Pau Gasol Helps, But He May Not Solve Chicago’s Biggest Problem

March 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol (16) shoots against the defense of San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls signing of Pau Gasol for $22 million over three years is undoubtedly a positive, as he adds to their talent base for a reasonable price. Gasol is possibly the most skilled back to basket scorer of his generation, 7 feet tall, and a deft and willing passer. Pau also brings something no one else on the Bulls current roster possesses: NBA championship winning experience.1 He is also a massive upgrade on the recently amnestied Carlos Boozer. Those are the positives. The trouble for Chicago is that Gasol does not address their most glaring offensive problem.

Last year’s Chicago Bulls were, without question, the league’s absolute worst driving team. According to the NBA’s SportVU Player Tracking data, no team drove less frequently on a per-minute basis than Chicago’s 15.9 drives per 48 minutes.2 Additionally, no team converted a worse percentage of their field goals on drives than the Bulls abysmal 39.3%.3 It wasn’t even particularly close. The next worst team was the Timberwolves, hitting at a rate of 41.5%.4 This is significant, because team FG% on drives had a strong relationship with team Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) this past season.5

No surprise, then, that the Bulls had the worst non-tanking offense in the league.6 Chicago were also 3rd worst in the league on Points Per Drive 7, which given their league-lowest volume of drives, lead to them having easily the fewest points per game on drives, at just 9.3 points.8

Last season, not one of the Bulls guard and wing rotation produced an above average FG% on drives. Their two best options over the course of the season were Luol Deng and D.J. Augustin, who converted at rates of 44.4% and 42.6% respectively. Of course, you ‘ll remember that Luol Deng was traded away in-season to Cleveland (and then signed recently with Miami as a bit of a consolation prize after the Heat’s loss of LeBron James) and D.J. Augustin was signed by the Detroit Pistons. Derrick Rose was next best at converting field goals off drives at 42.2% (nearly identical to Augustin), but he only played 10 games.

Similarly, Chicago only had 4 players on their roster who drove at above average rates per minute9, and only two of them played significant minutes: D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich.10 Hinrich was barely above league average at 4.9 drives per 48 minutes, though Chicago’s slow pace had something to do with that.11 Augustin was much more prolific with his drives at 8.3 per 48 minutes. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Augustin will not be returning. Kirk Hinrich will be, but his driving volume is relatively low for a player who plays frequently as a point guard and he isn’t even particularly effective when he does drive, converting just 37.3% of his field goals on drives.

None of the Bulls offseason acquisitions figure to be particularly adept at driving the ball into the teeth of the defense. Pau Gasol almost never drives, given that he’s a 7 foot center with post-up skills. Nikola Mirotic is a skilled, sweet-shooting power forward from Europe with a little ability to put the ball on the deck, but it’s not exactly something you should expect him to do very often. The Bulls’ first round draft pick Doug McDermott, like Mirotic, can put the ball on the deck off of close outs and after curling around a screen, but he’s rarely, if ever going to blow by anyone to break down a set defense.

There may be a bit of a chicken and egg problem, here. The Bulls perimeter players may be infrequent, ineffectual drivers due to poor floor spacing. Chicago was tied for 25th in the league with Detroit for the percentage of their shot attempts taken which were three pointers.12 In addition to not taking very many threes, the Bulls also weren’t very good at making the ones they did take, ranking 24th in the league in 3 point percentage, as they converted at just 34.8%. Add it all up and you have this:

bulls shot chart


Yuck. What the Bulls offseason lacked in dribble drive creators, it delivered on in the form of additional three point shooting. Mirotic and McDermott are two extremely strong three-point shooters and should space the floor. McDermott shot nearly 45% from 3s on a heavy volume at Creighton last season and hit on over 48% of his threes in his sophomore and junior seasons. He is nothing if not a dead-eye shooter. Similarly, Mirotic shot over 46% from deep in his final season as a member of Real Madrid in the Euroleague on 4.7 attempts per 40 minutes.13 Additionally, given his fluid shooting stroke, Tony Snell figures to shoot better than the 32% from deep he hit last season and Bulls fans have to hope that Jimmy Butler’s woeful shooting from outside14 was a product of the lower body injuries he suffered at the start of this season.

Finally, one thing Pau gives the Bulls is a legitimate low-post presence into whom they can enter the ball via the pass. As no less an authority than the great Phil Jackson has noted, there are three ways to penetrate a defense: via dribble drive, via a pass (often into the post), or via an offensive rebound (the Bulls method of choice in the Thibodeau years).

If the Bulls are able to properly space the floor with three point shooting, driving lanes should open up that previously haven’t existed, making it easier for them to drive with greater frequency and effectiveness than last season. They may also use the passing skills of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol to facilitate penetration of the defense via the pass into the interior of the defense, which would mitigate the need for as much driving. There’s more than one way to skin the offensive cat. Still, it is a little worrying that so much of the dribble drive burden will once again be placed on Derrick Rose’s shoulders.15 Chicago has to hope that Tony Snell’s confidence and improved ball handling from summer league helps him alleviate the burden and hey, maybe they should look into signing Jordan Crawford for the veteran’s minimum.16

  1. Count the ringzzzzz. Pau has two.
  2. SportVU defines a drive as: “Any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks. Measures the total number of drives as well as the points, assists and shooting percentages on drives to the basket.”
  3. League average was roughly 45.2%.
  4. Minnesota, you might recall, start Ricky Rubio at point guard, a notoriously poor finisher inside.
  5. It’s possible that this relationship is a fluke, given that this a sample of exactly one season, but given the strength of the relationship and the common sense basketball understanding that drives set up many aspects of efficient offense, it’s probably legitimate.
  6. Only Philadelphia and Orlando were worse.
  7. Only Atlanta and Minnesota were worse.
  8. League average per team was 14.3 points per game off drives.
  9. 4.4 drives per 48 minutes was the average league-wide for individual players.
  10. The other two were Derrick Rose (10.3 drives per 48 minutes) and Marquis Teague (9.3 drives per 48 minutes).
  11. The Bulls played at the league’s third slowest pace at just 92.7 possessions per 48 minutes. League average was 96.3 possessions.
  12. Only 22.2% of Chicago’s FGA were threes.
  13. Shooting numbers for McDermott and Mirotic via the excellent Draftexpress.com.
  14. 28.3% from 3!
  15. And knees. Gulp.
  16. Crawford averaged 8.2 drives per 48 minutes and converted 44.7% of his field goals on drives.

Kevin Ferrigan