Midway Malaise

Last night, I went to the Bulls game. It was the first game I’ve been to since before the pandemic. They were playing the Oklahoma City Thunder, a plucky, young, athletic squad full of guys most people have never heard of but will certainly be important players for future NBA Championship teams. Way back when the season started I targeted yesterday’s game as the one to go to, “Because,” I thought, “If the Bulls are bad, then at least I want to watch an exciting opponent.” Boy did I nail that one.

The Chicago Bulls lost to the cheeky Thunder 124 – 110.

Watching the Chicago Bulls play basketball in person is always an eye opening event. You can always see things that the television cameras don’t broadcast. Things like crowd noise and reactions kind of make their way through the screen, but other stuff like who is or isn’t taking warmup shots during half-time isn’t usually shown during the live broadcast.

I think the biggest thing that I picked up on last night, that isn’t easily observable on TV broadcasts, is that the Chicago Bulls are constantly retreating.

A Bulls player puts a shot up, and everyone is sprinting to get back on defense, no one crashes the boards.

They only back-peddle on defense. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s driving down the lane? “RETREAT!!!” The defender shuffle-slides down the paint with Shai, offering no resistance, allowing him to get all the way to the rim.

It’s the equivalent of turtling in soccer, or playing “Prevent” defense in the NFL.

The Bulls defense bends to every whim of their opponents offense, and it leads to historic scoring nights for teams. The Pistons scored 132 points against the Bulls, so did the Phoenix Suns. The Mavericks scored 144, the Cavaliers 145. The Minnesota Timberwolves put up a whopping 150 points on the Bulls earlier this season. Only the Cavs game went to overtime.

A defensive rating that started the season within the top 10 of the league has nose-dived to 23rd overall and sits at a lowly 113.5.

After seeing the Bulls do nothing but back-pedal the entire night, it’s no longer a mystery to me why this team is 19-24 halfway through the season.

They are set up to lose.

The Bulls are constantly giving ground.

Every “dawg” in them has rolled over and shown their belly. There is very little fight, just constant retreat.

I blame Billy Donovan and his staff for this.

It’s obvious that they’ve drilled the need for the Bulls to get back on defense so hard into their players heads that there is little room for any other defensive principle to exist.

Communication, rotation, aggressiveness, all of that takes a backseat to “getting back”.

This team has been told by so many people, so often, that they are “bad at defense” that they’ve begun to believe it.

They believe it even more when the coaching staff drills into them that they need to “get back, and get organized” because they aren’t doing enough on defense. They see the coaching staff has no confidence in their defensive abilities, and they question their own.

Billy Donovan’s voice joins the chorus, “You aren’t good enough on defense,” and surprise, surprise, the Bulls are no longer “good on defense.”

.I have been saying all season that this is a very talented team. It’s true on offense, and equally true on defense. They have some of the most tenacious point of attack defenders in the league. Alex Caruso can give superstars fits. Derrick Jones Jr and Javonte Green are defensive utility knives that can do just about anything. We’ve seen Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu go toe-to-toe with the best in the NBA and hold their own. Even Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have played the passing lanes well and made some opportunistic steals over the course of this season.

The Bulls have talent on defense.

Why are they constantly retreating???

When the Bulls are at their best they are being aggressive on defense, wreaking havoc in the passing lanes, causing turnovers and running out for fast-break points.

Billy Donovan is trying to back a Ferrari into a parking spot instead of taking it for ride around the race track.

The constant retreating has ruined this Bull’s season, and the players mindset. The Bulls went from a fun, energetic team that was a threat on both ends of the court, to a lethargic, predictable mess that constantly runs away from the ball. That’s on the coaching staff.

So much of life and sports revolves around the stories we tell ourselves, the way we order the world. Right now the Bulls are telling themselves they are bad at defense, and that story is playing out in technicolor. They need to rewrite the story.

The Bulls need to recognize their true talent and embrace it.

They are good defenders when they are aggressive and determined. They are good defenders when they attack and contest.

The back-pedaling has to stop. The retreating needs to end. It’s time for the Bulls to make a stand.

Until they do, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!