Problem solved? How Chicago conquered spacing without solving shooting
It was widely agreed, including by this person in this space, that when the Chicago Bulls signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo this summer, they were creating their own problems with floor spacing.
Wade and Rondo have long been two of the very worst three point shooters at their respective guard spots. Considering that in a traditionalist's view, the guard spots are supposed to be the main sources of outside shooting on the court, this was worrying. And even when considering the more contemporary view that spacing can come from anywhere, even the center spot, it still did not bode too well for Chicago, in light of the fact that they did not have much spacing up front. Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic are both average to mediocre outside shooters at this stage of their careers, while starting big men Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez do not stretch the floor at all beyond the free throw line.
This question of spacing is not just being asked of only the Bulls. After the injury to Khris Middleton, we asked the same question of the Milwaukee Bucks, who then made end-of-the-roster moves to try and improve their spacing by trading Michael Carter-Williams to Chicago for Tony Snell. And in doing that deal, the Bulls made their own spacing even worse. Now their backup point guard cannot shoot from outside either. Everyone needs shooting because everyone else has it.
However, Chicago is two games into its season and has two good wins to show for it. The Bulls started with a strong win over good quality opposition in the form of the Boston Celtics, in which they led most of the way, followed by a big win over the Indiana Pacers. And in both of these games, the assumed spacing problems have not been evident. Taking “spacing” up until this point to have meant “three-point shooting” exclusively, the Bulls have shot 11-25 and 9-21 from that range in those two games, both times resulting in team marks of over 40%. That is tremendous shooting, even in a small sample size.
To a small degree, this has been due to Isaiah Canaan, an overall quite limited player who nevertheless does boast the one thing that Chicago needs the most - a jump shot. It has also been in larger degree to the strong start by third-year player, Doug McDermott, the team's best shooter and an early candidate for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year. (Indeed, McDermott should shoot more. He passes up shots too often. Fire them up, Doug. Do what you do best.)
It is also not insignificant that in the second game, none of the starters hit a three-pointer, and all nine three-pointers came from bench players (eight of which were split between McDermott’s five and Canaan’s three). The Rondo/Wade/Butler starting unit is still not a good outside shooting trio, and for reasons of both overall talent level and ego, those three are this year’s starters. A team cannot just solve its spacing issues with bench shooting, and for all the placatory “he always could do it, he just didn’t need to” articles about Wade’s outside shooting right now, the 13-year body of NBA evidence is empirical. There is still a dearth of shooting amongst the starters.
Thus far, head coach Fred Hoiberg has kept the lineup fairly fluid, bringing in bench players relatively early and not sticking to playing his self-appointed best five players all at once all that often. This has helped to juggle the good shooters and the poor shooters to bring good shooting balance, and it needs to continue. But this is not just to be a look at the Bulls’s rotation. Rather, it is an examination of how they have somewhat usurped the need for more shooting in other ways, and a re-examination of what “spacing” is.
“Spacing” is an important criterion in basketball team building. It invariably goes in conjunction with three-point shooting, itself now a bastion of offensive efficiency. The three is worth more than the two or the foul shot, and so a well-shot three is a good shot. And the ancillary benefits of that is that defences have to defend the three-point line closer, in anticipation of more three-point shots being taken by increasingly capable three-point shooters, thus creating more room inside the arc. It is an evolution that has happened and the league will now never go back to the bad old days.
However, spacing is not simply born out of having shooters. And nor is spacing simply worth having for the benefit of a team’s three-point efficiency. Spacing is meant to benefit the entire offence, by creating driving lanes, by creating passing angles, by creating space (hence the name) to operate in, and in getting players open. The three-point shot is a tool that good offences can use to improve spacing and maximise its effectiveness. But it is just one tool. Good offences should be yielding all those benefits anyway.
Thus far, the Bulls have had a good offence. The offensive talents of Rondo, Butler, Wade and everyone mentioned above are well established – indeed, Robin Lopez might be the most limited offensive player in the rotation, yet he is a plenty capable screener, finisher, offensive rebounder and, as he has aged, passer . There is offensive talent at every position, and the Bulls should never find themselves playing four on five. There is no reason why the Bulls should have a bad offence when they have a good quantity and quality of offensive talen, and a coach who was hired in the firm belief that he would transform a stagnant incumbent offensive strategy. This was perhaps overlooked in the rush to decry the lack of shooting.
The reason the Bulls have had a good offence is in part due to their rebounding (this could, and indeed perhaps should, be the best rebounding team in the league), but also crispness. With the exception of Rondo’s occasionally selfish unselfishness, the Bulls have kept the ball moving, moving quickly and crisply, driving on closeouts, spotting up and working off the ball. These things both create and benefit from spacing.
An offence involving Joakim Noah holding the ball at the top of the arc looking to thread the needle is a poorly spaced offence, because no matter how good of a needle-threader he is, his defender needn’t leave the basket, all passing lanes can be swamped, and thus everyone else’s off-ball cuts are irrelevant. An offence featuring Rondo taking a high screen and beating the first line of the defence, finding cutters and spacers while both the ball and the man are in motion, is much better. The argument against the 2016/17 incarnation of the Bulls is that they will have too many non-shooting players akin to Noah above, which will bog down the offence. But the early results is that the offence is not bogged down at all. Help defence is much harder to play against constant motion.
Every halfcourt offensive play sees the defence have to make a countless number of instantaneous decisions. When to step up, how far to step up, whether to reach, where’s the screen. Timing, position, awareness of what’s in front, awareness of what’s behind. Tracking the movement of everyone within two strides of you. Closing out, recovering, not overplaying, not being back-picked. It is all very intricate, and, for all the schemes in the world, it is all about reading and reacting. Defensive schemes try and funnel offences into certain areas, but even once there, the defence must read and react to the offensive counters.
The more variables that an offensive team introduces, then, the more difficult this reading and reacting becomes. This was always the problem with the Steve Francis iso-ball era, or with the interminable Noah Needles – when one person is doing everything, there are far fewer variables. [None of this is a knock on Joakim Noah. I will never knock Joakim Noah.] Yet when everyone on the perimeter can and will cut, can and will drive, and can and will move the ball along, the offence is dynamic and difficult even if the players don’t shoot off of screens well.
Against a shifting defence, Butler can more easily drive to score, Rondo can more easily drive to pass, and Wade can more easily drive to do Wade stuff. All three can and do cut, while Gibson, Lopez and Mirotic are good post targets and roll men. McDermott and Canaan will float around for the kick-outs, while despite missing the vast majority of his shots, Carter-Williams can post up, get to the rim, and will readily pass on the move.
What Chicago has demonstrated thus far with its offence is a constant motion that shifts a defence around. The shifts are slight, but they create slight gaps. The ball fits through these slight gaps, and thus so do passes. There will come an adjustment period while opposing scouts pinpoint every set play in the Bulls’ book, and all the trends and strong areas of the new Hoiberg offence. But no one can ever stop constant motion.
Passing. Screening. Driving. Little wasted motion. No meaningless dribbles. Not dawdling. Hitting open shots. None of it is new, but all of it is timeless. The Bulls haven’t conquered the shooting issue, but they have gone the right way about negating it.