Bulls defense tearing it up - credit the coach

One of the big concerns about Carlos Boozer coming back to the Bulls was his impact on the defense.  Boozer hasn't ever been known as much of a defender, and quite honestly, hasn't played a whole ton of defense since returning to the lineup either.   However, Boozer's return to the lineup hasn't hurt the defense at all, in fact, the defense is playing better than ever, particularly at the close of games.

What's more, it's so clear that the players have been coached up.   That as time goes on in practice, they have learned to execute the system better, made faster rotations, and covered up on their man.   The Bulls have been particularly strong in the clutch defensively recently.

  


How do you measure defense?

Forget the BS stats like FG% defense which means nothing if you give up lots of threes and foul the hell out of your opponent.   The Bulls are 3rd in the NBA in defensive rating which measures how many points they give up per possession.  It is the be all end all of defensive stats, because it balances out everything to determine which team gives up more points adjusted for pace and everything else.

How good have they been recently?

The Lakers, Pacers, 76ers, Wizards, and Timberwolves were all held to season lows (at the time of defeat) against the Bulls in the past seven games.   That's right five of the past seven opponents scored a season low against us.    Prior to that, the Bulls were just two points off holding Cleveland to a season low and held the Thunder to just 90 points.

Who's making the difference?

It's been a team effort, great coaching, great scheme, and good execution.   Guys who look like defensive sieves like Korver have done an admirable job staying in front of their man and forcing tough shots.  Kurt Thomas has played outstanding defense the past couple games to step up for Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.   Luol Deng has been consistently very good defending the perimeter.  C.J. Watson has been a train wreck offensively, but has gotten after it defensively.

We can't forget Joakim Noah just because he had surgery, his defense was outstanding earlier in the season and his ability to defend the pick and roll separates him from the vast majority of other big men in the NBA.  Taj Gibson plays a similar style to Noah just with a bit less size and athleticism on the glass and also defends the pick and roll well.  Both players have done an excellent job rotating to provide interior help on slashers as well.

Recently, the one guy that has really stood out to me is Ronnie Brewer though.  He's spent a tremendous amount of energy chasing guys through screens, disrupting the passing lanes and doing his best to lock guys down.  There are times where Brewer's presence on the floor forces huge delays for the opponent to get in the offense as he tips and denies passes and forces his man to give up the ball.

In the end it's the coaching

The Bulls have a lot of solid defensive players, but they also play relatively weak defenders for huge minutes each game.  Derrick Rose is capable of playing great man on man defense, but he frequently gets lost on pick and rolls and seems to save himself for offense at times.  Carlos Boozer looks to rebound more than defend and doesn't add much to that end of the court.  Kyle Korver's been viewed as a horrible liability on defense for his whole career.

Looking at the Bulls talent, nothing about the players leads you to believe they'd be an elite defensive unit in the league.   Many teams have pieces like Brewer while Noah and Gibson can block shots and play with speed but both can get beasted inside.  Luol Deng and Keith Bogans are functional defenders but haven't ever been viewed as lock down guys while the rest of the rotation is made up of players with poor reputations defensively (Rose, Boozer, Korver).

The Bulls play with a fairly even mix of offensive and defensive talent, but Thibodeau has merged the group into one of the premier defensive teams in the league.  Credit the players for executing, credit the players for laying it all out there on the floor, but credit Thibodeau for the scheme and getting them to do it night in and night out.

At 18-9, the Bulls are vastly ahead of where they were last season

There are many factors as to why.   Derrick Rose has ascended offensively giving them a player who can close out games.   Carlos Boozer has given them the second option they need to take pressure off Rose, punish teams for doubling, and initiate offense in the post.  Luol Deng and Derrick Rose learned to shoot threes well, answering one of the problems we didn't think the Bulls had answered this season.

However, one of the biggest reasons is coaching, particularly on the defensive end.  Tom Thibodeau has put in a plan, preached it in practice, gotten the players to buy in, and has reformed this team into an elite defensive unit.  On games where the offense simply doesn't have it, they've been able to buckle down defensively and win the ugly games, and that's one of the marks of a great team.

Tom Thibodeau deserves coach of the year consideration for what he's done with this team, and while he may not win it, the Bulls picked a winner when they hired him this off-season.

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  • I swear I hadn't read this when I said the same thing on the previous article ... forcing low FG% without fouling, playing ugly has been the key.

    I'm not really sure I agree with your personnel assessment, I think you're being a bit overly negative.

    When you look at the perimeter guys you really just want guys who make an effort not to be turnstyles. Korver fits that, I think his reputation is unfair (he's unathletic and white, unless he's a great defender people are going to assume he's bad). Deng's always been good and been a key perimeter defender on great defensive teams before (lockdown rep or not), Watson despite coming from GS doesn't seem to fit the stereotype, Rose is better this year (although still flawed), and Brewer is good and Bogans is solid. So you have an above average perimeter crew.

    With the bigs you have Noah & Gibson who had pre-existing defensive reps, Asik who was brought over to be a defensive big, Thomas who is a vet known for being a tough if undersized defender, and Boozer who you can't believe is not butter. Again, with one bad defender surrounded by four good ones that's an above average defensive front court too.

    So when I look at the players I think they're a bunch of guys that so long as they're put in a good scheme should be one of the top half dozen defenses. I mean last year the Bulls were 11th, but that kind of sells them short, before the injury issues and the trades blowing up the roster they were higher, from memory they were hovering around the 5-7 range. Does this years roster, given the player changes and internal improvements, not look at least as good as last year even without a coaching change?

    The Bulls are clearly better both offensively and defensively but it is kind of hard to know how much credit to give to Thibs since he's beating the expectations set by VDN. I mean I don't want to rip on VDN, he's not the worst coach that ever coached, but he wasn't good either. Is the way the Bulls playing just what you'd expect from any good coach or is VDN a really elite coach who gets more out of the team than you'd expect? I don't know yet, it might take a season or two before that becomes clear.

  • What I like about Thibodeau is he knows how to make adjustments and it translates quickly on the floor. I just hope he already formulated his adjustments countering the Knicks' threes on Christmas Day. Amar'e can score all he wants but it is the three that will kill the Bulls.

  • In reply to boogernights:

    Ya i agree...maybe try to make Amare beat you. Just like with Orlando...they have way to many good 3 pts shooters. I would try to make Dwight beat us too.

  • In reply to boogernights:

    I still think Bogans will eventually go to the bench but who knows. His current shooting slump has been terrible. If he could just get out of that slump, he would be fine. Solid D, Solid decisoin maker....he just cant make a shot.

  • Awesome analysis Doug! Yeah I like Thibs a lot, but as we all don't understand why keep starting Bogans? Maybe Rose likes it because Brewer doesn't handle the ball well and Bogans to start the game is what Rose prefers? Who knows but Brewer has been used off the bench in Utah and is a spark plug and KK if he can hit his shots too coming off the bench is the start of a good 2nd unit!
    The Bulls are fun to watch especially when Noah comes back and we are at full strength again! :-)

  • Some teams want an offensive spark plug coming off the bench. Maybe Thibs prefers a defensive spark plug coming off the bench. As much as people understandably complain about Bogans still starting, I think Thibs trusts the team defense of the starting unit and thinks that 2nd unit needs that extra punch on the defensive end.

  • Excellent points, MW. As far as Boozer's defensive lapses/disinterest go, I would attribute it to two things: first, the scorer's idea of "defense," which is to simply outscore and abuse your man on the other end of the floor; the second is that he's had the luxury of playing with -- and deferring to -- pretty quality defenders his whole career (most notably Andrei Kirilenko who can be an absolute wrecking crew on D, Deron Williams who's no slouch, and the aforementioned Ronnie Brewer, Pippen-esque in the passing lanes).

    I remember watching Booz give up dunks to DeAndre Jordan in the Clippers game and wanting to credit the latter's athleticism rather than blame the former's apathy. While he isn't known as a shotblocker, I'm with you and would definitely give him until February to fully get his legs under him. Hopefully Noah's absence emphasizes the fact he must at least try to defend...

  • What, Thibs is a good defensive coach!? You're kidding me?

    Whenever I've checked on teams with top defenses such as Boston was regarded as having the rebounding totals always give those defensively superior teams a three-four rebounding edge. Right now, the Bulls have over four more rebounds per game then their opponents.

    The Bulls have a good defense no question with the proviso that bigs at times kill them. But last year the Bulls also were near the top in blocks and rebounds. That tells me that Joakim and Taj are good defensive players(despite their lack of strength - one thing holding them back from excellence). Taj set the Pac-10 record for blocks, and Joakim set the NCAA toruney record for blocks. They are good defensive players, and good instinctive basketball players period.

    But yes of course Thibs is a defensive mastermind. So then it does come down to the players as the variable. I thought Jo looked much bigger/stronger in late summer(the Obama/White house hoops game photo-op). But despite the injury etc,. I still felt like he lost a little muscle/bulk on his arms/upper body. How Scottie and Horace evolved to have those same timeless physiques year in and year out I don't know. They(Horace) say(s) their strength coach Al Vermiel is it(?) was a legend/unparalelled.

    For my money, if Jo and Taj can get past the early career injury bug, and stay healthy then it's a matter of how much muscle(in the Scottie/Horace mode) they can add and more importantly retain.

    While we can celebrate the Defense, and I do give credit for Derrick improving to a solid player over all(which was a big improvement - though he still falls into trouble with screens at times), but really offense is the problem.

    Until they get someone besides Korver(who really for his career numbers is a bench guy who is either on one night or completely off/a non-factor another, but has shown he does get it done in the playoffs), but otherwise who do they have at the guard/wing spot who can shoot/score?

    Thank god Derrick and Luol got the message from Thibs(much to his credit) that sucessful NBA scorers/wings shoot the three. Both D and Lu have done an excellent job with this both in accuracy and attempts necessary to be relevant.

    But when we got Brewer, C.J. Watson, and Bogans we were hoping C.J. at least could shoot/score, and Ronnie would get his energy/activity points. Bogans had a good year shooting threes a few years ago so maybe a one year revival which early on looked to be the case. But no such luck.

    As I said before, C.J.'s 30 on his first start screams to me that to get production out of him he needs to start/play 28 minutes. At least on many nights. Then Ronnie eats up the rest and sneaks in some minutes at SF when Lu is hopefully scoring some as a 6'9 stretch four as they say.

    To me, unless they at least see if C.J. can get something done, and quit putting their chips on a vet like Bogans who will look just stable enough to get you killed against good teams and in the playoffs by stifling the production of others then they are very vulnerable.

    Thibs, C.J. actually defends well. He put up 30. He averages 10ppg on 48% shooting. there is simply no comparison to Bogans. Play the guy for christ's sake. And get Ronnie all the minutes you can as well. Then if C.J. still doesn't improve dramatically, because right now he can't shoot/score worth a crap, then dump the minutes on a guy who can produce on both ends in Ronnie Brewer. And if neither of those scenarios pan out then you bhetter get ready to seel your mother for O.J. mayo or wait till' next year to get to the ECF/take the big next step.

  • In reply to MarkNorman:

    Nice reference to Taj and Noah's NCAA/Conference records RW.

  • In reply to jgingeri:

    Thanks. If those two could stay healthy, and get a little meaner against teams that will try to knock them down/bully them/the Bulls would have a frontcourt to be reckoned with. If Jo can play offensively and in general they way he did in November/pre-injury when he gets back then it will be a shame if they can't find an answer for the scoring abyss at guard because then this could be an ECF team IMO. Under the right conditions I could certainly see Derrick averaging 27-28 a game and Booz 20-22. That'd be mean. Throw in November/healthy/playoff Jo, and look out.

  • Deng is clearly above average in defense. Rose is average.

  • OJ Mayo.

  • In reply to joeacook3:

    OJ MAYO

  • In reply to joeacook3:

    is liked more for his pre-draft hype than his play in the NBA.

  • Ya i agree... the Bulls are a solid SG away from being a really really good team imo.

  • In reply to Csharp:

    Yeah, a Ronnie and C.J. combo playing as they have in the past would at least be OK, or a legit starter as in Mayo. Of course even if they decided they were interested we'd certainly have to give them Taj(plus multiple picks) which would suck eggs. Mayo to me has all the tools, but does he have the drive? Nostly when I've watched him he stands around the perimeter waiting to shoot threes, and he gets to the line at an abysmal rate something like 2.7 FTA's a game I think.

  • In reply to Csharp:

    Ya i agree...Mayo seems to stand around on the perimeter...maybe he needs a new team to get his motivation back...who knows. The 3 players i like that im hearing about are Mayo, Stephen jackson an JR Smith (if he can straighten up a little bit) I think all those players could help the bulls out.

  • In reply to Csharp:

    I'm thinking OJ Mayo could really use a change of scenery right about now, what with his [estranged] father's recent attempted murder charge(among other things) looming, and hopefully he's vocal with the Grizz front office about a trade. I also keep hearing that Memphis won't budge on a Mayo trade with the Bulls unless Taj is included, but they (Memphis) already have a serviceable backup PF in Darrell Arthur at almost 9 points and 5 boards a game. If I'm GarPax, I'm asking for Arthur back in any trade that has Taj in it. Is it stubborn? A little...but our reserve forward corps gets depleted in this scenario (if JJ and Scalabrine go too), and the Grizzles can draft another power forward with the pick they get from us.

  • In reply to Csharp:

    the issue I see with the defense is what I refer to as secondary rotation failures....Luol or Carlos or whomever not making the correct choice when having to decide to stay home on their man or guard the ball or guard the hoop. those lapses really hurt inside. they'd really stomp people if they could get that under control. I have very muchliked the progress Rose has made as an on the ball defender..hardly perfect but so so so much better than last year. Now when he gets beat it is not from lack of technique or effort but because he is outplayed...this suggests more room to improve and he is clearly willing.
    I am still spoiled from watching the Sloan era and the MJ era on defense though

  • You can't name 5 starters at Deng's position in the league that are better defenders, nor can you name 5 centers better than Noah defensively, Rose isn't that bad, his athleticism allows him to make plays on defense; the big difference between Rose's D vs DWade and Lebron's D is that Wade and Lebron sit back in passing lanes and don't contest perimeter shots resulting in lots of steals. I'd be hard pressed to say Rose is anything less than average at worst. I don't really understand what exactly your criteria is for a "good defender", if Noah isn't a hands down excellent defender then I don't know who is. Its not like he can shut down Dwight Howard, but no one can, are you saying there are no great defensive centers in the league?

  • Everyone is prone to get blown up by skilled players, that's why they're skilled players. Didn't you used to say on your podcast that there's no such thing as a lock down defender for that reason?

    Take a guy like Korver. He's obviously not a great defender who is going to harass the hell out of his man or anything, but I don't think he's a guy you can easily exploit either. Utah managed to be an above average defensive team with him on court, and I don't think it's because when people got by him Boozer and Okur were particularly fearsome.

    I don't know, maybe this is a stupid observation, but from what I see when it comes to perimeter players the majority are firmly around the average mark with little to split them, anyone who at least tries every possession is about equally effective. If you can get someone who stays in front of their man AND creates steals like Brewer then that's great, but failing that guys who just rotate correctly in a defensive scheme seem pretty inter-changeable.

    And with Noah, which centers exactly are we afraid of? Howard, Shaq (although he only plays 20 a night) and Horford are the only guys who score at a high rate with good efficiency. Most centers are worse offensive players than Noah, a guy who is considered a hustle player by many! I'll take a good help defender over a good man defender at center any day.

  • I think we're Rose taking another off season to improve his game away from elite. Really I just don't feel Rose is quite good enough to carry a team to the title yet, even if we could improve the supporting cast a little. As good as he's been this year the MVP talk is mainly because there's no clear leading candidate and Rose would make a good story ala Nash.

  • As I said in the other thread, I'm not really hopeful with Boozer on D. He's been coached. Sloan is certainly not a guy known to let players just get a pass, I'm sure he spent 6 years trying to get Boozer to be a better defender.

    What I am hopeful of is that the 04-05 Bulls were a great defensive team with Eddy Curry in the lineup. I mean if you can hide a guy who doesn't play defense and doesn't rebound, surely you can hide Boozer who at least rebounds. Although it's probably going to require Noah & Taj being back, I can't see Thomas plodding around being capable of hiding anyone.

  • Is the draft pick you mention the one we got from the Bobcats for Tyrus?

  • Our draft pick isn't going to be a late first, so it's something that anyone can offer. What other teams can beat us on is they can give up expirings or a trade exception rather than Brewer & JJ who each have another year on their deals. Perhaps they can even find someone who will absorb Diop's contract (OK, maybe that's too much for the Bobcats to wish for).

    The Bulls offer is just the low ball offer that only wins if nobody else gets involved. If Jackson is on the market surely there will be interest though, the Bulls aren't the only good team that might want to upgrade the 2/3 spots.

  • If I'm Charlotte, I'm holding out for more than your suggested package. I'm not even sure the salaries match.

  • Forget the CBA stuff, the advantage of an expiring contract is that it's not 8 million coming out of MJ's pocket next year. A trade exception is even better for that.

    As much as he complained about cheap ownership as a player he seems to see the other side now he's an owner. Remember how in the off season he could have had Calderon but decided Dampier's non guaranteed contract was better?

  • I think you have to look at what he's had to work with, he's never had a great defensive big, and they play in the West where the majority of good offensive teams have been for a decade or so. To keep them around average or better is a pretty good effort.

    Point is Sloan isn't a coach who completely ignores D, and he's known as someone who demands effort. I really feel like if Boozer could be made competent we'd already have seen it.

  • I don't know, I just don't see MJ throwing tons of cash into the team as it is right now. I mean even the rumours of going after Melo are a bit of a cash saver disguised as a fan pleaser. You put bums on seats with Melo for the rest of the year, then go "Oh what a jerk he is leaving us" while you privately laugh at how you managed to get a big expiring contract to cut payroll.

  • If I were the Bulls, I too would be hesitant to give up Gibson. With Boozer and Noah already suffering significant injuries, we see how important it is for Bulls to have a guy like Gibson. He does for the Bulls what Udonis Haslem does for the Heat, and believe me, that's a compliment. However, the Bulls do need to upgrade the shooting guard position. Do you admit I was right earlier in the year when I said K.Bogans would not have made the Heat's 15 man roster? Obviously, I'm not always right, but I'll stand by that statement 100%.

  • Miller is an expiring and Camby is a guy a contending team would love to have an can be offloaded at the deadline. Even if they keep Camby that move still saves them a ton of future salary.

    I'm not really buying that the Bobcats aren't going to tank, of course they're not going to come out and say "F you fans, we're getting scrubs to cut payroll".

  • You don't think Bogans would have started in front of Wade? Come on, think of the scoring punch off the bench!

  • I think getting rid of Brown signifies they are going to rebuild. Everyone knows Larry Brown is an impatient win now guy who wants to trade every young potential guy on the roster for washed up vets who play the "right way". If they wanted to win now why fire a win now coach?

    As far as PG goes, if they cared about good PG play they would have retained Felton or made the Calderon trade. Instead they went in without a proven point guard and have regressed massively. As you said, not the shrewdest team in the league.

    I don't think they'll necessarily rebuild well, I don't think MJ has the patience for that kind of long term strategy, but I think they're going to try at least for a little while.

  • Stackhouse wasn't there when I initially made the comment and isn't there now. So we'll take him out of the discussion. Regardless of what you might think of Pittman, he's 6'11" is getting closer to Heat's desired weight of 270 pounds, with soft hands and quick feet. He was over 350 pounds when the Heat drafted him. He's played real well in the D-League. In the near future, he'll be given every opportunity to become the Heat's starting Center. So the Heat would definately not keep Bogans over him. The closest case you could make is Magliore. Since he is insurance in case J.Anthony, Big Z, or Dampier get hurt, he's more valuable to the Heat then Bogans would be.

  • I don't think anyone has a hope of all-D selection. Brewer not starting and Noah being injured has ruled out even the two fringe candidates we might have had. You're right, we don't have a superstar on the defensive end.

    However looking into it deeper I noticed something ...

    Unlike Boston it's not our starters that are crushing it, it's the group of Watson/Brewer/Korver/Gibson/Asik that have the best defensive on court stats. It looks like the Bulls are only playing a bit above average defense against starters but they're killing other teams second units.

    Maybe this is a case of none of those guys are elite defenders, but compared to the offense of bench players on most teams they are? Especially when you consider a lot of teams fill their benches with guys who are too much of a defensive liability to start. Coming up against a second unit that plays good D is something most benches probably don't face that often.

    This is kind of worrying really, because come the playoffs when teams play their bench less our defensive bench wont be as big an advantage.

  • I've had my eye on Captain Jack for a while, living in the Bay Area. He's a real spark plug, very much an Energy guy. He's a strong personality, you'd have to make sure he fits in with DRose and Noah, because he would strongly influence the chemistry of the team. But he really wants to win, and I think the chance of a late-career championship would bring the best out of him over the next few years. If Mitchell is right and we can do it without losing Taj, I call us real contenders now! Do it!

  • I would love Steve Jackson, he has improved as a man, & has changed his ways some, plus coming to a team of good guys, they would really rub off on him. My only request would be sending away Bogans in the deal. His game is really perfect for what we need right now.

  • With Wade, Mike Miller, and Eddie House on the depth chart at 2-Guard, I just didn't think Bogans would crack the 15 man roster. The Heat prefer to keep extra Centers than 2-Guards. From 1 through 15, I don't think the Heat are necessarily that deep, although they do have a great core. Like yourself, I too would rather have Watson then Chalmers, but I think the Bulls could utilize Arroyo's ball handling and playmaking. The Bulls really don't have a true backup point guard. I guess we'll just agree to disagree on Pittman, who I believe has a greater upside than Asik. At this stage of their careers, I don't think much of Kurt Thomas or Jamaal Magliore. Because of Noah's injury, I think Dampier could be an asset to them.

  • I said it a the start of the season that I think Coach Thibbs will pull a Jerry Sloan with the Bulls. He will be the coach for many years. I just dont see many flaws in his coaching. His defensive schemes are well known, but he has a creative mind when it comes to offensive sets. He gets the most out of his whole roster, and he is a strong believer in holding all players accountable. He does get on his players for missing defensive assignments, and you may say it will eventually get to the players, but they know his instructions come from years of experience and hard work. Plus the stars on the Bulls are high character people and they'll show respect to someone like Thibbs who has basically dedicated his life to the game of basketball.

  • Bulls passed on Dampier before Noah got hurt. Bet they'd like to have him now, if for no other reason, to have another big body until Noah returns. If Rose ever got hurt, I think you'd see Watson too would be woefully inadequate. Haslem and Mike Miller are better than decent. They're rotation players on a championship calibur team. Ronnie Brewer is the definition of decent.

  • I admitted the Heat were not that great 1 through 15. Miller shot 48% from 3 point range last year, can put the ball on the floor and is an above average defender/rebounder. Haslem is a co-captain, a "glue guy" that started on the 2006 championship team. Statistics don't begin to describe his value to the Heat. Otherwise, Wade, James and Bosh would not have taken less money to make room for Haslem. So who am I overrating?

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