NBA Opening Night Teaser: A Quick Preview of the Wolves, Bulls, and Warriors

 

Wolves Narrative:

The Tom Thibodeau hire was universally praised. And while questions remain about player usage and offensive efficiency, his year off was utilized to study the game and spend time with successful coaches and organizations. With the best young core in the league, there is league-wide optimism about the Timberwolves future. With the most coveted big man in the league since Anthony Davis and high-ceiling wings in Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine, the big question going into year one of the Thibs era is surrounding the point guard position. Is Ricky Rubio the long-term point guard, or is he a holdover until Kris Dunn is ready? Kris Dunn impressed at Summer League, showing an ability to get into the lane at will, and knocked down more perimeter jumpers than anticipated.

Rubio led the Wolves to 11th in offensive efficiency and 5th in assists last season. By almost every metric, the Wolves were much better with him on the court. He’s a great defender, generates steals, and has vision in the pick and roll game. Statistically, players around him shoot better from three with him on the floor.

At the same time, Rubio was top 10 in time of possession with the ball in his hands. He’s a ball-stopping point guard who probes and probes until he finds a good look. While you can run a top 10 offense like this, can you run a title-winning offense this way? Given his limitations scoring, can the Wolves be married to an offense where Rubio is dominating the ball? Would they be better served running a triangular, motion offense through Karl Anthony Towns?

It is hard to know given that Rubio has been effective when healthy. But his ceiling may not be as high as a position-less offense with Dunn, LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns as the featured players. More touches for young, developing players may not lead to more efficiency at the onset, but could pay off in two to three years.

The Rubio versus Dunn problem is a good one to have. For now, Thibs has three point guards (Tyus Jones as well) and can try different types of offenses. Dunn and Jones can also play minutes alongside Rubio as scoring threats. And because Rubio defends, he can certainly help build a defensive-minded culture in Minnesota. But if Dunn looks to be starting caliber, as many think he will be, a Rubio trade could be in the works.

 

 

 Bulls X's O's:

 How do you solve the lack of shooting conundrum?

 To state the obvious, the Bulls lack shooting, at least amongst their presumed starting five. The projected lineup of Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez have career three point percentages of 28.9, 28.4, 32.8, 35.5, and 0 respectively. While second unit players Doug McDermott, Denzel Valentine, and even Bobby Portis possess stronger potential for shooting, their crunch time players just don’t have that skill set.

 So how do you score when the spacing is simply not there, and teams can pack it in with help defenders? Well for one, there has to be a ton of ball movement and player movement. These are cliche terms, but a lot of teams simply stand around. There’s a reason the Spurs have five championships, the Warriors became historically good, and even the Hawks put together a 60-win season in 2014. If you relentlessly cut, screen, and move, then defenses will eventually make mistakes. And when you have finishers like Wade and Butler to go along with the court vision of Rondo, seams will be found. Not to mention that Butler and Wade can simply take over games on their own at times. McDermott and Mirotic provide enough shooting to complement this.

 And yet, with ball-stoppers like Rondo, Wade, and Butler, the thought of a true motion offense, triangle offense, or even pace and space are unlikely. Rondo wants to play on the ball, prodding off of pick and rolls for an assist. But rather than fight that, it’s about figuring out what to do off the ball.

 To start, the PNR needs to be initiated with Rondo and Wade or Rondo and Butler. The lack of shooting is mitigated by the dual down-hill threat. Wade and Butler are so strong that most opposing point guards cannot simply switch onto them. If you hedge and go under, the screener will beat you backdoor. While this action occurs, Robin Lopez or Taj Gibson should initiate off ball screens, whether it be for backdoor cuts to Wade or Butler (whoever is not involved in the pick and roll), or for Mirotic searching for a three. This is a grueling, methodical way to score, but it can work with the combined IQ of these veterans.

 Expect opposing styles from the Bulls. The starters will devolve into one-on-one play at times as running the aforementioned sets are hard to do play after play. The second unit will be able to run Hoiberg’s Pace and Space. A unit of Jerian Grant, Denzel Valentine, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis, and Cris Felicio will play extremely hard (we saw this sans Doug at Summer League). They are active, and can push the ball. The starters will have to be creative, but Wade, Rondo, and Butler have too much pride for it to completely flop.

 

Warriors X's and O’s: Split Cuts

 In 2009, the Magic trotted out four three-point shooters to surround Dwight Howard. The concept was simple: make the defense pay for any type of help. This philosophy has evolved considerably since, maximized by the Golden State Warriors organization. The Warriors use 5 perimeter-capable players at the same time to make it nearly impossible to overload with help defense. Choosing to do so would be to concede a wide open three.

 And yet, the Warriors still started Andrew Bogut. This is because a five-out, perimeter heavy Death Lineup has weaknesses in rim-protection, rebounding, and defensive rotation. Andrew Bogut, a stabilizing, reliable big man, mitigated that early in the game. With the loss of Bogut, Zaza Pachulia steps in as a cost-effective replacement, but not one with the passing savvy of Andrew Bogut. Offensively, Bogut possessed a unique ability to pass out of the mid-post which opened up the Warriors split cut game.

 The split cut game typically would be a feed from Curry on the wing into Bogut at the mid-post. This would initiate a series of options: flare screens, backdoor cuts, laker cuts, down screens, and much more. Regardless of the action, you’d end up with the post split, meaning that Bogut would have cutters or options on both sides of him. This is difficult to guard as these cuts are reads and reactions and cannot be memorized by the defense.

 If there was a weakness however, it is that Bogut’s offensive game did not pose a threat. Locked in and disciplined teams could strategize to switch everything or stay glued to their man and not worry about Bogut going one-on-one. Even with Draymond Green receiving, defenses knew that the post-up was being utilized to move the ball.

 With Kevin Durant in the fold, the Warriors now have a player that can command all five defenders into excessive weak side help. The thought of Durant initiating the split cut action is scary. His length and ability to score in so many ways only makes it harder to follow the off-ball screening. He can face up and shoot, back a smaller defender down, and try to bait help to get Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, and Green open looks. Draymond receiving the entry pass is another option as well. Now you have even better shooting with Curry, Thompson, and Durant surrounding the post action. Add Livingston to the mix and there are so many possibilities and variations.

Kevin Durant has not used the post as much as anticipated earlier in his career. With his ability to shoot over perimeter players and use his length to get to the basket, he hasn’t had a need to. At the same time, Durant got in trouble in Oklahoma City at times putting the ball on the floor in the middle of the lane with a packed paint. Operating out of the mid-post with off-ball action is a secure way to both use Durant in isolation and to open up backdoor cuts and open threes.