With the 2016-17 NBA season rapidly approaching, we’ll use our division previews to take a look at a key question, play or theme that may define a team’s success. 

Chicago Bulls

- Are there ways for the Bulls to manufacture spacing in their offense?

As we noted earlier this summer, Chicago’s offseason “rebuild” had some flash, but very little substance -- at least when it came to the needs the team’s front office claimed they were seeking to address. So instead of finding players capable of fitting seamlessly into Fred Hoiberg’s “pace and space” system, the Bulls ended up with Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade as their starting backcourt. While the two vets obviously bring some valuable skills to the table, a threatening outside shot isn’t one of them.

Combined with the middling performance of what was supposed to their power forward of the future, Nikola Mirotic, the disappearance of Tony Snell and defensive limitations of Doug McDermott, the Bulls are lacking 3-point shooters among their core rotation members. In a lot of ways, Chicago’s current makeup makes them the antithesis of a modern NBA backcourt. But short of stumbling across a DeLorean and a flux capacitor, Hoiberg will have to make due with what he’s got and creatively circumvent his spacing issues.

The first part of that is tempo. After all, a team constantly looking to find offense in the first third of the shot clock won’t face much in the way of a rigid, set defense. And if the Bulls first preseason game is any indication, Rondo appears to be buying into advancing the ball up court as quickly as possible no matter the defensive result. 


The general idea behind quickly getting the ball upcourt is simple: attack the defense when less defenders are present and in good positions to help. Playing offense, particularly at the NBA level, is much easier 3-on-3 than it is 5-on-5, especially when in the latter situation when defenders can slink off shooters, plant themselves in valuable real estate and essentially make it three or four versus five. Sticking to a quicker pace will create more situations with less defenders back while the team is attacking, meaning a lack of shooting won’t be as damaging to getting high value shots, like ones near the rim.

The other concept to mitigate the lack of shooting will be half-court possessions featuring a commitment to side-to-side movement like this one in the Bulls’ preseason matchup versus the Bucks:


Though this concept is often overblown as some type of precursor to good offense, it is critical for teams that lack shooting like Chicago. If the Bulls just lined up and tried to run one pick-and-roll with their starting personnel, teams would just load up off players like Wade, Taj Gibson, etc. and snuff out any threats. Shifting a defense side to side via ball and man movement, however, creates both better alignments (basically where the players are standing when something like a pick-and-roll takes place) and can often deter opposing defenses from using their preferred coverages. On top of that, side-to-side shifting simply displaces defenders, meaning their responsibilities constantly change both on and off the ball -- which causes hesitation and confusion, like when Giannis Antetokounmpo gets figuring out whether to to hedge or switch the pick-and-roll Gibson eventually scores on.

If the Chicago can consistently stick to emphasizing these two concepts in their offense, Hoiberg’s second season as coach might go better than expected. If not, don’t expect the Bulls to be playing deep into the spring. 

Milwaukee Bucks

- How will the Greg Monroe dilemma affect the team’s on-court dynamic?

When it comes to the center position, the Bucks have the luxury of employing three players whose value derives from non-overlapping skills. The recently re-signed Miles Plumlee excels as a pick-and-roll finisher. The long-limbed John Henson provides rim protection at the defensive end of the floor. Monroe, despite his warts and failure to mesh last season, does have plenty of value as a high post facilitator and post up threat. 

In theory, Jason Kidd can mix and match these three depending on the situation and opposing personnel to great effect. After all, Milwaukee was generally better when their prize free agent signing was on the court last season. With Monroe on the court , the Bucks were outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions versus 5.9 when he sat, per 82games.com data. That number is actually quite impressive given how damaging Monroe’s presence was to team’s defense as Milwaukee posted a sieve-like 111.3 defensive rating with him on the court.  

But partly because of Monroe’s defensive deficiencies, the scenario of Kidd deftly mixing and matching his bigs to great success is almost an impossible task. Outside of the human element -- ego, pride and the ability to showcase value for future contracts -- structuring an offensive system that flexible is much harder than it seems, especially because Monroe’s game doesn’t mesh with a style that suits the rest of the team’s core contributors much better. And that’s where the key problem lies.

Nearly every good team has some type of coherent identity. Whether it’s hanging their hat on defense, playing fast or having that Spurs-like socialism in their offense. In order to craft a consistent approach, a head coach must emphasize that ethos day-to-day in both practices and games. By catering to Monroe, Milwaukee will lose any chance of creating a holistic approach because there is no blanket system that blends his best skills into the positive characteristics of his teammates. Should the Bucks try to create one in a continued effort to accommodate Monroe’s presence, don’t be surprised if it mitigates the strengths of rising stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker -- something that will leave a lot of Milwaukee fans rather unhappy with the team’s head coach. 

Indiana Pacers

- How will Jeff Teague fare in a system that lets him go?

Though it seems strange to say this about a seven-year veteran with an All-Star appearance on his resume, Teague hasn’t ever been fully unleashed upon NBA defenses. During the first part of his career in Atlanta, a younger Teague played sidekick to the Hawks successful triumvirate of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. That’s why during his first three years, Teague’s usage rate hovered between 19 and 20, a fairly low number for a starting point guard.

As those core members began to leave town, however, Teague’s role increased. When Mike Budenholzer came to Atlanta, Teague posted the three highest usage rates of his career and earned the aforementioned All-Star appearance. Yet it would be a mistake to look at those numbers and assume the Hawks offense was designed solely for Teague. The San Antonio influence from Budenholzer’s past was evident in Atlanta’s style, where there was lots of ball and man movement and very little circumstance of one player, like Teague, being allowed to dominate the action.

On top of that, you got the feeling that Teague -- whether because of his own mentality or a coaching mandate -- was being held in check, a subjective observation somewhat supported by the fact that Dennis Schroder actually posted a higher usage rate (28.8 to 26.6) despite his role as the Hawk’s backup point guard. It left you to wonder if Teague was being held back within the confines of Atlanta’s for his own good or if Budenholzer’s approach was actually stymying a player already capable of All-Star production?

If his preseason role with his new Pacers squad is any indication, the answer to that question will present itself this season (assuming Teague doesn’t once again play with an undisclosed injury). Indiana’s new head coach, Nate McMillan, looks to be championing a free-wheeling up-tempo style for his eclectic collection of talent. Unlike in Atlanta, there won’t be pre-programmed ball reversals with all types of player movement around it. McMillan’s directive appears simple: get the ball up court quickly and attack the defense.

It’s the first time we’ve seen Teague be able to cut loose like this offensively. And so far, the results are mixed. Teague’s newfound freedom has produced some creative plays like this….

….but also some possessions that turned out, well, not so good:


It may be a bit hyperbolic to say how Teague handles his newfound freedom directly correlates to the Pacers' success, but it’s not too much of a stretch. If Teague, whether by personnel or system, really was held back from reaching another level, Indiana could be challenging for a top-4 seed in the East. On the other hand, if playing within a more restrained role has actually been saving Teague from himself, the Pacers' prospects won’t be quite as sunny. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

- Will aging vets hold up or unknown youngsters step up to form a Finals-worthy supporting cast?

Cleveland’s role players exist almost solely on the extreme ends of the age/experience spectrum. Free agent additions Chris Anderson (35) and Mike Dunleavy (36) were brought in to provide additional depth in key areas. They will join a supporting cast that also features fellow grey-beards Richard Jefferson (36) and Channing Frye (33), two players that averaged over 34 combined minutes a game last year for the Cavs. If J.R. Smith’s contract situation remains unresolved (or he simply signs elsewhere), these four players, along with the recently signed Toney Douglas (30), could constitute the entirety of Cleveland’s bench unit. 

While a steady hand of a vet is always welcome, they bring with them risks when it comes to injuries, availability and performance. In order to withstand the grind in both the regular season and playoffs, teams need consistent depth -- if only to avoid playing LeBron James any more than necessary until late in the postseason. A drop-off in production or sustained bout with nagging injuries from one or more of these veteran could pose some real problems for a Cleveland team ready to defend their championship. 

This potential problem is exacerbated by the fact the players next in line are total unknowns at the NBA level. Diminutive point guard Kay Felder, while showing some flashes in both Summer League and the preseason, is still a 21-year-old rookie. Jordan McRae, a 6’5” volume scorer has a bit more experience at 25, but has yet to play meaningful NBA minutes. Brooklyn cast-offs Cory Jefferson (25) and Markel Brown (24), have seen more NBA action, but their production in that time didn’t exactly scream “future stars.” And other than Felder, none of those players even have guaranteed contracts, per Basketball Insiders research, meaning none of them could be considered stone-cold locks to make the opening night roster.

Yet given the precarious nature of aging vets, James and his fellow stars may be counting on one or more of these youngsters to help fill out the rotation -- perhaps even deep into the playoffs. And while quasi-contenders can live with such a scenario, teams with real championship aspirations have little margin for error. So if a vet or two falls off and one of Cleveland’s unheralded youngsters fails to step up in their place, that trickle down effect could prevent James from hoisting his fourth Finals trophy this June.   

Detroit Pistons

- Can the Pistons still improve if Reggie Jackson misses extended time?

After a 44-win season and a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Detroit was looking to take another step forward this season. In order to do so, they needed to address their biggest problem: a lackluster bench.

The fact that this team only won 44 games despite their starting lineup being of the league’s better 5-man units (22nd to be exact), tells you pretty much everything you need to know about their bench. This summer saw the team import free agents Jon Leuer, Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic along with drafting a consensus lottery-level talent, Henry Ellenson, with the 18th pick in the first round of the draft. Smith in particular, was meant to shore up a backup point guard position that an aging Steve Blake and unseasoned Spencer Dinwiddie proved unfit for last season.

But with the news of Jackson’s health, that depth problem will once again rear its ugly head. The hit in production due to an injury absence usually isn’t between the injured player and his direct replacement. It typically occurs further down the chain, in whoever is forced to step into the backups role. The situation in Detroit with Jackson out will be a prime example of this.

Thanks to the talent in the starting lineup around him, Smith should prove more than capable running the show in Jackson’s stead. With scoring wings like Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris flanking one of the league’s preeminent pick-and-roll finishers in Andre Drummond, Smith won’t have to be solely responsible for creating offense like he did last season on a putrid Sixers team. The problem now lies, once again, with whoever spells Smith for 10-15 minutes a night.

Barring a last minute move to bring in a veteran, Ray McCallum and Lorenzo Brown will be fighting it out for the backup role. McCallum, at least if the first preseason game is an indication, has the upper hand. Neither player, however, offers a lot of optimism for Pistons fans if they are forced into action for an extended time.

Despite ample opportunity in Sacramento and bit roles in San Antonio and Memphis, McCallum has yet to prove he’s a viable rotation player. As an athletic, attacking guard, McCallum has his positive traits but he’s failed to develop a great feel for running a team or a credible 3-point shot. Without either one of those, it’s hard to see him developing into a key, NBA rotation cog. 

Brown, a year older at 26, has considerably less NBA experience than McCallum. He’s played just 834 minutes during his three stints with some less than stellar NBA teams. Brown has good size for the position and moves the ball well, sort of the anti-McCallum in that regard. But Brown has posted some woeful shooting percentages and might not have enough offensive skill to ever be a real threat to NBA defenses. 

Yet if Jackson misses extended time, one of these two players is currently being counted on to step up and provide productive bench minutes for a team looking to leap into the upper half of the Eastern Conference. If neither McCallum or Brown prove capable for the job, it could force the Pistons to thin another area of their roster -- the ole’ robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario -- in order to upgrade the backup point guard position that torpedoed their consistency all last season. Or the team may just be forced to stand pat and spend the time in Jackson’s absence running in place.

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