Luol Deng and the 10 Greatest Defensive Players in Chicago Bulls History
The pick proved astute, as Sloan not only became a legend in Chicago as “Mr. Bull” but set the tone for what would become a perennial playoff team with hard-nosed, floor-burned play that made Chicago Stadium one stop NBA teams never forgot making.
Soon joining him on the bruising Bulls of the early 1970s was backcourt mate Norm Van Lier, center Tom Boerwinkle, and forwards Bob Love and Chet Walker. Although Love and Walker were best known for their offense, both held their own on D—as any Bull of the time had to—qualifying that entire starting lineup as Top 20 defenders in franchise history.
Luol Deng, All-Defensive Second Team in 2011-12, is only the latest in a long line of Bulls to be honored for his scrappiness on D. But no matter how sweet his defensive moves, does Lu make the cut when the list of greatest defenders in Bulls history is winnowed to 10?
There’s at least one shocker to come. But the list begins with one of the most underrated players in Bulls—perhaps basketball—history…
10. Tom Boerwinkle (1968-78)
Former Bulls coach Dick Motta loved Tom Boerwinkle. What he loved most was Boerwinkle’s ability to pass out of the high post.
But the seven-footer was no slouch defensively; in his relatively short eight full seasons in Chicago, the center finished in the NBA top 10 in defensive win shares (an estimate of wins provided by the player based on his defense alone) three times. His defensive rating of 94.3 (points a player is estimated to allow over 100 possessions) ranks second in franchise history, and more remarkable is the fact that defensive rating only started being complied in 1973-74, when Boerwinkle was beginning the down side of his career.
Veteran center and one-time teammate Clifford Ray tells me Boerwinkle reminded him of one particular, immovable Washington Bullet.
“Tom Boerwinkle was tough to play against,” Ray says. “He was one of those guys I like to characterize like he stayed in your way. He was not a tremendous athlete or a great leaper, for sure, but he knew how to stay in your way. He was comparable in that respect to Wes Unseld. Tom used his gifts as well as anybody.”
9. Horace Grant (1987-94)
Horace Grant could have had his jersey hanging from the top of the United Center right alongside teammates Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen but bolted for the Orlando Magic after seven years as the third option in Chicago.
Grant learned to drill jumpers with an assassin’s accuracy, but what made him a first-rounder in 1987 was his defensive skill. The power forward made just one All-Defensive Second Team with the Bulls but would add three more after departing Chicago
Grant ranks eighth all-time in Bulls history with 25.3 defensive win shares, and ranks 42nd all-time in the NBA for his career with 49.3.
8. Artis Gilmore (1976-82)
If Wilt Chamberlain was a master of braggadocio, Artis Gilmore was his strong, silent younger brother. Second in strength to Wilt in the merger era, with thighs like tree trunks and an ironman streak right out of college that ran close to 700 games, Gilmore was a sheer, physical marvel.
The 7-2 center was much better known for his offensive touch—he is the all-time shooting leader in both the ABA and NBA, after all. But he was a load for offensive players to handle in the paint.
Bill Walton has told me that aside from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, no center gave him more trouble in his career. Kareem himself pays the compliment that when you played Artis, he reports with a laugh, “you knew it the next day.”
Gilmore’s 23 defensive win shares ranks ninth all-time in Bulls history, and his career total of 75.5 ranks 11th all-time. His defensive rebounding percentage (number of available defensive rebounds snagged) stands at 24.9 for his career, 13th all-time. And his defensive rating of 101.4 places him 74th in basketball since 1973.
7. Luol Deng (2004-Present)
The old man of the Bulls—perhaps the 21st Century’s “Mr. Bull”—is Luol Deng. It’s a testament to his hard work over his eight seasons that he’s blossomed into such a staunch defender.
Defensively, Deng’s favorite foil is Boston’s Paul Pierce, who wastes little time in praising Chicago’s gem.
“He matches up well with me. I don’t back down from anyone, but Lu has played me tough for years,” Pierce says, adding with a laugh, “it’s good to see he’s starting to give more players than just me trouble.”
Deng received All-Defensive Second Team honors in 2011-12, proving that those around the league have taken notice of Lu’s solid two-way play.
“That’s the fun of [basketball], to watch guys grow individually,” says Bulls GM Gar Forman, who was instrumental in pilfering Deng from the Phoenix Suns on draft day 2004.
Deng has twice finished among the top 10 in NBA defensive win shares. His 28 shares ranks fifth all-time on the Bulls, and with three more strong defensive seasons, Deng should crack the all-time NBA top 100 in defensive win shares.
6. Carlos Boozer (2010-Present)
OK, this is sheer foolishness. Right?
I mean, Carlos Boozer is the sixth-best defender in Bulls history? Does he play any defense, at all?
Well, friends, I don’t know what to tell you. The measures used to generate this entire list all point to Boozer as a special defender. You don’t have to like it.
In the ludicrously small sample size of two seasons, however, Boozer has excelled. His defensive rating ranks sixth in club history, at 96.9 (the recently-departed and equally small sample-sized Omer Asik ranks third, at 94.7). Boozer has just 8.2 defensive win shares for the Bulls, but taken at defensive win shares per game, Boozer is at .066, a better rate than anyone but Dennis Rodman.
That .066 defensive win shares per game means that, essentially, Boozer has contributed one win to the Bulls every 15 games he plays, based on his defensive play alone.
Boozer’s career numbers encourage the notion he’s underrated as a defender. For instance, his defensive rebound percentage is fourth in NBA history, at 26.7. And his defensive rating of 102.4 (yes, it’s significantly worse than his two-year trial in Chicago) ranks 92nd in the NBA since 1973.
5. Norm Van Lier (1971-78)
When your nickname is “Stormin’,” yeah, you’ve got some Yosemite Sam defensive skills.
“People talk about my temperament, but it wasn’t like I was a crazy guy—a lot of it was planned,” Norm Van Lier told me a few years before his untimely death in 2009. “Show me any playmaker in the league other than Walt Frazier back then who didn’t have a little fight about them. [Bulls coach] Dick Motta loved the aggressiveness; he pushed me to take it farther and farther.”
If anything, Van Lier’s ludicrous intensity overrates him as a defensive player. After all, sheer staredowns do not a great defensive player make. Still, Norm’s blue-collared approach to his work on the floor made him the most beloved Bull of his generation.
The 6-1 guard made eight straight All-Defensive Teams, three of them First Team honors. Check the numbers; that’s every full season he played for the Bulls.
It’s indisputable that if Jerry Sloan was the floor general of those early 1970s Bulls, Norm was the heartbeat.
“I have more pride about our defensive team achievements than anything else in my career,” Van Lier beamed. “Playing defense every single night is something I’m very proud of. No one else did that—no one can take that away from me. And I’m proud to have done that in Chicago.”
4. Jerry Sloan (1966-76)
It’s only fitting that Jerry Sloan slides right alongside longtime backcourt mate Norm Van Lier on this all-time list, as the two remain perhaps the most devastating duo of backcourt defenders in NBA history.
“Those guys were the best pair of defensive guards on any team, ever,” longtime teammate Bob Love affirms to me. “That ball was like a piece of cheese, and they were two rats. If the ball hit the floor, watch out. It was like they were on a football field. I was so glad they were on my team.”
“Jerry and Norm were basketball players, but you looked at them with their scars and bandages, and you wondered whether this was going to be a football or basketball game,” former Bucks star Bob Dandridge told me when reflecting on the great Chicago-Milwaukee rivalry of the 1970s. “They were forever taking charges, playing a rugged, hard-nosed brand of basketball that wasn’t too common in the league at the time.”
Sloan, by sheer advanced statistics, might be the best defender in Chicago history, as he ranks first in defensive rating at 92.2 (over just the final three seasons of his career) and third in defensive win shares with 36.6. Four times Sloan finished in the top 10 in NBA defensive win shares and his 37.3 career total ranks 100th all-time in the NBA. He was an All-Defensive Team member in six of seven seasons between 1968-69 and 1974-75, four times given First Team laurels.
Perhaps one of the best tributes to “Mr. Bull” came from Sloan’s former partner Van Lier, some years before his death.
“Jerry was the best, as tough as they came,” Van Lier confided to me. “My career came to a screeching halt when he left [in 1976]. I missed a guy who was 6-5, with his attitude every night. I knew I had protection. Night after night after night, we were just about, let’s get ready to play. And if [our teammates] weren’t ready to play, we’d let everybody know it. Sometimes maybe we were a little too pumped up, but we’d come to play every night.”
3. Scottie Pippen (1987-98, 2003-04)
Sentimentally, Scottie Pippen is the greatest defender in Chicago Bulls history. He changed the course of the 1991 NBA Finals with his defensive switch onto Magic Johnson, which slowed the flow of the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense. Some seven years later, Pippen saved the Bulls in the nearest NBA Finals miss of Chicago’s title run, when his work on Mark Jackson in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals led the Bulls to a rare, deciding win in Game 7.
Pippen has the incredible honors and stats to match even the most apocryphal moments, as well. He ranks second all-time in Bulls history with 52.7 defensive win shares.
Taking his entire NBA career into account, Pippen was an All-Defensive Team member for 10 consecutive years, including eight First Teams. Five times he finished in the NBA top 10 in defensive win shares. Pippen’s 2.0 steals per game rank 11th in NBA history, his 101.5 defensive rating is 80th in the NBA since 1973, and his 67.3 defensive win shares place him 16th in NBA history.
Pippen was the spiritual leader of the Dobermans, Bulls assistant Johnny Bach’s pet name for the ferocious defense Chicago rained down on opponents during the club’s initial run of titles. As a defender, it’s clear he had few peers.
2. Michael Jordan (1984-98)
It might seem cruel to give the nod to Michael Jordan when the one area in which sidekick Scottie Pippen seemed to have him licked was devotion to defense.
But while Pippen surely captained Chicago’s suffocating D, Jordan still was the better defender.
Eight times Jordan finished in the top 10 in NBA defensive win shares. He made nine straight All-Defensive First Teams. He was the 1987-88 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. His 2.3 steals per game ranks third all-time in the NBA. His 64.1 defensive win shares rank 19th all-time in the NBA.
Head-to-head as Bull teammates, Pippen and Jordan play as close to a draw as possible. Pippen had a slightly better defensive rating than Jordan (101 to 102), but MJ earned six more defensive wins (58.7 to 52.7). Comparing the two using defensive win shares per game, Jordan edges Pip, .063 to .062. But in both players’ cases, that means their defense alone contributed one win apiece every 15 games.
1. Dennis Rodman (1995-98)
For a franchise with six titles under its belt over the course of 47 seasons, bolstered by more than its fair share of extraordinary defenders, it seems shortsighted at best to name a guy who played on the club for just three seasons as the greatest defender in team history.
That, however, may apply only to franchises on which Dennis Rodman never played.
The Worm was a living, breathing, walking, talking anomaly, a one-sided player who nonetheless now resides in the Hall of Fame. There simply may never have been a better defensive player—and yes, that applied even to his advanced-age (34-36) seasons in Chicago.
The lean-to statistic used for this entire list is defensive win shares per game, and in this area Rodman, is without peesr. His .073 mark translates to a contribution of a win based on defense only every 13 games he played for the Bulls. That is leagues above the average and significantly better than even franchise greats like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
In his career, Rodman won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards and was named an All-Defensive Team member eight times. His defensive rebounding percentage ranks first all-time in the NBA, at 29.6. His defensive rating of 100.3 is 36th in the NBA since 1973 and his 54.5 defensive win shares ranks 32nd in NBA history.
With the Bulls, Rodman earned 14.5 defensive win shares in just 199 games and ranks seventh all-time in defensive rating (97.6).
While his antics often distracted from the 70-win pursuits at hand and he missed more than half a season’s worth of games in just three years with Chicago, Rodman also proved a menace who guarded anyone, from 1s to 5s. He memorably harassed the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Karl Malone, Shawn Kemp and Shaquille O’Neal in key postseason series.
For reasons both tangible and intangible, Dennis Rodman is the greatest sheer defender in Chicago Bulls history.