The old sports adage “defense wins championships” has never felt so cliched and trite when watching the Chicago Bulls. They play defense. They play defense soooo hard. It’s just not enough against superior talent. That’s not to say that the Bulls don’t have good defenders, there are several players on the team capable of shutting down their opponents. It will be up to these few standouts to hold the line while the rest of the guys learn the art of defending.
One of the signs of good team defense is the amount of communication a team has while falling back to defend their basket. I am happy to say that the Bulls communicate a lot on defense. Players are calling out who they are going to defend, they are pointing at opponents that need to be defended, you can see the yelling and pointing every defensive possession. Every unit, starters, back-ups, scrubs, they all communicate, and tend to set themselves quickly in slower paced half-court situations. It is rare to see a Bulls player looking “lost” on defense, that is, they know where they are supposed to be and who they are supposed to defend. This is a very good sign for a young, inexperienced team and a huge first step for getting back to NBA relevance. There are a couple players on the Bulls who have really made their mark as strong individual defenders in the preseason.
Justin Holiday is the best 2-way player on the team. He is both an offensive threat and a defensive mensch. He is capable of locking down players, keeping the opponent from executing their offense by dominating and dictating where his man can go. Holiday’s strength, length, and athleticism help him block shots, pick off passes and pick the pocket of nearly any player he guards. He looks like a very poor mans Scottie Pippin; stealing a pass, sprinting down the court, hitting the pull up three, Justin Holiday is what makes the Bulls fun to watch.
David Nwaba has proven to be an excellent defender as well. His quickness, athleticism and length make him a very tough on the ball defender. He is as much at home defending the perimeter, blocking three point shots from the likes of Kyle Korver, as he is mixing it up in the paint, making sure there aren’t any easy lay ups. While he is with the Bulls, he will be an excellent defensive anchor for the second unit.
While the Bulls are quick to set up the defense in half-court situations, they are not a quick defensive team. They struggle to stay in front of players, allowing drives and slashing cuts into the lane. Bulls players are also slow in switching up defensive assignments when the offense runs a pick and roll play. Big men roll to the basket with a Bulls player a step or half step behind the action, allowing easy points in the paint. Their opponents find themselves with open three’s in pick and pop situations as the Bulls defender scrambles to jump out at the shooter and contest the shot.
Three second illegal defense violations have also been a problem for the Bulls. This was an issue for the team when they faced the New Orleans Pelicans. Concerned with defending the paint against the Towers of Terror, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, the Bulls would have a weak side defender, usually Paul Zipser, sit under the basket ready to double team the big men if they got the ball in the paint. While this is a fairly sound defensive gamble, the weak side defender leaving his man on the perimeter to help down low, the lack of awareness displayed by the Bulls in regard to the amount of time said defender sat in the paint was disappointing. It’s okay to be focused on Davis and Cousins, but you can’t allow that focus to cloud your awareness and timing, leading to easy technical free throws by way of illegal defense violations.
The Bulls committed a lot of fouls this preseason. Not the ticky-tack, give a superstar the benefit of the doubt kind of fouls rebuilding teams fall prey too. No, these are the dumb, ill advised fouls that undisciplined teams make when frustrated or overconfident. There have been a good number of legitimate reach in fouls called when players have tried to force a steal instead of getting set on defense. There have been just as many hacking fouls, as Bulls defenders try to strip the ball handler or block a shot after being beaten off the dribble. These are fouls of frustration and bad positioning, clear signs of a lack of quickness on defense.
What To Look For
I mentioned that it is rare for a Bulls player to look lost on defense, and right now that’s true, but it might not be so true when Zach Lavine returns to the line up. He has a long history of being lost on defense. In Minnesota, it was not strange to see him get caught watching the ball, allowing his man to sneak away from him for easy baskets. Lavine will have to work on staying with his man when he is reinstated into the lineup.
Lauri Markkanen is going to get bullied by big men all around the NBA. He is still very young and until he develops more muscle and slightly better technique, the league is going to try and run rough shod over him. As the season progresses both of these things should start to happen. Hopefully, he won’t get too banged up before he is able to stand his ground on defense.
The last thing to look for this season, is frustration setting in. As the team moves further into the season, and the losses start to pile up, can this young team keep a positive attitude? Can they continue to put forth maximum effort on the defensive end? Or will they begin pointing fingers and playing selfishly? Usually defense is the first thing to devolve on a bad team. Already some players (Jerian Grant) are exercising a certain brand of “ole” defense, allowing offensive players to blow right by without any effort to stop them. That kind of lazy defense breeds frustration among teammates. But, if the Bulls continue to put in effort on the defensive end, then this rebuild may not take so long.