover, Hoiberg vowed to use his bench freely and limit his starters’ on-court time.
However, it remains to be seen if Hoiberg’s strategies can accommodate and integrate the ball-hungry skills of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
And what about the gangbusters defense that was always the trademark of Thibodeau’s teams?
A close look at the Chicago Bulls’ opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers provides an indication as to the possibilities, and effectiveness of Hoiberg’s game plan.
- They definitely looked to push the ball. After grabbing defensive rebounds, even Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic swiftly carried the ball over the timeline. Since the Cavs were routinely slow getting back on defense, this tactic produced numerous open shots.
- The setting of brush-screens in early-offense situations were also highly effective.
- When the Bulls did have to resort to their half-court offense, the pivot was rarely occupied, and they initiated their sets from the right side in at least 75 percent of their possessions. Even so, their weak-side dive cuts were almost always open.
- When the ball moved to the left side, their two-man game generated a hoist of open shots: When the ball-handler ran a circle route around the prospective screener, he either had a wide open lane to the hoop or the screener/roller was free. When the big man did receive the ball, his partner usually fanned, received a pass and was also unguarded.
- Sometimes the Bulls went into a modified weave that seemed to totally mystify the Cavs.
- Wherever and whenever the Bulls initiated their offense, there were unattended driving lanes galore. After being tentative out of the box, Derrick Rose took full advantage of these open routes, scoring most of his late-game points (8-22 overall for 18 points) on layups or pull-up jumpers in light traffic.
- Drive-and-kicks likewise proved profitable.
- The only player who set up in the low post was Taj Gibson. But his five ventures there resulted in two missed shots, two harmless out-passes and one trip to the foul line.
- On the minus-side of the ledger, the ball often got stuck on the right side, and snappy ball-reversals were executed on only seven possessions.
- There was no direct articulation between Rose and Jimmy Butler. Indeed, Butler forced several shots (6-14 for 17 points) and didn’t always look comfortable.
- Also, screeners were often so eager to roll hoopwards that they committed three offensive fouls.
A win is a win, especially over the defending Eastern Conference champs. However, it should be noted that Cleveland’s defense was atrocious. The baseline rotations by their bigs were either late or nonexistent. Nor was help provided on most of the Bulls’ screens.
So it remains to be seen whether or not Hoiberg’s motion offense will be successful once the Bulls’ game plan is thoroughly scouted and they face opponents who are serious about playing defense.
- As ever, Cleveland’s offense was almost entirely based on sheer talent and/or isolations. And, as ever, whatever ball movement they had came to a stop whenever LeBron clutched the rock. Indeed, LBJ either shot, drove or passed only under pressure (and only when he could complete a potential assist-pass). Although his numbers looked good (12-22, 10 rebounds, five assists, 25 points), James spent his off-court time lying on his back. Although he played with his usual power, he lacked a certain grace and ease of movement that’s always been characteristic of his performance. Also, as evidenced in Gasol’s blocking of LeBron’s potential game-tying layup with four seconds on the clock, the elevation of the self-styled “Chosen One” was likewise hampered.
- With LeBron prone on the sideline, Cleveland’s ball movement was quick, sure and very productive.
- The Bulls’ help on the Cavs’ weak-side screens was unsatisfactory, and Chicago’s defense was often scattered when under attack from Cleveland’s running game.
- In the endgame, Kevin Love was by his lonesome and thereby allowed to bury a pair of three-balls that turned a relatively easy win into a nail-biter. However, their defense rose to the occasion and clinched the win.
- If Gasol was virtually invisible on offense (1-7, two rebounds, zero assists, two points), his rim protection was extremely valuable.
- If Mirotic was a force on offense (6-11 including three treys for a team-leading 19 points), he was burned by back-cuts and scores three times when he turned his head to watch the ball.
- Rose, Butler, Joakim Noah (nine rebounds in only 17 minutes) and Tony Snell were all active ballhawks.
Overall, Chicago’s defense was merely adequate and looked better than it really was due to the sloppiness and predictability of Cleveland’s offense.
But there’s a long ways to go. It remains to be seen how the Bulls evolve on both ends of the court — and how Hoiberg and his staff will adjust their game plan as opponents study videos and make adjustments.