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Bulls no passing fancy with fancy passing
by Sam Smith
Posted on Feb 17
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Derrick Rose has missed more games this season than in his previous three seasons combined, and he’ll probably miss his 10th game Saturday when the Bulls host the New Jersey Nets.
Richard Hamilton, who was expected to take the offensive pressure off Rose, has played in just 11 of the 32 games.
Yet, the Bulls are in the top 10 in all the major offensive categories, scoring, overall shooting and three-point shooting. And that’s because they are No. 1 in perhaps the most pleasing category, assists.
That was emphasized again in Thursday’s win over the Celtics when the Bulls recorded 27 assists on 30 field goals, the highest percentage in the league in two years, according to Elias Sports, and the best by a Bulls team in more than a decade.
The Bulls don’t have anyone in the top 30 in the NBA in scoring with Rose out. Yet, they’ve been able to run an efficient offense thanks to unselfish play and excellent passing. In consecutive games, Luol Deng has recorded double digit assists without ever doing that before in his career.
The Bulls may have the best passing team overall in the NBA with an unusually proficient front court in assists. Both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are excellent passers and Deng has shown he can be a Scottie Pippen/Paul Pressey type point forward, if necessary. Deng, who doesn’t look to run the offense as much although he always has been a good passer, was averaging about three assists before Rose went out. He’s more than doubled that in the last four games.
So who are the Bulls best passers. I’d say they are:
Rose, of course, is the point guard and I see him as an underrated passer. We’ve seen Noah run the fast break and pass, rare for a big man, and be the pressure release passer when Rose is trapped. Hamilton hasn’t played much, but has shown sharp court awareness in when he has played, passing off his screens. His career assist numbers are high for a shooting guard. Kyle Korver also is very good at that pass and on the edge of that top five. That’s really the beauty of the Bulls team, that so many not only can pass but are willing passers, obviously including C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer.
Deng is a good passer who never has concentrated on it much and Boozer is very good inside moving the ball from his years within the Jazz’ structured offense. It’s made the Bulls a threat even without Rose because they can get so many good shots even without anyone who really can create his own shots. It’s a delight to watch the ball move with multiple passes, and even a veteran team like Boston on Thursday rarely did that. It’s sort of a triangle offense without the Zen.
None of the Bulls players are so called elite passers, though Rose could become one.
So I decided to ask one of the great passing guards of all time, Isiah Thomas, about the art of the pass. Thomas was a true magician with the ball, once averaging almost 14 assists per game in a season. His passing along with Magic Johnson’s helped make the All-Star game the unique and exciting event it was in the 1980’s.
“It’s the guys who can hit all the passing lanes,” said Thomas of how you truly measure a great passer. “The targets between the ears and shoulder, both sides of the head, who can make the bounce pass from your feet to your waist on both sides.
“It’s the guys who can hit those lanes off the dribble,” says Thomas, now head coach at Florida International U. “I always was taught never to pass with one hand, to use two hands. But the great passers can make the pass left handed, right handed off the dribble and hit any of those spots and get it in position where the guy can score every time.”
Thomas said John Stockton was the best at it, though many will say it was Thomas. I remember veteran executives of the era saying when Thomas came into the league everyone was looking for a point guard like Magic Johnson. When Thomas left they were looking for guards like Thomas, who is the model now of so many of this era’s great point guards.
Thomas names Mark Jackson and Scott Skiles as some of the guys in his era who fit that criteria. He said Magic was superior in the sense he had another lane he could hit no one else could because of his 6-9 size. Thomas names Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams in this era, though he says he uses Jason Kidd as the example with his kids.
“I tell them he catches the ball, throws it to the first open guy he sees,” Thomas says. “He doesn’t put it between his legs, behind his back, cross over.” Thomas says he finds Rose “a great passer, but his passing skills are not on display because he’s asked to do so much scoring. But the passes he makes you definitely see he hits all the lanes.”
Here are my best passers of this era:
As for all time, in my view there are two types of passers, the classic, more efficient types like Stockton and the spectacular and daring types like Rubio now and Pete Maravich in the 70’s. Thomas embodied both styles, though not as efficient as Stockton and not as spectacular as Magic.
The best generally are point guards, though Arvydas Sabonis may have been the best big man passer ever. We saw him later in his career after knee injuries, though his passing still was sharp. Among big men, Bill Walton was a classic. Wilt Chamberlain led the league in assists once, though mostly to prove a point. He was so much bigger and stronger he generally just extended his arms out above his lead and held it away from the defense until he could find a find cutter.
So my best passers ever?
If I went favorites, I’d have Maravich and Larry Bird higher as I like the guys who make the exciting pass, like Rubio today. The Rubio of another era, if somewhat briefly, was Ernie DiGregorio. He was something to watch with Bob McAdoo for a few years in Buffalo before they became the Clippers. Though he wasn’t the flashy kind and known more for his aggressiveness, the Bulls Norm Van Lier was really good. Guy Rodgers may have been the best pure passer the Bulls have had, and the only one ever to lead the league in assists. Toni Kukoc probably had as good a feel as any while Scottie Pippen was more of the minimalist like a forward version of Stockton. One guy often overlooked whom I liked a lot was Rod Strickland along with the unassuming game of Chicagoan Maurice Cheeks. One of my personal favorites, though more for his pick and roll, was Mark Price and though he was more a scorer it was fun to watch Tiny Archibald the few times you could see him before he got hurt with Kansas City.
But I’m going with Magic No. 1 for his combination of passing ability and style.