Guest post: Vinny and Timeouts

Pictured: VND prepares his team for yet another contested 20-footer.

Pictured: VND prepares his team for yet another contested 20-footer.

Because I was the one who originally suggested paying attention to the plays the Bulls run out of timeouts, I’ll elaborate a bit on why I believe some of VDN’s basic limitations are exposed by these plays.

Out of timeouts, offensive plays provide crystallized glimpses into the quality and creativity of coaching strategies. It’s true that teams execute practiced plays throughout the course of games, but plays out of timeouts are essentially the equivalent of NFL plays out of timeouts. Yes, the players must execute, but the quality and creativity of the plays themselves are the overarching factors in their success or failure.

Good NBA coaches are often creative enough to come up with plays that result in the right players getting good shots out of timeouts. Unfortunately for Bulls fans, VDN is not a good coach, and this rarely happens.

Remember last year when the predictable VDN move was to get the ball to Ben Gordon late in close games? Well, on a basic level, one can hardly fault him for wanting to get the ball into Gordon’s hands. But far too often BG had to come hard to the ball, and then create his own shot over or around one or more defenders.

While that might seem to be a reasonable strategy with Kobe, Carmelo or LeBron, it obviously isn’t the best way to create good, efficient scoring opportunities, especially for teams without transcendent superstars. (As an aside, even in Cleveland’s case, that kind of limited strategy has been exposed as being insufficient when employed against elite opponents. And if they are to win a championship, it will be due in part to their coaches having figured that out, and made the adjustment.)

In order to provide some context to the discussion, consider the following example.

The OKC Thunder, as you might expect, badly wants to get the ball to Kevin Durant, and especially in the latter stages of close games. Of course every opposing team knows this, and so it isn’t easy to get the ball to KD out of a timeout when he is in a good position to shoot a high-percentage shot. So, with that in mind, take a look at this recent Thunder play, broken down nicely at the NBA Playbook site.

Now, obviously this is one isolated example, and I am not suggesting that the Thunder coach is brilliant, nor that this is typical of their plays out of timeouts (I wouldn’t know). I also recognize that players like Durant are exceptional. However, I would suggest that if one were to review all of the plays out of timeouts devised by VDN over the past two seasons, one would be hard-pressed to find a single play of such creative and effective design.

Bear in mind that even with Tyrus Thomas gone, the Bulls still have athletic big men who could be dangerous scorers around the basket if their numbers were called through well-designed pick-and-rolls, etc. And given that most teams key on Rose, Hinrich or Deng out of timeouts, VDN would be well-advised to develop some plays that utilize them as decoys. If he were to do that effectively, then opposing teams would be forced to reduce some of their pressure on the obvious players, which in turn would open up the court, and create fresh opportunities.

Finally, as Matt noted recently, someone suggested that his running timeout tally should be parsed out further. That’s a reasonable suggestion, though I predict that it will lead to the same, unfortunate conclusion: VDN is well below average at deploying creative plays out of timeouts which result in good shots taken by the right players.

About the author:
Tony C. grew up in Evanston, and cut his teeth on the exciting, early ’70’s Walker-Love-Sloan-Van Lier Bulls. As a pick-up player, he admits to having stuck too long with low-top shoes (Puma Baskets, for the detail oriented), but did belatedly make the switch when the sprained ankles became tedious. Tony’s professional life revolves mainly around buying, selling and managing Thoroughbred racehorses. While he now resides outside of Chicago, he remains an interested, enthusiastic, and at times critical Bulls fan.

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18 Responses to Guest post: Vinny and Timeouts

    Alex February 26, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Although I agree with most of your article. I do recall against Boston in the playoffs Vinny made a couple of great calls out of timeouts. One that pops up first is the play when he used Gordon as a decoy and Brad Miller cut to the basket where he almost got his head ripped off by Rondo. Yes he missed his free throws. But it was a nicely designed play that got the results they wanted. Open layup or free throws. I know he isn’t Phil Jackson. But I personaly think he has shown some improvement. Great article though.

    Brad S. February 26, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    Congrats, Tony C. on your first guest stint on the site! I hope it is not your last. I didn’t know it was you that asked Matt to follow the timeouts.

    I agree that VDN seems to be abismal at the X’s & O’s of the game. What makes it even more painful is that I possitively LOVED that part of the Bulls when Scott Skiles was the coach. I remember many games where the play seemed an incomprehensible jumble of bodies and useless passes, when all of the sudden a guy would be free in the most unlikely of places for an good, open shot. For basketball purists, it was beautiful to watch! Unfortunately, X’s & O’s must not be the sum total of being a coach, because Scott lost the team shortly thereafter and was ushered out from his second team.

    Perhaps VDN possesses some of the other qualities like the ability to unify a team or maybe he is a peace-maker. Perhaps he is an excellent talent evaluator or has the ability to accurately scout the other team quickly. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes and I am only guessing on what would be the actual qualifications of a good NBA Coach. It could be that he is simply an increadible ass-kisser! But at this point I would say that he deserves at least some credit, right? Does that also mean that he has a shot at keeping his job for next year? Is the X’s & O’s something that can be learned, or offered by someone else?

    I don’t have the answers to these questions; That must be why Matt has never asked me to write a column! In any case, great job Tony.

    Tony C. February 26, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    Brad and Alex –

    Thanks for your comments. I’m sure your memory is correct, Alex, and I was being too literal when making my point about VDN’s lack of creativity. I imagine that there were a small number of well-designed plays out of the hundreds of TOs he has called, but from a percentage standpoint they leave much to be desired.

    Part of the point that I was attempting to make is that he doesn’t seem to mix it up enough, either. By which I mean that even as a certain percentage of the plays inevitably won’t be successful, throwing different looks at defenses can help to open up opportunities that wouldn’t be available if the plays are mostly similar and predictable. IN the case of the Bulls and VDN, for example, how often do plays out of timeouts end in close-range shots? I’d say very rarely, which makes defending the Bulls out of TOs relatively easy.

    Nels February 26, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Luckily for the Bulls (and/or VDN) I would guess you can pick up the X’s & O’s easier than you can the ability to manage players and those other more intangible coaching “qualities”.

    Matt McHale February 26, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    Adding to what Tony C. just said…

    …after he brought the timeout thing to my attention — yes, I was vaguely aware of it, but hadn’t really scrutinized what was going on — it became glaring. Tony, correct me if I’m wrong here, but I remember one of your complaints was that the Bulls never seem to get high percentage shots at the rim after timeouts.

    And that is so totally the case.

    Part of the reason I just list the timeout and result is because this fact becomes very, very obvious as you glace over the timeouts. Missed 21-footer, missed 19-footer, turnover, missed three-pointer…

    Some of these shots are open. Some of them are not. But, in theory, a timeout is the best opportunity to draw up a play that will earn a team a high percentage attempt close to the basket. But if you’ve been watching the timeout tallies, you’ll notice that never happens. It’s almost always a long jump shot.

    Now, some of them are open, others are contested. But the reality is, plays that end in long jump shots are by their very nature worse than plays that end in a layup attempt, even if the player misses the layup or has it blocked.

    The Bulls have to capable (if not great) passers in Rose and Hinrich. As Tony points out, they have big men who can finish at the rim (Gibson, Noah, and now Warrick). You can’t tell me that Vinny couldn’t get some dunks, alley-oops or layups off a well-designed play. I’d rather see him try that than another jump shot for Deng from 16 to 22 feet.

  6. Ryan February 26, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    I enjoyed the post… Just to be the devil’s advocate – What about the players’ execution? The Bulls are young and there is not a comfort level of years playing with each other yet. VDN is a young coach and I imagine these ‘plays’ are not his sole inventions. All I am saying is that VDN may have some of the greatest inbounds plays (insert sarcasm), but execution may have been poor. And why blame VDN only, when there is a bench full of coaches like Big Bern Bickerstaff, the ‘always smiling’ Pete Myers, and Bob Ociepka? Why does Vinny get the blame for any ‘bump in the road?’

    Tony C. February 27, 2010 at 4:32 am #

    Nice of Vinny to almost blow the Blazers game by underscoring the point, wasn’t it?

    Trm3 February 27, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    So ur saying because we don’t run enough creative plays out of timeouts is the reason we have 27 losses? Who cares what we do out of a timeout, unless it’s with 5 seconds to go in the game for a winner. I say let’s do away with the quarters that we only score 10 to 15 points and give up 25 to 30 points, those are what kill us.

    Saleem February 27, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    It’s not a really credible critique in that the Bulls have no player who is a “close to the basket” weapon. (And I’m not just talking about a post player.) Using the given example of the Thunder via the link. The key is that the defense must honor Maynor’s ability to come off the screen for the midrange shot as well as respect Ibaka’s size/ability to find and finish that close to the rim. Substitute the Bull’s personnel on the same play and Grant Hill doesn’t end up in the same defensive position on a Deng vs. OKC’s Durant. Why? Because Taj Gibson is not as long or athletic as Serge and Rose’s shot off the screen is not (currently) as big a threat. In fact most teams would give that shot to Rose and say thanks. I submit all this because you state unequivocally that “VDN is not a good coach”. I submit that he is a second year head coach with no previous coaching experience. It’s just too early to call him “good or bad” considering how well he’s done with the roster given to him.

    inkybreath February 27, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    I appreciate this look at Vinnie. To me, the fact that the timeout gives the other team the opportunity to prepare themselves on defense dilutes the results a bit (especially with a statistically small sample, roster fluctuation and individual execution). I would like to see the point of view expanded to include more circumstances. For example, I think there are a selection of side-out plays that could be included here, particularly those occurring after non-shooting/non-penalty fouls.

    bobbysimmons February 27, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    This whole timeout thing reminds me of an article on a few years ago. They did exactly what you want to do and they kept the stats for all the games, read it here:

    What I gathered from the article now and then is that post-time production doesn’t really matter that much. Tony C calls them “crystallized glimpses into the quality and creativity of coaching strategies,” and yes in a sense they are, except that in my opinion it’s only about 1-5% of a coaches job. It may be an easy way to judge VDN since we can point to whether the Bulls scored or failed to score after a TO and blame it on VDN’s lack of creavitity, but does his post TO performance really make him a good/bad coach? Just take a look at who were the most efficient and least efficient post TO coaches in the NBA in 05-06, now I don’t remember exactly who coached with team back in 05, but if you look at winning teams with well-accepted great coaches (SA/LA) they are nowhere near the top.

    Eddie V. February 27, 2010 at 7:50 pm #

    Hang on a second, Tony: two things here — how can you say VDN nearly blew the Blazers game when, late in the game, we saw poor decisions by the players on the court, poor calls and non-calls by the refs, and several missed free throws? I hear your criticisms, but there’s fair complaint and then there’s piling on to reiterate a point.

    Secondly, referring to the timeout plays, YES, it would be ideal to get points near the basket – but you also have to consider the team: out of TOs, usually the ball goes to one of the best players, and our best players’ game is to either shoot or create off the dribble.

    Out of TOs, the Cavs tend to isolate Lebron, the Magic tends to go down low to Dwight, the Mavs go Nowitski in the post — the Bulls seem to prefer getting Deng going, and a set play for Deng is almost always going to be a jump shot.

    I genuinely would like Tony and Matt to answer this question: who do you think should replace VDN as coach next year? Who would be an improvement?

    (And try not to get a head of steam going about Phil Jackson. That’s not happening.)

    Matt McHale February 27, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    Brad S. — Drop me a line:

    Tony C. February 28, 2010 at 4:16 am #

    Saleem –

    The Bulls had Tyrus Thomas until quite recently, and he was potentially as good as anyone in the league at receiving lobs near the basket – had plays been designed for him to do so. You are also taking the example that I used too literally. Obviously every coach must design plays around his particular team, so there are no templates that every team can use interchangeably. With regards to my assessment of VDN as a bad coach, I am taking into account that he is in his second year. And I am certainly not basing it solely on his poor performance designing plays out of timeouts.

    bobbysimmons –

    I would never take a single statistic and arrive at a broad conclusion. Again, my view of VDN’s coaching quality is a composite of many factors.

    Thanks for the link, as it is interesting. I would argue that relatively raw statistics such as those are often misleading, though. Furthermore, I never meant to suggest that post-timeout efficiency somehow directly correlates to the top teams in the league. There are two many variables to assume such a correlation. What would be interesting would be to see that type of statistical table for several years running, as then coaches who switched teams could be tracked to see if there was a direct correlation.

    Eddie V. –

    I did not mean to imply that there weren’t other factors in the Bulls near-loss to the Blazers, as there certainly were. But VDN’s management of timeouts (e.g. he waited until 6:30 in the 2nd quarter to call his first, allowing the Blazers had cut a 13 pt. deficit to 4), and plays (e.g. passing to Gibson who turned the ball over, etc.) were obviously poor, as usual.

    With regards to the fact that teams with superstars tend to feed them after timeouts, yes, that is true. But some of the very best opportunities are created when obvious players attract a lot of attention, freeing up less obvious ones for open shots (e.g. Jordan to Kerr, LeBron to West, Kobe to whomever, etc.). That happens with the teams that you mentioned, and it should, in my view, happen more often with the Bulls.

    Derek F. March 1, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    I don’t think that Vinny’s a good Xs and Os coach, but let’s be real. These things aren’t exclusive to Vinny. All coaches do them. Calling plays out of timeouts is situational.Is it under 10 seconds left in the quarter/half/game/shotclock or is it plenty of time to run whatever offense they run. If you want to see something creative out of every timeout, good luck.

    But let’s talk about end of game situations. In the past he had Ben Gordon. And any play he ran was to get him the ball. Is it creative? Not more that Phil Jackson’s “Get the ball to Kobe” play. Or Mike Brown’s “LeBron takes the last shot” play. See the difference? Vinny runs plays with Rose as the 1st option and anybody else as the 2nd option.

    This topic also begs the question……….How good do you think the Bulls are? Let’s face facts. This team is above average. They’re a middle of the pack team. As fun to watch as they are frustrating to watch. They win games they shouldn’t. They lose games they shouldn’t. And it happens as much because of the coach as it does for the lack of talent.

    You can blame Vinny for some of the teams shortcomings. Just not all of them.

    Tony C. March 1, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    “You can blame Vinny for some of the teams shortcomings. Just not all of them.”

    How could you have inferred that I was blaming VDN for all of the Bulls shortcomings?

    Like everything else in basketball, plays out of timeouts are about percentages; no one is arguing that all, or even most plays in that context should be creative.

    Derek F March 2, 2010 at 12:49 am #

    “Like everything else in basketball, plays out of timeouts are about percentages; no one is arguing that all, or even most plays in that context should be creative.”

    I agree. But why point it out as a weakness when most coaches do the same things.

    You can watch 1000 NBA games and 100 times teams coming out of a timeout in a game tying-winning situation will run that same “superstar Iso” play with the secondary option being another player does weak side back cut off a pic and be open either under the basket or at the three point line. That is if you have enough time.

    But we can both agree that it’s foolish to expect Vinny to re-invent the wheel. But lets not give him sole ownership of a flaw that most other coaches have.

    Saleem March 3, 2010 at 2:25 am #

    With all due respect, you can’t use an example and then say don’t take it to literally. lol! It’s not an example in that case. I’m not sure what it is..

    The X’s and O’s of timeouts are an acquired skill that many seasoned coaches struggle with. In any event, I understand your concerns about VDN, I just feel the jury is still out. Especially considering how well the team plays for him when healthy.

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