Why can't the Bulls defend the pick and roll anymore?

Why can't the Bulls defend the pick and roll anymore?

The Bulls have had one of the elite defenses in the NBA for the past four seasons under Tom Thibodeau. The key to their great defense has been a few different facets, but the core of it was slowing the game down combined with great pick and roll defense. The Bulls have been destroyed on the pick and roll this year though.

What is supposed to happen?

Let's examine how the Bulls attempt to defend the pick and roll.

The guard's responsibility is to almost exclusively fight over the pick. The big man's responsibility is to show on the opposing guard as he comes off the pick for at least two steps to stop him from going straight to the basket and give time for the guard to recover from the screen.

The Bulls, with Gibson/Noah anyway, would then sometimes simply switch the pick and roll because both of them could defend most guards for short bursts without problem. When there isn't a switch, the big man would recover to his own man wherever he was.

Typically, with a two step show, there's enough time for the the Bulls big man to stop a basket roll by the opposing big man [and help should come if not], the guard has enough time to get back in front of his man, and at worst, this leaves an semi-open long mid range jumper for the big man if he goes for the pick and pop instead of the roll.

The biggest problem is Gasol

Now if you remember Carlos Boozer's defense, he would get out there on the pick and roll, and he'd do his little Boozer arms out two step show on the guard. This was his responsibility and while not nearly as effective as our other defenders, he was where he was supposed to be doing what he was supposed to be doing.

Where Boozer really struggled was in his help defense and reaction time when there was dribble penetration and he had to make a rotation. Here Pau Gasol has Boozer beat no question about it, this is why Gasol gets more blocks and is generally perceived as a much better defender.

However, watch Pau Gasol on his defense on the pick and roll. First, he almost never even runs up to the pick, instead he just floats back about 5-6 feet behind the pick and roll spot. This has a few huge problems.

First, the big man is always wide open for the jumper, in the previous example as the Bulls big man is recovering, the opposing big man will typically take a jumper with a guy running out at him, in this instance, Pau frequently can't really even do a successful close out.

A mid range jumper with a tight close out isn't a good shot. A wide open mid range jumper is.

Second, Gasol doesn't slow down the opposing guard off the pick at all, so now the Bulls guard who's defending is a step behind after fighting over the pick while the opposing guard is running full tilt at the basket. This gives the appearance that our guards simply can't defend anyone, and beyond that Gasol isn't nearly a good enough defender to stop a guard running full tilt at him, so he does nothing meaningful from this position either.

Occasionally he'll pick up a block here, but more frequently he'll pick up a foul, and most frequently it leads to an open lay up unless a third Bulls defender rolls into the picture to help defend on the dribble penetration.

Unfortunately, when the Bulls send a third man, they are now defending one player with three which mean the opposing team has two wide open players and typically their best passer has the ball. This situation frequently leads to a pass and open layup/dunk/jumper by another player.

On top of that, by not getting out on the guard, he's also not disrupting the guard's vision or passing lanes which frequently leaves him good opportunities to make the pass noted above. If the guard hits the pick setter with a pass (and that player decides to roll to the basket with the guard, Gasol is now stuck defending two guys sprinting at him from different directions with a full head of steam and has little hope.

As sad as it is, in this scheme Pau Gasol is a far worse defender than Carlos Boozer. He has good defensive instincts and length. He's certainly a better help defender than Boozer and has more awareness, but his lack of speed and quickness utterly destroy the Bulls system for defending the pick and roll.

This isn't necessarily the fault of Gasol who is too slow for what the Bulls have done in the past, nor was it immediately the fault of Tom Thibodeau for wanting to stick with a defense which has given him elite production for his entire Bulls tenure.

However, something needs to change before the playoffs, or teams will pick and roll Chicago to death.

Gasol isn't the only problem on defense, but he's the biggest because he's the only one not even attempting the base scheme. I have to assume that Tom Thibodeau is attempting to adjust to what Pau can do or else he'd pull him for not doing the right thing.

They most have collectively said Gasol can't operate in this way, so we'll do this other thing instead, but that other thing is by far the biggest reason the Bulls look bad on defense this season given that Gasol is playing the most minutes of all the big men.

Noah's drop off in speed is problem #2

So while I've picked on Gasol plenty above for not being able to operate in the system, Joakim Noah isn't helping matters a whole lot either. After having knee surgery this off-season, he's struggled to become the player he was.

He won the DMVP primarily for his ability to utterly shut down a pick and roll. Big men typically dominate on the inside with blocks, but Joakim Noah dominated by shutting down the most impactful play in basketball. He could switch out onto Chris Paul and stop him from getting to the basket.

This season, Noah has attempted to play the same way, but his body clearly isn't cooperating. We now see Noah still call for the switch and get out in single coverage on guards, but now all those guys he used to shut down in isolation are simply dribbling right past him for the score.

He's still attempting to operate in the base scheme, but his abilities this season in the system don't allow him to do all of the things he did in the past.

In effect, in this segment of defense, Boozer was downgraded from acceptable to awful and Noah has regressed from elite to acceptable. The end result, is that the Bulls defense is struggling big time against the core play of the league.

What can the Bulls do about it?

In short, I don't know. The pick and roll is the core play in the league precisely because it is so difficult to defend. It typically yields a good shot. Without improved athleticism from Noah as the year goes on or more effort from Gasol, this simply may be the Bulls best bet still.

Another option would be to try playing more of a zone defense with Gasol to try and protect him. Gasol tends to act like he's playing zone in these situations anyway, but you just need everyone else to react and help as if it's a zone as well.

I don't think you can consistently beat elite teams with a zone though, they'll bust it with too much shooting. However, knowing when you can afford to slide into a zone for a few possessions because there are weak shooters on the floor and to mix up your coverages might not hurt.

Still, perhaps as Thibodeau says, it just means more hard work and getting better at what they want to do, or maybe Thibodeau an come up with something else. Either way, what's happening now isn't working and needs an adjustment.

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  • This is the reason why I don't understand why we still exclusively go over the pick and not under sometimes. Even if it is against guard that is not an elite shooter, such as against john wall.

    We never attempted to trap a guard. We need little bit more varieties to confuse the other teams in my opinion.

  • In reply to handushk:

    handushk, I agree with you, nice ball IQ

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    In reply to handushk:

    I agree. What about having the big show more to give the ball defender to get back in place. I know that leaves the big open to roll to the basket, bu the Bulls seem to be very good at rotations. So they could make a few good passes for a good shot, or we could just keep doing what we are doing and they get easy layups and mid range jumpers.

  • Kings coming to town. About to hire George Karl who will begin coaching the team after the all-star break according to Wojo at Yahoo.

    Could Karl have advantage with three legit scoring options over Boston and Denver with questionable, unproven coaches? This hire just may mean the resuscitation of our Sacto pick at 11ish. "I'm back baby!"

  • In reply to RoadWarrior:

    Sure it's possible but I wouldn't get our hopes up.

    Think how lucky Cleveland has been. They get a two-time all star in Deng for two protected first round picks. Just when Malone gets the team moving they fire him and Sacramento goes into the toilet. Then the Cavs get LeBron and Love and the first round protected pick-swap (only 15-30) with the Bulls becomes essentially worthless.

    You may then say that Deng didn't work out for them. That's true, but by not re-signing Deng think of the cap space they freed-up.

    The Cavs were also lucky in getting Wiggins with a Rose-like stroke of luck. Without Wiggins there probably would have been no Love. Even if you argue that Wiggins may wind up better than Love, the fact is that they wouldn't have gotten either without tremendous luck.

  • In reply to hgarbell:

    If you look at any championship team, there's always a lot of luck involved. Some recognize that, others choose to instead get angry that their team isn't giving them the multiple championships they deserve as frequent TV viewers, or choose to see their own team's success as luck while other team's success is by design.

    Cleveland was lucky to get the first pick in the LeBron draft in the first place. San Antonio, for as great as their coach and FO are, probably win zero championships without getting the first pick in the Tim Duncan draft. OKC lucked into the second pick in the Greg Oden draft, getting everyone's no. 2 in Kevin Durant. It goes on and on.

  • Side note: speaking of the draft, for those who say it's overrated.. more and more that seems to be the case.

    The farther back you go(2007-08), the more guys pan out and the more those drafts look valuable. With all these freshman talent takes longer to develop into NBA worthy players.

    The smart move more and more might be waiting for emerging talents in years two, three and four and have low payroll to plan on an "acquisition year" or years where you pick up one or two emerging players either as restricted F.A.'s, or in trade, or as F.A.'s.

    The real point being the waiting game may now be so long as to make current drafts less relevant unless you're picking say top 7-10 where the stars usually emerge from.

  • As I wrote in one of Doug's previous articles, start Taj and have Gasol come off the bench!

    It's by no means a quick fix to progressing to a championship mid-season but still, I say to start Taj in conjunction with (hopefully) Dunleavy coming back to the lineup. Although Noah's health hasn't yet returned to DPOY level, Noah will should still be able to play better 'team' defense with a more mobile, more athletic, PF type and oh btw a player Noah had extensive history with. This also put Noah back at defending more center types which hopefully will help nullify his mobility issues. BTW, history has also shown that starting has elevated Taj's 'offense' which plays better with Noah's passing.

    This should make Pau the focal point of the offense for the bench where people like Mirotic. and hopefully more and more McDermott can play off him. Hell I'm even seeing ABrooks play well with Pau on the floor. Pau would also play against more scrubs and his minutes can be kept down. Thibs can then have any lineup that's hot in the 4th.

    How much Pau is making shouldn't be a reason why this can't work as Taj is in fact making more than Pau. All that's left is Thibs being open to the idea. Whether Pau is also open to this is irrelevant as it's not like he's being paid like superstar (which unfortunately was how much Boozer was being paid).

    Again...Start Taj and have Gasol come off the bench!

  • In reply to EDouble:

    I agree, though it's more about who finishes than who starts. If you can defend the pick-and-roll with Noah but can't defend it with Pau, then Pau is a bench player, simple as that. Let him start for ego purposes but keep on the bench to finish games.

  • In reply to Roman F:

    Agree there. Let Noah come off the bench and finish games assuming he continues to get healthier. Then you put in Taj or Pau at the end depending on if you need O or D more at the time. Thibs ability to make this rotation work will be huge for this team down the stretch.

  • In reply to EDouble:

    I don't think that the who starts issue is about money, it is about individual ego's and team chemistry. I believe that Noah would sacrifice starting for the good of the team, but Gasol will not without becoming a brooding mope(kind of like his last 2 seasons with the Lakers). Gasol also has indicated that he wouldn't be happy about not finishing.

    So if Gasoline is indeed the problem with our pick and roll defense, then in light of his me first attitude(despite his platitudes about winning and team) the Bulls really have an huge problem.

    By the way lately Thibs seems to have gone exclusively to a 3 man rotation among the bigs, with Mirotic's only minutes coming at SF.

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    In reply to EDouble:

    I totally agree. Taj would be a much better fit with the starting lineup and closing out the game. Don't know if it's Thibs call, or pressure from the front office that has Pau starting, but it's not the best for the team. And Pau's continuous complaints about playing time in the 4th quarter shows his selfish nature. He should not be starting, but he is, and he has the nerve to be complaining about not being on the floor at crunch time when he is obviously lacking on the defensive end. Yes, his offense has helped, but his defense plain sucks!

  • From Doug's explanation it sounds like the PnR defense issue is more related to not being at the correct spot and not about the ability to do that. If Pau can learn the spots with Rose, I still think we can be better off than changing the starting line up. Pau is the Bulls best offense and we've seen how the defense is impacted when the Bulls cannot score for a long time. So I still think Pau will figure out and become a serviceable PnR defender for the Bulls.

  • Thibs will find an answer... could be:

    1. Change who plays together.
    2. Have guards go under the PNR sometimes
    3. Play more zone
    4. Try to hide Gasol on D more
    5. Out of Thibs' control, but Noah's health improves

    Obviously, depends on the matchup. Gasol gets eaten alive by Washington, but looks great against the Spurs.

    I think Thibs has a little too much Pete Carroll predictability in him. He needs to vary things up a bit, be more Belichick-like. Everyone knows the Bulls' weakness. Thibs needs to throw some curve balls... and maybe he'll do that in the playoffs.

  • While I believe that you're analysis of our current problems defending pick and roll is accurate, I'm not sure that boozer was really any better. In fact my lament for the boozer years was that the opposition ran a very simple offense against the Bulls when Boozer was in the game, when in doubt run pick and roll at boozer. It always resulted in either a wide open jumper or an uncontested layup. If anything teams were not aggressive enough in using that strategy.

    To me the biggest difference is that Gasol is permanently stationed as our center and he is playing a lot more minutes than boozer did, especially last year when basically only played in the first and third quarters. We always closed with Noah and Gibson which is when you need and notice your best defense.

    36 minutes of boozer instead of 24 would certainly have resulted noticeably worse defensive metrics for the Bulls in addition to playing at higher pace and Noah never playing center.

    I also agree that Noah is greatly diminished this season in addition to being removed from his position of best value to the Bulls defense. To me he was never a full time PF, certainly not since he turned 25-6.

    In any event Gasoline(or the KKP) is the problem, and Thibs needs to be realistic and find a workable solution.

  • Simply put, this team and Thibs need to realize their identity has changed. We are a deep, elite OFFENSIVE team. Our defense and rebounding were way worse earlier in the season, and that didn't stop us from going 13-2 and being title favorites for a while. Then the shots stopped falling against Indiana and we've been analyzing our Defense ever since, only to find there's basically nothing we and Thibs can do - he's not going to bench an All-Star starter!

    Throughout this losing streak we've been creating makeable open looks and lay-ups and put-backs that we've missed with appalling consistency - but that just implies that in most games we CAN outscore the opposition. That will do - and it's FUN! On this team, I suggest, our offense keys our defense, rather than the other way around.

    So, concrete suggestions: 1) Practice offense! Especially to open the game. 2) Play the "rookies", tell them they're going to play till they get their offense going and, and get them confident. 3) Rediscover the offensive creativity Thibs showed us the last few years without Derrick and Pau. 4) Let the offense key the defense, and plan to tighten up the defense in the fourth quarter.

    These plans work for talented teams. Thibs Ball was for young under-talented squads. Time for Big League Ball. The players are ready - can Thibs try out a new approach and adapt? Our chances of winning much more this year may depend on this adjustment. Clearly, if we're waiting for the Old Thibs Defense to finally show up and save us, our options are very limited...

  • In reply to petert23:

    Some interesting points but I think it's a little late in the season to re-invent your identity. It's a shorter road to improving the defense than it is to gearing the team around an offensive identity.

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    In reply to petert23:

    When the offense is not clicking, defense will still keep you in games. Pau has to improve his defense all around. He usually looks lazy and disinterested on the defensive end.

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    The pick and roll is not going to go away and the Bulls defense of the pick and roll is not flawed. The problem (as this article clearly defines) is with Gasol. I can see no reason for his not closing in on the guard, instead of backing up into the paint and letting the guard dribble straight to the basket. Yes he is slower than Joe and Taj, but closing out on the guard is much better than his current approach. If he refuses, sit him down. Yes we would miss his offense, but if you are giving up as many as you are scoring, where is the loss? Either fit in or fit out! LOLOLOL

  • I think the point about Gasol's ego(and Derrick's for that matter) relating to defensive EFFORT not ability is an interesting one. Pau may be a mediocre earlier in his career and now poor with age and loss of mobility defender, but there's a difference between that and effort. Same with Derrick the effort I don't see how anyone could believe that consistently it has been there.

    Which brings us back to the coach. If Thib's respect(?) for vets who've won like Gasol and stars who have MVP'd like Rose, then maybe that is to the point of too much latitude just as he has too little latitude for younger players like Nikola and McD. Hell, the dedication to Kirk minutes no matter the awfulness should tell us something.

    I see little(no) chance of Thibs suddenly changing his ways in these fundamental outlooks which spells big trouble for the Bulls the rest of the season and playoffs. I hope I'm wrong. Blame it all(defensive lapses) on the players or think Thibs will change, but I doubt it.

  • Rudy Gay and Darren Collison listed as questionable for tonight's game. Without those guys should make things markedly easier.

    Sounds like George Karl is sure thing to be next head coach after all-star break. Now I hear the CW is that the Kings(meddling owner) will want to tank to move up in the draft since they are already out of playoff contention. Makes sense in most cases except.. aside from being in Bulls best interest for the Kings to start winning, they have so many lotto picks and young guys do they really want to re-install a culture of losing mindset with the new coach with four year contract for one more pick?

    With Cousins, Gay, Collison and decent depth/vet staff there's no reason they couldn't win at a solid percentage even though being in the West. I guess they'd rather give Stauskas and McLemore heavy "developmental" minutes i.e tanking which will probably not help their growth or confidence. I just wonder if a big time go your own way integrity guy like Karl will be down with tanking with Cousins and Gay at his disposal and ready to take a step forward in winning and dynamic play. They sure were doing just that before the precipitous firing of Mike Malone.

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    Remember that the Bulls ran out of gas in last year's playoffs -- after playing excellent and exhausting defense all season. (They also ran into the Wizards.) I sense that like San Antonio, they want to save some energy for the playoffs. Whether Thibs is on board with this strategy is not clear. But after all, the Bulls championship teams didn't really exert themselves until the fourth quarter -- except for important games. We'll find out in the playoffs if this is a good idea.

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