The modern NBA is defined by principles of pace and space, forever altered by a series of rule changes; an emphasis on reducing physical contact on the perimeter, and the legalization of zones designed to discourage the isolation-oriented offenses that had stagnated the game.
Though the changes eventually worked, culminating in the crowning of the small ball Golden State Warriors last June, it took several seasons after their implementation for the NBA to fully evolve.
Along with those changes, there are two coaches whose work helped usher the NBA into this modern era. Mike D’Antoni is the obvious first choice. His Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns were nothing short of revolutionary for their use of smaller lineups, fastbreaks and delayed transition, and the spread pick and roll.
The second coach responsible for the state of modern NBA offenses, surprisingly, is Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau’s defenses with the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls were the first to truly take advantage of legalized zone defenses, utilizing zone principles in man-to-man schemes to force the ball to one side of the court where moment was strangled and the defense could lock in.
This preseason, the Chicago Bulls have been a strange sight. While innovative defensively, Thibodeau was behind the curve in constructing offenses and playing rotations—resulting in his termination. With new coach Fred Hoiberg roaming the sidelines, it’s odd to now see the Bulls running the type of offense created to counter Thibodeau’s defenses.
As much philosophy as schematics, the premise is simple—get the ball up the court as quickly as possible, allowing the offense to run more actions within the framework of a 24-second shot clock and keep the ball moving side to side.
Stale pick and rolls have been replaced by seemingly impromptu dribble handoffs, giving defenses less time or warning to form a wall at the point of attack. Drag screens occupy defenders attention before defenses can set, creating quick-hitters and opportunities for Pau Gasol to duck in for easy post opportunities.
Though they’ve faced some preseason struggles, the Bulls have shown promising signs. Entire sets look like three-man weave drills, and the Bulls have found easier avenues of offense to supplement and amplify the individual talents of Gasol and Jimmy Butler.
Doug McDermott finally resembles the player the team expected when they traded up into the draft to select him, while the early play of rookie Bobby Portis infuses fresh athleticism and spacing into a frontcourt in dire need of both.
This will be a process, and as such, will take some time. After all, the modern NBA wasn’t built in a day. The Chicago Bulls have been good for quite some time, but now they appear to have life once more.