I must remind myself that it's only preseason, but to date, the Chicago Bulls have been a complete mess defensively.
As per NBA.com, through seven preseason games played, the Bulls currently have a 107.5 defensive rating. Put simply, that is bad. Real bad. This lowly metric has the Bulls placed 29th overall in defensive rating, only bettering the Minnesota Timberwolves (107.7).
Now, it must be noted that the defensive output has looked quite good at times, albeit inconsistent. In their three wins, the Bulls have held their opponents to 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which is exceptional and mirrors the output of the prime defense-first teams' driven by Tom Thibodeau. In four losses, however, the Bulls have been a sieve, giving up a 113.3 points per 100 possessions.
Yes, I am aware that it is, in fact, preseason. I also recognise that the team has had constant lineup changes as well as missing two starters to injuries. All of these are valid reasons for some of the inept performances on display, but clearly, there have been serious signs that the defense is sure to plummet to new depths this season, with only time knowing the true extent of the fall.
This bipolar approach to stopping opponents has begun to feel all too familiar, with the level of inconsistency highlighted perfectly in the most recent outing against the Pacers. Paul George would roast the Bulls with 15 first quarter points, guiding Indiana to 34 points in the opening quarter. It didn't look promising, but somehow, Chicago would flip the intensity switch and go onto shutting out the cold shooting Pacers, holding the division rivals to just 60 points for the remainder of the game. Clearly, an ability exists to exert quality defensive possessions, though the nonchalant approach is troubling.
New coach, Fred Hoiberg, was highly rated as a prospective NBA coach. Amongst others, he was courted by the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves before eventually signing with the Chicago Bulls on a 5-year, $25 million deal. Praised for his progressive offensive schemes that encourage spread pick-and roll, transition scoring, quick reads and lots of three-point shooting, concerns were also raised about his defensive chops as a coach at the NBA level.
Knowing yourself is an important skill. Thankfully, Hoiberg has this in spades. Recognising his limitations defensively, the rookie coach was eager to bring along a defensive coordinator. To assist, the Bulls would poach Jim Boylen from the coaching farm in San Antonio. Coming with a high pedigree and reputation on the defensive side of the ball, the hiring of Boylen signaled the importance of balance on both sides of the ball. So far, the results have been mixed.
As the regular season approaches and rotations begin to take shape, Hoiberg has benched Joakim Noah, electing to start Spanish national teammates, Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Removing Noah from the starting lineup and reducing his minutes was the bold decision that many had hoped for, mostly due to the spacing issues and offensive limitations that have rapidly caught up with the former Defensive Player of the Year. Though it may only be temporary, the pairing of the Spaniards is, well, odd.
Pick and roll defense, especially in the middle of the floor. We’re giving too many blow by’s, where there’s nothing you can do for it. We gotta guard the ball better.
Rightly, Hoiberg has recognised the poor defense, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage. Given this, with Chicago keeping its two best paint defenders submerged on the bench, don't we have to ask ourselves, "Why are you running with these rotations, coach"?
A perception exists that the Bulls are loaded in the front-court, with a cavalcade of quality options readily at the disposal for Hoiberg. Whilst an over supply of big-men exist on this roster, can we say with any confidence that the mix of bigs is correct, and that any one of these players deserve to be fully-fledged starters that can be relied upon consistently?
Gasol and Mirotic, the current day starting center and power forward, respectively, are valuable offensive threats. Unfortunately, neither provide resistance defensively, nor do they intimidate teams from penetrating to the cup, especially when their poor pick-and-roll defense can be exploited with ease. Essentially, expect to see more of this.
The constant ball stopping 20 feet out as he searches for a threading assist on a back-door cut. The inability to make a layup or consistently hit an open 18 footer. The willingness of defenses to sag off and leave him open, thus clogging the painted area for the slashing Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. These are just some of the reasons why Noah, at age 31, will be played off the court despite his quality defense, much like Andrew Bogut in the 2015 Finals.
Bobby Portis, the team's leading rebounder in preseason, has been exceptional and appears to be yet another late first-round special by the front office. Despite showcasing his intensity and ready-made professionalism, he hasn't made anyone expendable on this roster. Well, at least not yet. At 20, we must remember that the rookie is just a kid, and at some point, will tire. He also has plenty to learn about defensive positioning, rotations and timing.
In their own right, all of these front-court talents provide something unique to the team. They do so, but typically only on one side of the ball. The Bulls may find themselves with an army of names up front with a varying array of skills and weaknesses, but none of these players are two-way threats. None, except for Taj Gibson.
The recent pairing of Pau and Nikola - which has yet to be set in stone - will not be able to contain opposing offenses. The point guard defense is also a concern, as is the fact that no noted wing stoppers exist on the roster that can support the offensively focused Jimmy Butler. Defensive holes exist all over the floor for the Bulls, which makes the bold move of benching Noah a potentially poor decision. Should he remain on the bench for the regular season, his defensive prowess - which will likely be limited through a reduced role, playing time and/or declining health - will need to be supplemented by improved defensive performances by others.
With his ability to guard pick-and-roll, whether hedging out onto the ball carrier or switching directly onto a perimeter player without giving up the middle of the lane, Gibson has been a critical yet under appreciated linchpin for the organisation. As the league progress to more perimeter play with teams all over downsizing in a quest for "position-less" basketball, a mobile big-man who can guard 4's and 5's, as well as switching onto wings, is huge in the modern NBA.
Point guards are now seeing time at both guard positions. Shooting guards are becoming small forwards. Small forwards are transitioning to power forward. The traditional dominant, low-post presence, is a fading art. The Bulls must recognise this quantum shift in the leagues landscape, and embrace the idea of using the versatile Gibson as a defensive center, both from a stylistic perspective, as well as a functional need to be keep the defense afloat.
In 2014-15, Taj would excel in his minutes played as the team's center. According to 82games.com, Gibson would own a 21.7 PER whilst holding his opponents to a 14.5 PER, as well being efficient offensively (.557 eFG%). Should Noah continue to remain relegated to the pine (or decline) and the Bulls remain on the path of contention, this role becomes a necessity, not a luxury.
As the Bulls become more reliant on the offensive exponents up front, divide begins to grow amongst fans, with trade suggestions and fantasies continuing to grow. If you read these hypotheticals, you will routinely see the armchair GM shipping Gibson out for the first noted wing that becomes available. To me, such a move lacks foresight, both for the immediate and long term future.
Venturing into the trade machine momentarily, let's pretend the Bulls were able to move Gibson for Wilson Chandler, or someone of similar caliber. Let's also assume Pau Gasol were to forgo the last year of his contract, instead choosing to take one last run at free agency. The Bulls, hypothetically, could have both Pau and Noah hitting the market just as the cap explodes. With an exorbitant amount of funds entering the market, both could walk for larger deals, leaving Chicago with no centers on the roster, as well as no Taj Gibson.
Is moving the contracted USC alum, in hope of solidifying the perimeter rotation worth the risk of completely losing your defensive identity this season, as well as potentially having no veteran big-men on the roster entering 2016-17?
Redistributing the roster is necessary. In raw numbers, the front-court is crowded with bodies. The pressure needs to be eased on both players and coach, so management must look to deal. This can't be disputed. The problem is, if you do move a front-court player(s) who offers something that others simply can't offer, your team will suffer. You may realign rotations, distribute contracts more evenly and improve the wing rotation, but you're also losing other potential necessities. For this reason, with Taj being the only true two-way front-court player on Chicago's books, nevermore has the value of the unappreciated Gibson been more important.
A trade of Taj Gibson is logical. It can be reasoned and justified with ease. It makes sense on some levels, but should it occur, it will signify the continuing pendulum shift from offense to defense, which so far, has been too sudden and swift.
But hey, it's only preseason...