The Chicago Bulls look to be one of the toughest teams to beat in the 2013-14 NBA season, but even the 1996 version lost 10 games. Every team can be beaten. What is going to be the secret to beating this year’s version of the Chicago Bulls?
There are three things that, when teams do them, they have success beating the Bulls.
- Push the pace.
- Win the battle in the paint.
- Stop Derrick Rose’s penetration.
Push the Pace
The Bulls, first and foremost, are built to be a half-court team. Surprisingly, the presence and/or absence of Rose has had little impact on what kind of transition defense the Bulls have.
The following chart shows how the Bulls have done in transition over the last three years, the Tom Thibodeau era.
What this demonstrates is that, with or without Rose year after year, if teams can push the pace and score points in transition, they have a much better chance of winning than if they don’t.
The Bulls, surprisingly, are only average in transition defense. The chart below shows how many fast-break points versus half-court points teams have given up on average over the last three years.
The vertical blue lines show the league averages. The green horizontal bars show the average for fast-break points, and the purple lines reveal the averages for half-court points.
Look at the Bulls and how they fare in fast-break points per game—just slightly better than average. In terms of actual numbers, the Bulls give up 13.1 points, and the league average is 13.4.
Now look at the half-court defense numbers. Notice how far the Bulls bar is from the league average. They give up just 77.2 points per game in half-court defense compared to the average of 83.9 points. The second-best team in the league is the Memphis Grizzlies at 79.2 points.
The biggest reason you need to push the pace if you want to beat the Bulls is that they are so hard to beat in the half court. It’s a “path-of-least-resistance” thing. You better score in transition, because you’re not scoring much in the half court.
The reason the Bulls are more susceptible defensively to transition points is that they fight hard for offensive rebounds (more on that later), and as a result they aren’t as quick to get back on defense.
To beat Chicago, opponents need to take advantage of this and push the pace, leaking out wings off missed Bulls shots to get easy points.
Win the Paint
The second thing you need to do if you want to beat the Bulls is win the battle in the paint. Look at the three-year history of what the Bulls do against their opponents in the paint in wins versus losses.
There has been a lot of roster circulation and injuries in Chicago over the last three years, but one consistency has been if you want to beat the Bulls, you have to win the battle in the paint.
A big part of that is because of second-chance points. The Bulls are a good offensive rebounding team. Over the last three years, they have the best offensive rebound percentage in the NBA per Basketball-Reference.
To defeat Chicago, you need to limit their second-chance points and points off offensive rebounds. That will limit the number of points they score in the paint.
The problem is that when you stay home and try and secure the defensive rebound, it becomes more difficult to push the pace.
Teams that have had the most success doing both have used their bigs to stay and fight for boards, while they leak out their wings for fast breaks, meanwhile utilizing their point guards to secure long rebounds. Denver, in particular, has done this well and it’s why Chicago has struggled against the Nuggets.
Stop Derrick Rose’s penetration
Finally, if you want to stop the Bulls, you absolutely must stop Derrick Rose’s penetration. When he’s breaking down defenses, there’s almost no way to take the “win” out of Windy City.
Much of the focus with Rose is placed on his scoring, but the threat of his passing is as big, if not bigger, a factor in the Bulls winning than his points.
Here is a compelling fact for you. When Rose played 20 minutes and had six or fewer assists over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Bulls lost 13 games compared to 25 wins. When he had seven or more assists, the Bulls lost the same 13 games but won nearly three times as many: 68.
That’s a pretty powerful indication that, for all the talk about “pure point guards” and “pass-first” point guards, Rose is as impactful with his passing as he is with his scoring. In fact, these two things are not mutually exclusive.
Rose’s passing is set up by his scoring. He penetrates into the lane, forcing defenses to collapse in on him, which in turn opens up his teammates for open shots, like he does here.
I’ve covered this in substantial detail here if you’d like to see more on that, but here’s a stat that’s not in that article. In 2012, the Bulls were the third-best team in the NBA on the spot-up in points per play according to Synergy. Last year they fell to 25th, scoring just .91 points per play.
While this just establishes symmetry between the events, that, and the fact that every jump shooter on the Bulls shoots better with Rose on the court, suggests that more than just correlation might be at play. Penetration sets up open jumpers, and open jumpers are easier to make than challenged jumpers.
The only way to stop that from happening is to stop Rose from penetrating, which is, of course, not very easy. Teams have had success in the past trapping Rose, particularly in half-court traps.
(For readers still new to the game and/or unfamiliar with the lingo, that means defenses double-team him as he crosses the half-court line, essentially utilizing the line as a third defender, crowding him against it and making it hard for him to pass the ball out).
Typically, the trap can be beaten if the ball-handler has a second teammate who can handle the ball well. The point guard can pass out to before he crosses the line. That player will then typically be unguarded since his man is the one who is doing the double-teaming. If he is a remotely decent ball-handler, the offense has a big advantage, and the offense can punish the defense.
The problem the Bulls have had in the past is that they’ve not had great ball-handlers with Rose in the backcourt, so the “risk” doesn't outweigh the “reward” when running a trap defense.
Particularly, teams with quicker, more athletic tandems have had the most success, even if those players aren’t typically great defenders. For example Golden State, with Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, hampered Rose pretty severely in 2011.
Rose had 14 points and 10 assists, but he also had nine turnovers and shot only 6-for-15 from the field when Chicago traveled to Oakland.
Jimmy Butler has reportedly been working on his handles but if he hasn’t improved enough, the trap would be a good way to thwart the Bulls offense.
If teams can take Rose out of the game by trapping him, win the battle of the boards, particularly on the defensive end and push the pace by leaking the ball out to their wings, they’ll have a chance to win their games.
All stats in this article are obtained from NBA.com/STATS (account required) unless otherwise stated.