What the Bulls can learn from NBA-best Suns ahead of Friday matchup

Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

The Phoenix Suns have dominated the NBA this season despite dealing with a ton of injuries.

Winning in the NBA requires star power and luck. Some of the most talented teams assembled fail to go far because of unexpected occurrences. A recent example is the 2021 Brooklyn Nets, who didn’t make it out of the second round after Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle. That paved the way for a Milwaukee Bucks championship.

At the moment, injuries are holding back the Chicago Bulls. They have been without Lonzo Ball, Patrick Williams and Alex Caruso for most the second half of the season, with Caruso recently making his return. Their defense has missed the three guards tremendously, as the Bulls have only held an opponent under 100 points once since January.

Meanwhile the Phoenix Suns have been without six of their top seven players and still have the best record in the NBA. Throughout this season, the Suns have been without  Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson, with all having missed at least eight games. Booker was in and out of the lineup due to injuries earlier in the year. At the moment, Paul is missing an extended period of time with a thumb injury.

The result? The Suns have the best defensive rating in the NBA and the third best offensive rating.

What makes the Suns an outlier in terms of injury impact? It’s their culture. That’s something the Bulls will need to replicate this season and continue to build upon next season.

What can the Bulls learn from the NBA-best Suns?

Suns head coach Monty Williams created a culture that prides itself on team over individual. While each player has a role, they all are capable and enabled to fill others. When Booker went out, Johnson stepped up in the shooting guard role. When Paul went down, Booker took on more ball-handling responsibilities while Payne elevated his scoring. In Ayton’s absence, JaVale McGee reverted to his prime self.

This mentality allowed them to stay afloat this season but it isn’t something that can only work for them. The Bulls roster isn’t extremely outclassed by the Suns’. Up until last year, the Suns didn’t have extensive playoff experience. This is all built on trust in one another from the coaching staff on down.

That foundation is there for the Bulls, but we’ve yet to see it. Teams have resorted to blitzing DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine on drives and pick and roll actions, leaving the role players open on the perimeter. Both guards have racked up turnovers in those scenarios, either trying to force their way through the traps or passing the ball too late. It feels like there isn’t a while lot of trust in the role players.

The effectiveness of the “Bulls Blueprint” is based in either their stars’ inability to pass out of traps or their unwillingness to do so. Both options are troubling, but the first is the easier to fix.

The second option would reveal a lack of trust between the star guards and the other role players, but wouldn’t be astronomical. The Bulls’ main role players are involved in the offense less than 15% of the time, which is by design. Teams have made note of this and are now defending  the Bulls stars as if they are playing five on three.

And Billy Donovan has yet to make an adjustment, virtually saying that he doesn’t have faith in their role guys. Their better defenders are poor shooting threats while their quality shooters can’t guard their shadow. Donovan admitted that he has to do better preparing the role guys moving forward, but there hasn’t been much of a difference on the court.

The role players can take it upon themselves to earn more rope with their coach and their star teammates. Consistently hitting shots for multiple games in a row is a start. Cutting and making themselves available when DeRozan and LaVine are trapped is another way. Taking the initiative to create for DeRozan and LaVine is the best solution.

The Suns’ role players have forced team to play their stars’ honestly because they are consistently deadly part of the team’s offense. Williams made sure of that by placing his trust in his guys and that trickled down to the players.

The Bulls will have to find that same trust if they want to be considered true contenders.

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