Since the beginning of this Chicago Bulls core, the question has always been ‘how are the Bulls going to be good enough on the defensive end to compete?’ After all, DeMar DeRozan, Zach Lavine, and Nikola Vučević are all average defenders at best. Yet, the Bulls led by this three-headed monster of below-average defenders find themselves ranked 5th in best-adjusted defensive net ratings with just 16 games left to play out this season.
This may sound like a whole gargle of advanced stat buzzwords, but all this statistic means is how often other teams score over the course of 100 possessions, given the strength of each respective opponent. If you prefer something a bit more traditional, Bulls’ opponents are averaging the 9th least points per game this season. No matter what way you want to look at it, the Chicago Bulls are a top defense in the league.
Since the dawn of ‘Moreyball’, the overwhelming offensive philosophy for NBA teams has been to maximize the efficiency of each shot by primarily shooting threes, shots at the rim, and free throws. The idea here stems from the obvious fact 3 points is worth more than 2, and that shots at the free throw line and the rim go in at very high rates. As a result, NBA defenses have tried to build themselves to stop this. The goal is simple, don’t let the other team get to the rim, shoot threes or get to the free throw line. In other words, let the other team shoot whatever they want from the midrange live with the results.
The Bulls, however, show no signs of following this defensive philosophy. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Bulls give up the least amount of mid-range shots of any team in the league, the 3rd most threes, and a league average amount of shots at the rim. In other words, a team led by three bad defenders plays a defensive scheme that limits mid-range shots and has defied all conventional thinking by still achieving the league’s 5th best defense.
How are the Chicago Bulls defying modern philosophy to become one of the NBA’s best defenses, despite lacking elite personnel on that end?
From a statistical perspective, there are three things the numbers show for why the Chicago Bulls are so good at defense: they don’t foul, let up offensive rebounds and they defend the hell out of the corner three. Fouling makes a ton of sense, veteran players like Vooch and DeMar who might have always lacked some of the physical tools to be great defenders learn through experience what things they can get away with on the defensive end without getting called for a foul. Additionally, they have a better feel for when it is a good idea to truly contest a breakaway shot and how to close out a shooter without fouling.
In terms of rebounding, there is a lot of debate over whether rebounding is actually defense but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the other team is getting more chances to shoot the ball then they are going to score more points. Vooch is an absolute monster on the boards and muscles his way over lots of the smaller big men in the league.
Get a load of this — teams shoot the 3rd most corner threes against the Bulls but shoot a league-worst on those threes when playing the Bulls. Chicago has mastered the art of baiting opponents into taking corner threes and then contesting the hell out of them, but how?
The Bulls’ ability to defend the corner three comes down to sound fundamentals on closeouts and situational awareness. Let’s take a look at these two Bulls plays against the Warriors. In both plays, the Warriors have 4 shooters and one big on the floor, and the big sets a pin down for Steph Curry. In this play, Vooch is playing a drop coverage which cuts off Steph Curry’s pass to the cutting Looney. LaVine is positioned way down at the block to help protect Vooch from losing the foot race to the speedy Steph Curry. LaVine’s positioning on the block leaves Wiggins seemingly wide open and Curry kicks it out to Wiggins. LaVine knows exactly where to run as soon as the ball comes out of Steph’s hand and manages to get a decent contest up on Wiggins.
Now let’s look at this next play which starts the same way, with Curry coming off a screen. This time, Derrick Jones Jr. is stuck in no man’s land, neither trapping nor dropping, leaving a passing lane open for the cutting Draymond Green. Lavine, like before, is way down on the block and comes over from the strong side to help contest Draymond’s shot at the rim.
As Lamb and Klay are swapping spots, you can see Patrick Williams turn his head to make sure he is still with Klay. William’s placement makes it so that Draymond only has a pass open to Lamb and not Klay. Coby White is a bit slow to read the play (as usual) and starts going over to Poole until he realizes that Lamb is now his man. White is still able to get up a decent contest and Lamb bricks the 3.
What these plays show us is that the Chicago Bulls have a very clear directive on what players were to be guarded like hawks in the corner (Klay) and which guys we would live with having to close out on (Lamb and Wiggins).
In short, the Bulls change their pick and roll coverage rules based on what player is in the corner. For elite shooters, the Bulls don’t feel comfortable letting a closeout be the only way to stop the play. Against average to good shooters, the Bulls trust their chops on closeouts to get the job done. The Bulls’ strength at closing out, especially Lavine, baits the other team into thinking the shots are wide open which explains why there is such a high volume of threes against the Bulls.
Last year, the Bulls got off to a hot start on the defensive end due to the lockdown perimeter defense of Caruso and Ball but ultimately finished as one of the worst defenses in the league. This year, despite Ball’s absence, the Bulls find themselves as the 5th best defense in the league. The Bulls’ defensive strength ultimately comes down to the fact that they don’t hurt themselves and know how to bait opponents into having their worst players shoot. It turns out rebounding, not fouling, and reading the scouting report can go a long way. Cheers to one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dark season for the Chicago Bulls.