The Chicago Bulls finally are picking up the pace.
Through the first quarter of the season, the Bulls have been the slowest team in the NBA. Their average pace of 96.61 — measured by the number of possessions in a 48-minute game — is nearly eight fewer than the Indiana Pacers, who lead the league with their up-tempo offense.
But that trend is beginning to change. The Bulls improved to a 98.85 pace in their last two wins entering Wednesday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets at the United Center. If they played at that pace every game, they would be 22nd in the league. That still ranks in the bottom third — but it also keeps up with competitive teams like the Boston Celtics.
Even those who aren’t stats junkies probably noticed this difference. The Bulls didn’t take forever to settle into their half-court offense. They pushed the ball up the court to probe mismatches, then initiated action before the shot clock hit 15. And the result was two of the best offensive performances of the season.
What’s the main difference? Coach Billy Donovan says it’s simple.
“We’ve got to run,” Donovan said. “We’ve got to get down the floor and play with force. With the number of possessions in an NBA game — that’s a lot of running.
“And we’ve got to be able to sustain that. We’re not going to be this ultrafast team in the NBA, but we can do a better job of coming across half court with a little bit more of a thrust than we have.”
The first six or seven seconds on the shot clock is the most critical period for the Bulls to maintain their pace. During those seconds, Donovan wants the Bulls to advance the ball and dig into their half-court offense.
Failing to do so keeps the Bulls from settling into a more comfortable rhythm on offense, which often can lean into their tendency to overrely on isolated play from Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.
Pushing the pace early in a possession also takes advantage of the most disorganized window for the defense, giving Bulls guards a better opportunity to identify a center posting up on a guard or an opposing big man being forced to pick up a streaking wing such as Torrey Craig.
“We’re doing a good job of pushing the ball up even in instances where it’s not like we’re kicking ahead for shots,” Alex Caruso said. “The whole point is we’re getting into stuff quicker and staying in front of the defense. Playing faster doesn’t necessarily mean shoot the ball in the first seven, eight seconds of the shot clock. But get down there and be a threat.”
Every player on the Bulls roster says he likes to play at a faster pace — even the big men.
Backup center Andre Drummond relishes taking the ball full court and will attempt to moonlight as a point guard in transition whenever given the opportunity. And starting center Nikola Vučević feels the style fits better with his approach to the post.
“It fits my game,” Vučević said. “I like to play against other big men, especially ones like Jonas (Valančiūnas) or Brook (Lopez), use my speed and get them moving side to side. We have a team that can do that. Our guards enjoy that.
“What it’s about is when you’re moving at a quick pace, it’s much harder for a defense to react and recover, especially with the space nowadays in the NBA. The freedom of movement now, the way you’re able to utilize that to your advantage is huge.”
Why were the Bulls playing so slowly until now?
Again, playing with pace is hard. It means players don’t get a moment to settle. And while the Bulls aren’t a particularly big team, their roster also isn’t outfitted like the Pacers or Sacramento Kings, who can flat-out beat anybody in a foot race.
But the Bulls do have players who are willing and able to push the ball — particularly young guards Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu, who sparked the offense in recent wins.
“The other responsibility and the sacrifice for the other four guys is that they’ve got to get down the floor too,” Donovan said. “It doesn’t really do a whole lot if Ayo and Coby are pushing the ball and we’ve got four guys behind the ball.”
Why has this pace picked up with LaVine on the sideline?
LaVine is built to play at full speed — he’s nimble in the open court and a devastating finisher at the rim when he can get opponents on the run. But when the Bulls get uncomfortable in a game, they too often allow both LaVine and DeRozan to slip into single-man scoring, which keeps the entire offense from getting involved.
If the Bulls can plug LaVine into the way they’re playing now, the offense would see an automatic boost. LaVine’s ability to slash to the rim and spray out to the 3-point arc would bolster players like White, who is on a hot streak.
Pace is the key for the Bulls to dig themselves out of a 7-14 hole. Identifying the source of their sluggishness — and stamping it out — will be the focus of the next quarter of the season.
“If I had the answer, we’d be sitting at a better record,” Vučević said. “Hopefully we’ve figured it out now and we’ve realized what needs to be done and we stick to it. That’s the only way we’re going to become a better team; otherwise, we’re going to keep struggling.”