The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Chicago Bulls once again are placing all their hopes on defense. Much like last season, in the absence of the Bulls' lone superstar, Derrick Rose, that will prove the difference between winning and losing.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune tweeted after the Bulls' triple-overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans:
For all focus on offense without Rose, Bulls are scoring fine. Currently losing because of defense, rebounding.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 3, 2013
His observation is completely valid. A survey of the difference between all teams’ defensive ratings in wins and losses indicates that only the Indiana Pacers (who have only two losses) have a wider disparity. Also, when the Bulls are winning, their defense is the best in the league, yielding just 87.1 points per contest.
|Team||In Wins||In Losses||Difference|
|San Antonio Spurs||91.5||106.2||-14.7|
|New York Knicks||93.5||108.3||-14.8|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||96.0||108.9||-12.9|
|Golden State Warriors||96.7||104.1||-7.4|
|Los Angeles Lakers||97.5||108.8||-11.3|
|New Orleans Pelicans||99.3||109.5||-10.2|
|Los Angeles Clippers||99.4||108.2||-8.8|
|Portland Trail Blazers||100.4||118.7||-18.3|
We can break the Bulls’ season so far into three blocks:
Block 1: Their horrid start, consisting of their first four games, in which they won just one game
This is the fourth year running the system, so the Bulls should have it down by now. Yet you might ask, “Why on earth would chemistry be an issue? Don’t these guys know each other and the system yet?”
To a degree, that’s true. However, there are some important considerations here.
In the preseason, Joakim Noah slipped on a patch of wet floor, pulling his groin. That kept him out of most of the preseason games and practices. Therefore, when the Bulls’ starting roster took the floor for the first time in 2014, it was the first minute that the starting five had ever played together.
Additionally, one key player, Mike Dunleavy Jr., was new to the system. And, while he’d played with the starters, he hadn’t played much with the bench players.
Noah and Rose were both rusty. Noah was uncharacteristically missing his assignment on rotations. As a result, the Bulls starters were giving up more points than they typically would. Over the first four games, the starting five yielded a defensive rating of 102.0. As a team, they gave up 101.5 points per 100 possessions.
Noah, in particular, was responsible for many of the defensive problems. Whether it was just rust or his groin still bothering him, he was a long way from last year’s Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The Bulls gave up 107.8 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court compared to just 91.7 when he was on the bench.
Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown details many of the blown assignments in the Bulls’ loss to the Philadelphia 76ers:
Such breakdowns were hardly unique to the one game. The normal polish of the Bulls defense was just not there.
Block 2: The win streak, consisting of the next five games
Once the initial rust was shaken off and the starters started working in sync, the defense got clicking, and the team started winning. Over the next block of games, the Bulls were shutting opponents down. Noah improved, as did the rest of the defense.
The Bulls’ defensive rating plummeted to a stingy 85.6, and they gave up just 80.9 points per 100 possessions while the starting five was on the court. When Kirk Hinrich replaced Rose, the team only surrendered 72.9 points.
Overall, the Bulls went from yielding 98 points a contest to just 77.8 points per game.
One area that was a big help was actually on the offensive end. The Bulls were giving up the ball less, and that turned into fewer points off turnovers. They went from giving up 18.5 to just 11.8. That difference accounted for nearly a third of the defensive improvement.
Just when things were going well, though, they started to fall apart.
Block 3: The post-injury time frame, in which they lost six of seven
Two injuries had a huge impact on Chicago in the third block, the injury to Rose and the injury to Jimmy Butler.
The injury to Jimmy Butler, who has arguably become the team’s best defender, is now overlooked. In fact, you can even make a case that Butler is the league’s best defender.
The website 82games.com tracks opponent’s player efficiency rating, and Butler’s current oPER of 4.1 is the lowest in the NBA. That’s not only the lowest in the league this year, but also the lowest any qualified player (40 percent of team’s minutes) has recorded since the site started recording the stat in the 2008 season.
The Bulls defense this year has been better by 7.3 points per 100 possessions while Butler has been on the court. So, his absence is felt.
Butler plays defense with so much effort, the Energizer Bunny retired after he saw him play.
Butler doesn’t just run, he bumps. He gets up on the ball-handler and plays him physically, disrupting the flow of the opponent’s offense. His play is tough to duplicate.
He was replaced in the starting lineup by Mike Dunleavy, who is adequate, but not Butler. He just doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to duplicate Butler. He gives up .91 points per play compared to .66. And, while Dunleavy is a respectable team defender, he’s not the on-the-ball defender that Butler is.
Now, the rookie Tony Snell is starting, but his inexperience is often exploited.
The other injury was to Rose. While his defense is underrated, that’s a bit moot, because it wasn’t the lack of his defense that hurt the Bulls. It was the lack of his presence.
In the Tom Thibodeau era, without question, the next slate of games was the worst the Bulls have played. Over the next span of games, the Bulls gave up 105.9 points per 100 possessions. They were only the 21st-ranked defense in the NBA over that span of time.
It was easy to identify the problem. The normal fight the Bulls played with was just not there. As trade rumors swirled and their championship hopes were crushed, it was hard for them to put the kind of fight into games that they normally do.
They got crushed by the Los Angeles Clippers, losing by 39 points. Then they lost to the worst team in the NBA: the Utah Jazz. They dropped their first home game of the season to the New Orleans Pelicans, failing to get stops in the crunch, normally the thing they do the best.
In the clutch, they were outscored by 24 points during the span. No team in the NBA was worse.
Without hope, there was no more energy in their game, and sans energy, their defense dissipated.
There’s nothing like a fresh dose of hate to get a team to wake up.
As bad as the Bulls were playing, it was unlikely that a visit from the two-time defending NBA champions, the Miami Heat, would be the answer to their woes. But oddly enough, it was. For the first time since Rose went down, the Chicago Bulls defense was on display.
The Bulls put a 48-minute beatdown on the Heat. In fact, they blew out the Heat so bad that the temperature hasn’t climbed above freezing in Chicago since the game ended!
The Heat shot just 41.6 percent from the field on the night: their worst shooting night in nearly a year.
Even LeBron James was impressed with the Bulls defense, quoted here by Chris Johnson of Sports Illustrated:
No matter who is on the floor, you know they will be playing defense. They do a great job of keeping the ball to one side of the field, and containing us.
In other words, they played with the kind of energy that translates into Chicago winning basketball games.
While the Bulls have lost Derrick Rose, even without him, there are only two teams clearly better than Chicago in the East: the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. The Bulls have handed both teams their worst loss of the season.
With enough defensive effort, maybe there is still something to hope for after all.
All stats were taken from NBA.com/STATS (account required) and are current as of December 6 unless otherwise stated.