The Chicago Bulls under Tom Thibodeau have proven to be the best defense in the NBA, boasting the lowest defensive rating in the Association since his arrival per Basketball-Reference.com. That’s nearly two points better than any team but Boston, Thibodeau’s previous stomping grounds.
As the architect of two of the NBA’s elite defenses, clearly he’s established himself as the defensive guru in the NBA right now. Is there a way of beating that scheme?
If anyone has figured out a way, it’s the unemployed reigning Coach of the Year, George Karl. In the relevant span the Denver Nuggets have averaged 109.0 points per contest against the Bulls, far and away the most of any team in the league. The Houston Rockets are a distant second, a full five points behind.
This year the Nuggets had a 124.7 offensive rating against the Bulls, destroying their defensive identity.
So what does Denver do that no one else is doing which allows them to make the extraordinary defense of Chicago look so extra ordinary?
Before we understand that, we first have to understand the basic premise of what the Bulls defense is and why it works so well. The way they play is often described as “on a string,” meaning they play as a unit more than as individuals. When one moves, they are all connected, so all five move.
This is different than a man-to-man defense, where each player is responsible for an assigned opposing player, or zone defense where a player is responsible for a particular area of the court. In this system each player has a certain role and rotates to help depending on what else is happening on the court. It requires discipline and energy because it involves the heavy use of rotations.
Modern analytics show that the two most efficient areas to score in are from the three-point line and the area under the rim. The worst part to score in is the long two. The Bulls schematic is to take away the two areas and force opponents to shoot from the most inefficient area of the court. They then challenge that shot and secure the rebound, so that you only get one chance.
Denver offsets this by stretching the string, beating the Bulls down court and playing to the finish of plays, not settling for long twos but getting easy points in the paint.
Stretch the String
To beat the Bulls, teams need to cause their team defense to break down, and that starts with “stretching” the string by establishing a three-point line.
The Nuggets last year averaged the fourth-most threes against the Bulls and had the fourth highest three-point percentage. In all, three teams shot over 40 percent from deep and had at least 7.5 makes. The Bulls were 0-6 in those games. Overall, in the last three years the Bulls have won 11 and lost 18 when giving up eight or more threes at a 40 percent clip.
Of course that also means that teams have only pulled that off only 29 times in 230 tries, far and away the fewest such games surrendered in the Thibodeau era.
So how does Denver do that? They use the extra pass and run smart plays designed to make the Bulls system fail.
The Bulls use their men-on-a-string defense exceptionally well, but things break down eventually if you move the ball enough in an intelligent way. The Nuggets averaged 26.1 assists against the Bulls this season, the most of any team in the league.
Watch here as they use the extra pass to set up Andre Iguodala for the three.
This is a brilliantly designed and executed play to break down the Bulls defense. Let’s slow things down and take a screen cap of the moment before Iguodala takes the shot and focus on how he got there.
First, note the spacing on the court. All that room between Iguodala and Luol Deng means that the defense has further to run to get help. Effectively that means the Nuggets have “stretched the string.”
At the start of the play they feed the ball to Iguodala, who drives to the rim and kicks it out to Danilo Gallinari, then runs under Kosta Koufos, who effectively screens out both Deng and Joakim Noah. Deng and Noah had collapsed in on the play, correctly, to guard the drive.
Now, a lot of times a player is just going to take the shot, but Gallinari gets that extra pass out to Iguodala who arrives behind the three-point line. At that moment in time no one is in position to defend the three-point shot, because everyone is exactly where they are supposed to be or getting screened because they were where they were supposed to be. So Iguodala not only gets the three, he gets the hockey assist to himself.
In essence, Karl has a play designed that supposes the Bulls are going to be where they should be, and then uses that very fact against them.
Don’t Let Them Set Up
The second thing teams do to successfully attack the Bulls is run the fast break. The Bulls overall were eighth in the NBA in defensive points per play according to Synergy, but they were the third-worst team in transition defense.
You’re chances of putting up points on the Bulls once they settle into their set defense drops dramatically. In transition they give up 1.21 points per play. In all other plays, they give up a pittance of just .81 points per play, the same as last year’s top-ranked Indiana Pacers.
There are four teams who averaged at least 20 fast-break points against Chicago this year and they were a collective 7-1 in those games. Denver led the league here too, with an average of 26.5 points.
What Denver does so well is they, as a team, have a mindset right off the turnover or long rebound to push the ball and ring up the easy two. They are quick and decisive, and most of their fast-break points come from having a numbers advantage. Plays like this are commonplace with the Nuggets, and are a big part of the reason for their success against the Bulls.
The last thing you need to do to break apart the Bulls defense is play to end of the play. Until Chicago has the ball you have to keep moving to get open, keep passing the ball and fight to get the offensive rebounds.
Here’s an example where Luol Deng grabs a rebound, but Kenneth Fareid, not giving up on the play, pokes the ball away to Ty Lawson, who in turn misses the three-point shot. But then Koufos is there for the tip-in.
Persistence, as a team, is a big part of the reason the Nuggets keep getting points against the Bulls.
Largely as the byproduct of the combination of their fast-break points and second-chance points, which mostly come in the paint, the Nuggets averaged an NBA-best 62.7 points in the paint per game against the Bulls. They secured 174 or 83.4 percent of their points off field goals in the two prime target areas, compared to just 34 points from long-two.
Compare that to the 59.8 percent that the Bulls gave up in those two areas league-wide and you have the answer for why they are effectively able to exploit the Bulls defense. Essentially, they use team offense to overcome team defense.
The good news for Bulls fans is that with Karl unemployed, Thibodeau doesn’t have to worry for now.
Unless otherwise noted all stats are from Media.NBA.com/STATS (media account required).