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.
Filed under: Uncategorized