From the outside looking in, many of the Chicago Bulls’ recent personnel decisions have seemed to prioritize the offensive side of the ball at the cost of the defense.
At the start of last season, the team’s star was unquestionably Zach LaVine, who had already established himself as a top-15 scorer. Throughout 2020-21, the Bulls were significantly better on offense with LaVine on the floor, yet they gave much of that advantage back on the defensive end.1 At the trade deadline, the Bulls acquired Nikola Vučević, who had been the Orlando Magic’s leading scorer but also dramatically worsened Orlando’s defense when on the court.2 Then, over the offseason, the Bulls signed DeMar DeRozan, who had been the San Antonio Spurs’ leading scorer yet had an even worse effect on his team’s defense than LaVine or Vučević.3
The Bulls’ offense has responded; it’s up from 17th to 10th this year in points per 100 possessions, though the team — and the entire league — is scoring less this year than last. But far more impressive — and more shocking — has been Chicago’s improvement on the defensive end. The team defends the rim and the short midrange well and forces the fourth-highest turnover percentage in the league. Behind those strengths, its points allowed per 100 possessions has jumped from 15th to eighth in the league, allowing 6.9 points fewer per 100 possessions.
So what’s going on in Chicago?
Some of the improvements are because of the team’s relative improvement on the offensive end. Offense and defense are of course interconnected in such a fluid sport, and a successful offensive possession also forces opponents to begin their possession with a dead ball, which typically results in fewer points. Chicago may have an analytically unfriendly shot profile, with few triples and heaps of midrange shots, but the team makes its midrangers efficiently. In addition, it has the fifth-lowest turnover rate. As a result, only 13.4 percent of Chicago’s opponents’ possessions come in transition, third-lowest.
But even more importantly, Chicago made significant defensive acquisitions in the offseason. The additions of guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have been revelatory, with both recording top-10 defensive ratings at the point guard spot according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR. Both have steal and block rates in the 75th percentile or higher for their positions. They’re not limited to defending guards; when the Bulls beat the New York Knicks on Sunday, Ball and Caruso were the team’s two most frequent defenders of hulking forward Julius Randle. But no matter which position they guard, they seem always to be involved at the point of attack; per Second Spectrum, Ball has defended the most pick and rolls in the league and Caruso the 12th most. And they have a shared habit of either blowing up plays, as evidenced by their block and steal rates, or eliminating any advantage from them and grinding the dynamism out of offensive sets.
The Bulls play aggressive pick-and-roll defense, with their ball-handler defenders going over screens with the fourth-highest frequency in the league, per Second Spectrum. But off the ball, they’re much more conservative — which could be a way of protecting their bigs. Their screener defender off the ball drops with the third-highest frequency in the league, and they give up the second-lowest points per chance in such scenarios. The plan is working; the Bulls have the seventh-lowest rate of closeouts, meaning they’re rarely in rotation — you don’t have to put out fires if they aren’t set in the first place.
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The combination of on-ball onslaughts and off-ball orthodoxy is making an incredible impact; the Bulls frequently force opponents into static offense sets, and they are excellent at forcing misses when that happens.
It’s not just Ball and Caruso who are holding up Chicago’s defensive schemes; unlike the three offensive stars’ previous teams , the Bulls are thriving on the defensive end when LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević are on the court.4 The team’s defensive rating with all three on the court is an excellent 95.5, far superior to its overall mark of 105.0. In fact, Chicago’s defensive rating with the three on the floor would be better than the best defensive rating in the league, the Golden State Warriors’ 100.0. It’s apples and oranges to compare the marks of individual lineups with those of a full team, but it shows that the Bulls’ stars are actually empowering the positive elements of Chicago’s defense instead of holding them back. DeRozan even has the best on/off defensive impact on the team.
All three have been successful defending the actions required by their positions. Per Second Spectrum, a DeRozan-defended pick and roll has averaged 0.809 points per chance, making him the second-most effective pick-and-roll defender on the Bulls,5 and LaVine has been no slouch himself, holding opponents to 0.930 points per chance. DeRozan and LaVine have also been among the most effective team defenders in isolation, both allowing fewer than 0.8 points per chance. Vučević has defended excellently in the post, allowing 0.773 points per chance. Chicago’s three offensive stars have become pillars of the team’s defensive identity, and there’s reason to believe that this trend may continue.
Opponents aren’t shooting especially poorly from deep against Chicago, which is an indication that the defensive performance thus far is not exclusively attributable to good fortune or small sample size theater. It’s likely that DeRozan’s numbers, especially, will deflate somewhat; when he’s the closest defender to a shooter, he’s holding opponents to 5.87 percentage points lower than their expected effective field goal percentages despite not recording a negative number in any other year in the Second Spectrum database, which began in 2013-14. But he has some history of success in the elements in which he’s thrived this year, especially as a defender in isolation, where since 2013-14 he has consistently held opponents to lower effective field-goal percentages than expected. Some teamwide decline may take place, but it’s reasonable to think the components that have succeeded could continue to do so.
The Bulls’ defensive approach has some costs. They allow the second-highest free-throw rate and the seventh-highest rate of at-rim attempts. But the tradeoff is that LaVine, Vučević and DeRozan are employed as plus defenders. Because of their shared histories as spotty defenders, we could have expected a downside to playing them together. But there hasn’t been one. DeRozan and LaVine have been able to create the elite offense together that they previously were able to accomplish separately.
Chicago has managed to empower its players’ strengths while turning their weaknesses into … more strengths. If that remains true, there’s no limit to what the Bulls can accomplish this season.
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