A few days ago, I broke down the candidacy of Tom Thibodeau for the vacant head coaching position of the New Orleans Pelicans. Thanks to a quick glance of the pace statistic and trusting common knowledge, I assumed one of his drawbacks was that his teams never looked to push the ball.
During his five seasons, the Bulls have ranked in descending seasons 21st, 28th, 26th, 25th and 22nd in pace. Prior to Rose's 2012 ACL blowout, the Bulls seemed to have the age to push the basketball: Deng, Rose, Noah and Gibson were all 25 or under.
Since that post, I've become keenly aware of how prevalent this theory is across social media. The problem is, it is affecting too many judgments regarding Thib's viability for New Orleans when no substantial proof has been produced. Thus, to be fair to objective analysis, let's take a closer look at the aspect of pace during his five years in Chicago.
Thibodeau rarely had the pieces
To be able to push the ball in transition, a team must have the proper components. For instance, multiple ball handlers, quickness and finishers are a must. Below is a list of the starting lineups during Thibodeau's tenure.
|Bulls||Starting Lineups||Offensive Rating||Pace|
Before this season, Chicago was immensely reliant on Derrick Rose to get easy baskets. A quick scan of the offensive rating tells you everything you need to know. Thus, examining the pace is a fruitless endeavor twice above when Derrick Rose missed 2013 and played 10 games in the other 2014.
During these seasons, Kirk Hinrich was a 32/33 year old combo-guard masquerading as a point guard. The 2013 combo of Hamilton/Deng were not quick, above average ball handlers and solid finishers. The following year, Butler had an immensely disappointing season and Dunleavy was not a player who was going to often fill lanes, let alone lead a fast break.
Consequently, that's why Nate Robinson seemed to shine in his lone year in Chicago and D.J Augustin the next. However, those two could have never carried the transition games because they've never been above average distributors for the point guard position. Their abilities to break down their men or use their shiftiness to their advantages appeared better skills than they actually were in reality because of the anti-transition teammates they had to share the court with.
This past season, the Bulls started off the year an unfamiliar territory -- they found themselves in the top half of the league in pace.
Nearly a quarter of the way into the season, the Bulls are ranked 12th in offensive efficiency, 10th in effective field-goal percentage and, perhaps most surprising, 12th in pace, using 96.2 possessions per game. It's a stark contrast from the pace at which Thibodeau-led offenses have played in years' past. In fact, before this season the Bulls hadn't played faster than 93 possessions per game and had never ranked higher than 22nd in the NBA.
The main reason? A healthy Derrick Rose to push the pace and create opportunities and the 2014-15 Most Improved Player of the Year, Jimmy Butler, turned into one of the game's best finishers in transition.
"We're getting more fast-break baskets," Thibodeau said. "We're attacking the basket better. Jimmy is, of course, a big part of that. We have a number of guys that can put it on the floor. I think Derrick changes that, too, because we're catching teams in transition a lot more."
The Bulls were humming along fine until February and March. Butler suffered a shoulder strain, and then less than 3 weeks later, he hyperextended his left elbow that forced him to miss 11 games. Meanwhile, Rose suffered a meniscus tear in his right knee during this time frame. In conjunction, the Bulls' pace dropped to 26th in February and 25th in March.
Once they both returned to the court again in April, the pace picked back up. The 2 month drop in pace was evidenced well by a meager 9.3 fast break points average. In all the other months of the season, the Bulls combined to average 11.7 FBP's. Had Rose and Butler avoided injury, the Bulls would have finished with a pace practically identical to that of the Atlanta Hawks, a team that finished 15th overall and one that has been revered for having such a balanced approach.
Personnel and their god-given ability can make a difference, and for the Bulls, it most assuredly did. Yet, I believe that Tom Thibodeau's Team USA experience may have also played a factor in the increase of Chicago's pace in 2014-15. He had a front row seat to frenetic pace.
Under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the men's national team plays a style of basketball reminiscent of Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell." Players are always stepping into passing lanes, pressing opponents, and looking to convert turnovers into fast break opportunities.
This experience would help explain why the Bulls were not at least a slightly stronger transition scoring team in Thibodeau's first two seasons in Chicago when they had health, youth and a wing finisher like Ronnie Brewer.
Do the Pelicans have multiple pieces?
New Orleans boasts three above average ball-handling guards in Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans. More importantly, they've got the most devastatingly gifted big man in the game. Anthony Davis can glide down the floor as quickly as most backcourt players.
Nonetheless, I'm not sure any of this matters because those three guards were awful at turning transition opportunities into points. This shouldn't be news if you remember the Another Look at the Transition Game article I posted back at the end of January.
I can't advocate that the team currently look to run whenever possible. Our ball handlers have been just too pitiful in this department. Transition has always been a weakness of Jrue Holiday. This season, Tyreke Evans is turning it over at an unacceptable level while Eric Gordon has had trouble finding the bottom of the net.
If one of the ball handlers has an obvious break, and they've got a good finisher or two running alongside of them, then by all means, please press the issue. Otherwise, just consider running some offense, until at least Evans or Gordon can cure whatever has been ailing them.
Below is how the trio finished and the season in transition opportunities.
|Player||PPP||Turnover Frequency||Free throw Frequency||FG%||Percentile|
For comparison's sake, here is a list of five leading ball handlers for their respected teams that ranked at the top of the league in fast break points.
|Player||PPP||Turnover Frequency||Free throw Frequency||FG%||Percentile|
Evans, Gordon and Holiday lagged well behind their competition. Further, this group played alongside a number of excellent wing finishers. The Pelicans only had Quincy Pondexter as an above average finisher. Davis can alleviate some of these concerns, but when you consider he normally starts fast breaks from around the opponent's rim (defensive positioning / defensive rebounding), he's not going to be available to fill a lane as a Corey Brewer, Jimmy Butler or Bradley Beal.
Over the last several days, most dissenters of Tom Thibodeau have been pointing to the pace of his Chicago Bulls' teams as being a major drawback. Well, I think enough data exists that it hasn't been the coach holding the team back in the Windy City so much as it's personnel. Kind of like what Thib's will have to deal with in New Orleans if he becomes the next head coach of the Pelicans and an identical roster.