The Chicago Bulls Commit to a New Philosophy, But At What Cost?

After a decade of playing grunty, physical ball, the Bulls have embraced a faster pace on offense. It's working, but there are still plenty of questions to answer.
November 5, 2015, 8:20pm
Photo by Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Early in the Chicago Bulls' game against the Brooklyn Nets last week, Derrick Rose pushed the pace after a Nets miss, streaking without hesitation toward the basket for an easy layup. The following possession, it was Jimmy Butler rushing down the court, this time quickly firing a pass to Nikola Mirotić in the corner for a three. Very quickly, and very decisively, it was 7-0.

This is who the Chicago Bulls are now. They shot 54 percent that night, scored 115 points, buried 14 threes and beat the Nets, 115-100. On Tuesday, they scored 105 against the Hornets—and gave up 130. All of which is pretty jarring if you've watched the team anytime in the past decade. Under Scott Skiles and Tom Thibodeau—with a brief, incomprehensible interlude featuring Vinny del Negro—the Bulls presented mostly as a group who performed feats of strength in matching uniforms. They never played basketball in a way that leads to rhapsodic description. Think Harvey Araton's When the Garden Was Eden, then picture its exact opposite.

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Under Thibodeau, the Bulls achieved as much from this consciously, even ostentatiously workmanlike approach as any team could have. They routinely ranked among the league leaders in defensive efficiency, grabbed an overabundance of offensive rebounds, and put up results that outpaced the personnel on the floor. All very good. All strikingly anachronistic. Thibodeau's Bulls eschewed the NBA's offensive revolution and studiously ignored the emerging consensus on how minutes played affect player health and effectiveness. It showed, as the team's stars wore down under the workload, and as dominant regular seasons gave way to limping, tapped-out postseasons.

While Thibodeau's results earned him the respect of many outside the Bulls organization, his players were not the only ones worn down by his approach. The Bulls replaced him with Fred Hoiberg this summer: formerly a Bulls player, more recently the reviver of the Iowa State basketball program, he's an exponent of the freewheeling NBA offense that might actually make the Bulls both fun to watch and a real Eastern Conference contender.

When it is OK. Photo by Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Player buy-in came immediately. Rose and his teammates positively glowed about the new offense, and have thus far embraced the opportunity to open things up. While the offense has been as advertised so far, there were concerns about team defense, many of which were borne out in the preseason. These Bulls can win plenty of games through sheer force of will, playing a style utterly different from the rest of the league. They've shown that. Their task this year is to show that they can get the same results while playing a little bit more like everybody else.

"You try to build the habits of the philosophy you want your team to play," Hoiberg said of the emphasis on offense prior to the Bulls' game in Brooklyn. "Our guys have been good with that. Obviously, since Derrick's back in the game, he's injected energy. He's brought us some pace. We just have to continue to play that way. If you're going to be committed to being that team, you have to be committed to it for 48 minutes. And we're still building toward that."

One of the most notable changes is in how the Bulls use their roster. Under Thibodeau last season, Nikola Mirotić, a 6'10'' Toni Kukoc-ian rookie, struggled to find minutes on a team that could desperately have used his offense. This year, against Cleveland in the opener, and again against the Nets, Mirotić started at power forward next to center Pau Gasol, while Joakim Noah, the all-out emblem of the Thibs era, came off the bench. It all makes sense—Noah happily signed on to the new role, and the reduced workload is likely to keep him fresher while the Mirotić's presence early in games should pry open driving lanes for Rose and Jimmy Butler.

This is not Thibs ball, not at all, and it was easy to imagine Thibodeau shaking his head when Cavs forward Kevin Love took Mirotić right to the basket on the season's very first play.

"I think it's great," Hoiberg said of Mirotić's recovery from that moment. "He took it personally, on that first possession, when Love kind of buried him. And I think he battled the heck out of him. I think he realizes how important he is, and a big part of that is being able to guard his position."

When you're enjoying running around with your buddies. Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, Mirotić scored 19 points, leading the Bulls in that opener, though foul trouble limited him to 25 minutes. In a kind of tribute to Thibodeau in microcosm, Noah played 17 minutes, grabbed nine rebounds, did not make or take a shot, and hurt his knee. Through five games, Mirotić has played 146 minutes, Noah 94.

Hoiberg spoke after the game about needing to rely on the team's depth up front and focus on the big picture. It's the same perspective that led him, during the preseason, to express the desire to limit Butler's workload somewhat this year as well. The goal, for Butler and everyone else, is to be fresher for the playoffs, and available all season long. Hoiberg will make minutes calls on a nightly basis, rather than targeting a set number of minutes over a fixed period of time as Gregg Popovich does in San Antonio.

Hoiberg has already made some sacrifices, though some might simply call it finding a balance. "In the preseason, we really tried to address the defense, especially after the first four games, when we were not defending very well," Hoiberg said. "A lot of that was defensive transition and effort plays. And I thought our effort really has been better at that end. Has it cost us a little from where we were at the beginning of the year, offensively? Maybe. You just have to try and get better."

And if it doesn't work? Hoiberg's in the first year of a five-year, $25 million contract, which means the Bulls are likelier to get a new roster than a new coach. With every runout and rest period, the Bulls move further and further away from the Thibodeau era. Wherever they're headed, they're going to try to get there fast.