The Bulls will beat you up to get shots

After thumping the Hawks by twenty in Atlanta, the Bulls are now a tidy 12-5 without superstar Derrick Rose. Today John Hollinger has noted that while the Bulls are a murderous defensive club with or without Rose (something that wasn’t nearly so true last season), they do miss his punch on offense. Still, the Bulls score well enough to win. At the pace they’re on, the Bulls would be expected to be a 58 win team even without Rose. How are they performing so well even without their unquestioned offensive engine?

One reason is that C.J. Watson is a serviceable starting point guard. He’s not Rose, but his PER has risen to a respectable 15.0, he’s shooting 43 percent on 3′s and he’s a terrific defender. John Lucas III is small, not very quick and an obvious weakpoint on the defensive end, but damn can he shoot. As a back up’s back up, you could do a whole lot worse.

But a underlying strength of the Bulls offense (with or without Rose) is that they do all sorts of things to “create” shots that don’t involve a prototypical shot creator. There’s nothing simpler than letting Rose torch his man off the dribble then kick out to an open teammate, but when we expand the definition of “shot creator” to include more subtle methods, we see that less-heralded Bulls do plenty in this regard.

To start, the big guys set brutal screens, and the wings are excellent at creating space and making good decisions off of these screens. Effective screening is one of the most underrated and under-emphasized skills in the NBA. Too often players are looking to slip to their own shot, or simply don’t do enough to generate as much contact as possible–because that’s what a screen is all about: physically dislodging a defender from his charge.

Joakim Noah seeks contact all over the court and relishes any chance to scrape a defender off one of his curling teammates. Chicago’s most skilled big man, Carlos Boozer, is also an excellent screener. Not only does he get in an almost comically wide stance to set them, but he’s smart when working off the screen and makes excellent pop/roll decisions. Taj Gibson and Omer Asik, the Bulls bench bash bros, seem to live for contact, and both make excellent targets for lobs when they roll to the rim.

The importance of these screens is hard to overstate, especially in concert with smart off-ball players like Luol Deng, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer.

Korver uses hard screens to distort the defense and create space for passes and cuts. Deng has battled through injuries to remains a nearly 40 percent 3-point shooter who can capable scorer off of one or two dribbles, but the Bulls more consistent sans-Rose offense can also be traced to Ronnie Brewer, who can’t shoot a lick. Without Rose on the court, Brewer can be the most interesting Bull to watch on the offensive end because he’s so clever without the ball. Turn your head for an instant and he’s at the rim, and he uses curls screens (and passes out of them) exceptionally well. Like Boozer, Brewer’s experience in the Jerry Sloan flex gives him an instinct for operating in tight spaces, and Brewer works the baseline as well as anyone in the league.

These are skills that might be squandered elsewhere, but the Bulls also handle the ball well at each position. Individually, it doesn’t make a huge difference that Taj Gibson can be trusted from the high post, but when all five players can make quick reads and good passes without turning it over, the aggregate effect is significant.

Of course the real strength of the Bulls offense, even when Rose plays, is their defense and offensive rebounding. We don’t conceive of offensive rebounding this way, but it is literal shot creation. You can’t shoot unless you have the ball, and the Bulls huge wings and tenacious big men more than make up for a lack of one-on-one skills by simply ensuring their team can take more shots than the opponent.

There are hundreds of these little physical battles during an NBA game: on each screen and every skirmish for position. The Bulls, perhaps better than any team in the league, just refuse to concede these details. Over the course of 48 minutes, those little battles add up on the scoreboard. I’m not sure if this means they are any more prepared to take down Miami in the playoffs than they were last season, but I can’t imagine what a literal and figurative pain it would be to play against them on a routine regular season contest, even when the scariest guy on the team sits harmlessly on the bench.

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