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The Chicago Bulls Defense Is Better Than You Think

Breaking down the new-look Bulls’ defensive structure, which is customized to best fit the team’s personnel.

Bulls Defense
Graphic: Chip Jones/On Tap Sports Net

Everyone has an opinion on the Chicago Bulls’ defense. For better or worse, the Bulls made a lot of “win now” moves this offseason and have playoff aspirations as a result. The moves have left a lot of NBA fans… skeptical to say the least. The team possesses undeniable offensive firepower, but will the defense be good enough to see the team to their postseason ambitions?

Elite Defensive Blueprint

When you think of elite NBA defenses, a few things come to mind. An imposing rim protector such as Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis. Or maybe menacing perimeter defenders like Jrue Holiday and Matisse Thybulle. As the NBA has progressed into the modern era, there seems to be a sort of defensive blueprint that the great teams follow. And in its simplest form that template looks something like this.

Plugging the players that comprise the Bulls’ roster into this basic plan would go very poorly. While he is a two-time All-Star, Nikola Vucevic isn’t a good rim protector. And barring a defensive renaissance for DeMar DeRozan, his 12-year defensive resume is suspect at best. To complete the team’s terrible trifecta, you have Zach LaVine who’s as well known for his high-flying dunks as he is for his porous effort on the other end.

The problem with judging the Bulls by their nightmarish fit into this common structure is that they’ve ventured off the beaten path into a custom-built system tailored around their star player’s strengths. The front office knew they needed to be creative when approaching the team’s defense. So instead they built their own unique approach to NBA defense. Let’s talk about how the Chicago Bulls play defense.

A Vucevized Defensive Approach

The most important defensive position is the center. And seeing as the Bulls want to have their All-Star center on the court as much as possible, the system is built for Nikola Vucevic.

Nikola Vucevic Stats

In 2019, the Orlando Magic ranked eighth in defensive rating. And that defense was actually better when Vucevic was on the court. He’s often labeled as a defensive liability and that’s because sometimes he is. You need a pretty specific set of conditions to get the best out of him defensively, but when those conditions are met it doesn’t only remove his status as a defensive weakness, he’s actually pretty damn good.

The Nets run a pick-and-roll and Kyrie Irving gets the switch on to Vucevic and enters attack mode. However, the Montenegrin big man gracefully shuffles his feet and smothers the Brooklyn-based conspiracy theorist. And this forces the guard to reset the possession. The ball then finds its way to Joe Harris who proceeds to attack the basket, but he’s met by Vucevic and ends up turning the ball over.

I love this possession because it shows two of Vucevic’s best defensive skills. Despite his reputation for being slow, he’s actually quite quick when moving laterally. Secondly, he’s equipped with a 7-foot, 260-pound frame and augments that with his 7-foot-4 wingspan. That’s really big! And he can do a lot by simply being in the way of his opponents.

Here’s a clip from the Bulls’ preseason campaign. Cedi Osman drives to his right and tries to thread a pass to his rolling big man in Jarrett Allen. Unfortunately for the Turkish wing, the Bulls have a well-positioned roadblock. The Bulls’ All-Star reads this and with the help of his lengthy wingspan, he pokes the ball free. Anthony Davis was second among all centers this preseason with 1.6 steals per game. Davis trailed only Vucevic who found himself WAY ahead of the competition with 2.3.

His job isn’t to protect the rim. It’s to deter opponents from getting there in the first place. Instead of being a defensive anchor, Vucevic is a defensive filter. And any action that goes through the heart of the Bulls defense has to go through their well-positioned, highly intelligent, and massive framed filter.

The New Blueprint

Changes to the center’s responsibility mean changes to the forwards’ and guards’ jobs too. With the center no longer protecting the rim, that onus falls on the team’s forwards. With the center filling the mid-range area and the forwards focused on protecting the rim, that leaves a lot of ground on the perimeter for the guards to cover. All of that leaves the Bulls’ defensive blueprint looking something like this.

And the early returns of this system are extremely promising. While preseason results need to be taken with a grain of salt, they shouldn’t be completely ignored. And the Bulls’ ranked first in defensive efficiency this preseason.

The Guarding Of The Guards

The guards are the ones defending the point of attack, that area above the three-point line that most possessions start from. For any defense, this job is massively important, but it’s even more important for the Bulls.

While Vucevic is quicker than he gets credit for laterally, he’s quite slow when moving backward. In this clip, the driving Cavalier meets little resistance on the perimeter. This allows him to attack head-on into Vucevic. And because the Bulls’ big man is forced to move backward instead of laterally, he gets blown by with ease. So it’s on the team’s guards to force opposing drivers to take wider angles.

Nothing showcases the Bulls’ attempts to force wide-angled drives better than their pick-and-roll coverages. In this clip, the Grizzlies attempt a side pick-and-roll and the Bulls are using ice coverage to defend it. The guard, which in this case is Lonzo Ball, is going to position himself between the ball handler and the screener, effectively preventing the ball handler from using the screen. In addition, Vucevic brings himself out of the paint and in position to contest a shot.

The other coverage you’ll see the Bulls use is a hedge. Hedging is a style where the big man comes all the way to the point of the screen to dissuade the ball handler from driving. Notice how far Nikola Vucevic comes out of the paint in this clip. These two coverage systems are employed to prevent the ball handler from being able to go around the screen and quickly turn the corner toward the basket.

And sometimes the Bulls’ perimeter defenders simply show their class. Here Lonzo Ball isn’t able to get around the screen quick enough to force Ja Morant to go wide. So instead he goes all the way around the ball handler and forces him back into the screener, essentially weaponizing the Grizzlies’ own screener against them and forcing a turnover.

This guard group is likely where one of the team’s “defensive liabilities”, Zach LaVine, will see most of his minutes. While he’s not likely to make any standout plays, the job is pretty simple and he has the ability to execute it. LaVine’s task is denying screens in the corner and hedging with Nikola Vucevic at the point of attack.

High-Flying Forwards

All of this leaves the team’s wings with a pretty simple job. They essentially need to cover everything and anything that occurs along the baseline. And the Bulls’ have started collecting high-level run-and-jump athletes at the forward spot such as Patrick Williams, Derrick Jones Jr., and Javonte Green. These players are quick enough to cover long distances on closeouts and also able to leap high enough to contest shots at the rim.

You couldn’t ask for a better example of the forward’s job in the Bulls’ system than this clip. The Bulls’ defense operating in harmony here was my favorite play of the preseason. To start, Vucevic hedges the screen and the roll man gets behind him. Zach LaVine is in hot pursuit of the ball handler so he needs to make a decision fast. And he opts to throw a lob to his open roller. But before the pass is thrown, DeMar DeRozan starts rotating and he’s able to lift off the ground and block 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen’s shot at the rim. This play is perfectly executed by the three stars that are often labeled as defensive liabilities.

Here DeRozan pre-rotates into the paint, but the ball is passed behind him to the shooter in the corner. But DeRozan is able to make up the ground quickly, as he uses his long 6-foot-9 wingspan to block the shot.

With the Bulls’ forward depth injured this preseason, there were a lot of times where DeMar DeRozan was responsible for this all-important weakside rim protection. And he did a really good job in the first two games. Similar to the rest of the team, his effort was somewhat lackadaisical in the final two games. But he has the ability to be at least a defensive neutral in this simplified role. Interestingly enough, DeRozan has defended the roll man 123 times over the past 10 seasons. And in those possessions, he allows just 0.98 points per possession. That’s a defensive rating of 98, which is exceptionally good.

In Conclusion

The Bulls’ defense has a lot of detractors. And they’re absolutely correct that the team’s defense would perform poorly if they tried to play a standard defensive system. However, head coach Billy Donovan and executive Arturas Karnisovas have constructed a roster that thrives in a more personalized defensive system aimed to play to their stars’ strengths.

Big man Nikola Vucevic acts as a defensive filter, constantly generating steals in the passing lanes and executing both ice and hedge coverages on the perimeter. Meanwhile, the team’s star defenders Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball stop opponents at the point of attack and force drivers to take wider angles of approach. And the team’s forward group of DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Williams, Derrick Jones Jr., and Javonte Green stop anything and everything along the baseline while also offering weakside rim protection when the big man is out of the paint defending pick-and-rolls.

The Bulls are in for an exciting season with newly found playoff aspirations. The team’s offensive firepower is without question, and the custom fit defensive system should be enough to help the team realize their ambitions.

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