With the anointment of Fred Hoiberg as coach of the Bulls, much of the attention has been about offense. This is to be expected. Hoiberg’s strengths as a coach during his tenure at Iowa State was clearly on the offensive end of the ball, with many college basketball experts praising the system that was implemented, and how it was executed.
The heir apparent to the coaching role, pundits have labeled the sets used by the Cyclone’s as ‘NBA level’, meaning they were advanced, full of motion, lots of pick-and-roll, dynamic, and with multiple options. Those NBA buzzwords stir up erotic emotions for most Bulls fans. Well, they do for me.
Is that weird? Maybe to a normal person, but to me, I think it’s justified. After watching the team being on the wrong end of 16-0 runs against the Cavaliers, or seeing Rose and Butler take turns in isolation scoring attempts, changes were required.
We all expect a more fluent offense next season. We expect changes. More transition play. More small ball line-ups. More focus and reliance on the three-point shot. This is great, but is that enough to propel the Bulls to the next level?
What about defense?
Tom Thibodeau has been hailed a defense genius, and rightfully so. His defensive schemes, in the most basic sense, aim to force the pick-and-roll action away from the middle of the court, where options are aplenty, and instead move the ball sideways where options are severely limited. Keeping the ball on one side of the floor, whilst trying to mitigate the screen setter by sitting on the ball-handler’s hip and forcing him into the awaiting defensive big man, this defense would reduce the effectiveness of the base foundation of most modern NBA offense’s, forcing poor shot attempts, mainly contested or low percentage jump shots.
For four seasons, the Chicago Bulls would routinely be considered one the best defensive squads, striking fear into even the best and most gifted individual offensive weapons. Missing Derrick Rose for the majority of 2013-14, with Luol Deng also being traded early in the season to the Cavaliers, the only way Chicago would win ball games was to defensively swarm and enclose the opposition. Sounds like a perfect recipe for Thibodeau, and it was.
The Bulls would go onto exceed all expectations. Winning 48 regular season games that year, this success would largely be fuelled by Thibodeau and his defensive schemes, which would rank second in the defensive rating (100.5), only trailing Central Division rival Indiana. They did all this despite playing defensive sieves like Carlos Boozer and the undersized D.J. Augustin meaningful minutes. It was truly impressive. Unfortunately, the Bulls would lose out to the Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.
Though disappointed at the time, I talked myself into thinking it was understandable. We were of course missing Derrick Rose for a second straight season. What more did my selfish bones want than 100% commitment and effort from my team, something I always received? If we could somehow maintain that defense while also adding more offense, we could really be onto something. Or, so I thought.
The following season would come around quickly. Fresh from a drama-filled offseason, which ultimately culminated with the Bulls (again) losing out on their prized free agent target, the consolation prize of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott was an impressive second prize. Despite Photoshop skills being wasted on Carmelo Anthony banners, which beautifully draped the United Center, we had our new players, we had more offense, and we still had Tom Thibodeau at the helm with his brilliant defense. It was championship time.
... Ok, maybe not.
The defensive numbers and standings would diminish for the Bulls, even under the tutelage of Thibodeau. In 2014-15, the defensive rating would slip outside of the top ten, falling to eleventh (104.3). That seemed impossible.
Should we have been so surprised?
Internal turmoil would ensue between coach and management. Often the most talked about story plaguing the team, we all know how that ended. The off-court dramatics would routinely take center stage, allowing the stumbling defense to be overlooked, or at least diminish the focus it deserved.
Previously a terrific pick-and-roll defense, the main cogs in the Bulls defense that would challenge the opposing offense changed dramatically. No longer was the Defensive Player Of the Year utilized as much in these scenarios. Often guarding a smaller opponent, Joakim Noah would be required to man the power forward position in the starting unit. With the addition of the aging, yet resurgent, Gasol to the team, the Spaniard's feet were not agile enough to play the four spot. He would only be playable at center, where the only defensive benefit he could provide was the occasional blocked shot, followed by anguishing screams that did not seem humanly natural. That’s it.
Forced into guarding many pick-and-rolls pieces, Gasol would predictably ‘drop’ back towards the rim, where he would offer little resistance to either the ball carrier or the roll man.
By doing so, without the ability for Gasol to hedge hard or ‘show’ on defense, this would require the point guard to fight through screens in attempt to catch up to the streaking ball handler. If the Bulls' on-ball defender could not do this, the lanes to the hoop were clear, often providing a great avenue to the foe, be it for their own isolation scoring opportunity or a penetrating move that would shift the defense and force open shots.
Gasol was a problem in this equation, but so was the on-ball defender, who often would be a Bulls point guard.
Derrick Rose would return to the floor to play the most regular season games he had in years. The floor was low, so seeing him on the court in 51 regular season games would prove to be terrific achievement. The unfortunate byproduct of this was the tentative nature Rose would apply to his game. Often settling for jump shots on offense with very little dribble penetration, his lateral movement seemed lost. Whether this was by design to preserve his knee, or simply what would be going forward, this issue would carry over onto the defensive end. Only providing limited intensity, often only against other high profile rivals, a consistent effort could not be established on defense by the team’s superstar.
So, with both Gasol and Rose laboring on defense, particularly in pick-and-roll assignments, can we expect this area of the game to improve under Hoiberg, even if it faulted under the previous defensive savant?
Gasol turns 35 today. Questions still remain about who the real Derrick Rose is, with true answers only being visible to clairvoyants and Marty McFly.
Is this issue something that can be solved by effort alone, or is it a personnel problem? Has the thirst for greater offensive efficiency severely unbalanced the team’s ability to be anything more than above average on both ends?
Coach Hoiberg is a smart guy. He realizes his weaknesses as coach, and more importantly, has the professional ability to know one’s self. A rare trait amongst high profile figureheads, he knew he required help to coach an NBA defense, and he got it. Instilling Jim Boylen as an assistant coach, a product from the Popovich coaching tree, he will have the assistance he requires. Will that be enough?
Will a starting line-up solve anything?
Further compounding this issue is the untimely injury to Joakim Noah, which appears to be more sinister than initially assumed. Gasol clearly outplayed Noah last season. He deserved his place on the floor, but in doing so, the defense was compromised, with no real fallback position available. That has not changed, and will not, with no addition of a defensive center added to the roster.
Derrick Rose will remain as the starting point guard, an obvious and correct move. If this remains the case, can Gasol remain as starter? Do we have any other option at center if Joakim Noah can never return to his previous lofty heights?
Should the Bulls promote Nikola Mirotic into the starting power forward with Joakim Noah returning to center, in hope that he can rediscover his old self? An interesting and difficult conversation would be required for that to occur.
A mighty challenge awaits for the rookie head coach and his staff. The glamour of a high functioning offense is certainly appealing, but if the Bulls truly want to improve enough to finally get over the speed hump that is LeBron James, the defensive effort and application will need to improve, particularly in pick-and-rolls.
I’m not confident that it will without someone doing a mighty fine Joakim Noah impersonation, preferably Jo himself.