The Bulls presently sit with an NBA best defensive rating of 99.2. In the past five years, the only team to best that rating were the 2008 NBA champion Celtics with a 98.9. If defense wins championships, prepare to hoist another banner at the United Center (of course, if it only took defense, the Bulls could hoist it next to the 06/07 championship banner when the Bulls finished first in defensive rating).
The question is, which way is the Bulls defense going to go from here until the end of the season? The Bulls will soon replace Kurt Thomas with Joakim Noah in the starting lineup. They should have better help defense and better pick and roll defense once this happens. However, the schedule is also about to get a whole lot tougher as well.
One of the primary reasons the Bulls defensive efficiency has improved even with Noah out is the caliber of competition has dropped. Defensive rating, while the best stat for measuring team defense commonly available, doesn't account for strength of schedule to date.
After a brutal start to the season, the Bulls have drifted into one of the softest schedules in the league. Granted, the gap between a hard schedule and an easy schedule is much smaller 48 games than it is after 20 games. Back in late November, we looked at the December/January schedule as a chance to fatten up, and the Bulls have done so.
I've never seen this stat before, but one factor going in the Bulls favor is how much they slow down opposing offenses.
The Bulls are 4th in the NBA in forcing teams to use shot clock and slow down their offense. They're not letting teams get many cheap fast break points, and the later into the shot clock you press a team, the worse shot they're likely to get.
I think the Bulls defense is legit. They are extremely well disciplined on their rotations. They typically force tough shots and do a nice job at helping inside the paint on dribble penetration. They've closed out on the three point line much better than early in the season, and basically every team that plays them has one of their worst nights on the year offensively.
Many will wonder how a defense with Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer can compete with the league's best, but Derrick Rose has morphed into a very good defensive player. His reputation has lagged the change, but Rose no longer struggles with blow bys defensively and does an outstanding job contesting jumpers. He has the speed to stay in front of his man and the strength to not get beasted inside.
Boozer's still a weak link defensively, but he's putting forth effort, and has a big strong body to stay in front of his man. Boozer's primary weakness is when he has to come out against stretch fours, but there aren't all that many quality stretch fours in the NBA, so the issue isn't as big as it would be otherwise. With a healthy Noah, the Bulls can always put Noah on a shooting four and allow Boozer to use his strength down low as well.
In the end, you have to credit Tom Thibodeau for the defensive transformation of this team. The Bulls are unlikely to have a single first team defensive player on their squad and may not have a second or third team defensive player either. Yet despite that, they're leading the NBA in defense through team effort.
Prior to the season starting, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah (though people will complain he gets beasted inside all the time) were the only players on the squad you'd really view as above average defenders. Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, C.J. Watson, and Kyle Korver were viewed as defensive sieves while Deng and Bogans were likely viewed as average type guys.
That makes for a roster both in the bench and starting lineup which seems to have a pedestrian future ahead of it defensively, but this defense has been crafted through coaching, discipline, trust, and full buy-in from the players on the squad. They've put together something greater than the sum of their individual talents.
Derrick Rose wanted a grimey team. He's got one.